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November 1, 2001
ARFF Crews Respond to the Front Line at Pentagon
by Stephen Murphy
When a hijacked Boeing 757, skimming the street lights,
smashed into the Pentagon on September 11, firefighters
at nearby Reagan National Airport were the right
responders in the right place with the right equipment.
Being among the first responding fire units, National's
aircraft rescue firefighters (ARFF) crews were able to
set up their apparatus directly in front of the gaping
hole in the Pentagon. That was where their training in
fighting aircraft fires and the capability of their
foam units to extinguish jet fuel fires were put to the
The ARFF foam units knocked down the bulk of the fire
in the first seven minutes after their arrival, said
Captain Michael Defina, who was the shift commander
that day at National.
"We applied the foam tactfully and kept the fire from
spreading drastically," he said. "This allowed for
self-evacuation of the Pentagon at a critical time,
saving many lives, and eventually the building." Two
Oshkosh T3000s spread approximately 600 gallons (2.2
kiloliters) of 6% AFFF with an initial fire flow of
more than 3,000 gallons (11.3 kiloliters) per minute.
IN FRONT OF GROUND ZERO
How the National ARFF crews found themselves in front
of ground zero on September 11 started with a motor
vehicle accident on the upper level of the airport's
While Captain Defina and his crews were watching the
World Trade Center attacks on television at the ARFF
station, they were dispatched to the motor vehicle
accident. Although the airport, located in Arlington,
Virginia, was not on alert, Captain Defina said he had
a feeling Washington, D.C., could be another terrorist
"Normally, the shift commander doesn't respond to motor
vehicle accidents,'' he said. "But something didn't
sound right about it."
Captain Defina was the shift commander that day because
the battalion chief was across the river in Washington
for a security briefing on an upcoming meeting. Defina
responded to the vehicle accident in the battalion
chief van, along with Rescue Engine 335, under the
command of Captain John Durrer, and a medic unit.
Unknown to Captain Defina and his crews, hijacked
American Airlines Flight 77, outbound from Washington
Dulles International Airport with 64 people on board,
was only minutes away from slamming at 0938 hours into
the Pentagon, about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from
At the accident scene, where a driver with a diabetic
reaction had struck several vehicles, the firefighters
were working with their backs to the Pentagon.
"I heard a dull roar. The noise didn't belong with the
noise you were used to hearing within the airport,"
Captain Defina said. "I turned and saw a smoke plume
As he and Rescue Engine 335 responded toward the
Pentagon, there was confusion from the control tower in
an alert of a "missing 757." Initially, it was thought
to be another crash, possibly at the end of the runway
or on nearby George Washington Parkway. But it was
quickly confirmed the crash was at the Pentagon, and
Captain Defina ordered a response by one of National's
crash rigs, Foam Unit 331, and SERV-329, the mass
casualty/disaster unit, from the now-closed airport.
Arriving two to three minutes later at the Pentagon's
south parking lot, Captain Defina saw heavy smoke and
heavy fire to his left on the building's west side.
"I sat there for 15 seconds wondering what was coming
next," he said. "I knew it wasn't an accident."
BURNING TITAN One hundred fifty feet (45.7 meters) from
the impact zone was a new heliport fire station,
staffed by a three-person ARFF crew from nearby Fort
Myer. Captain Defina saw that the Fort Myer crew was
trying to fight the Pentagon fire with their disabled
new E-One Titan. Its back end was on fire, having been
parked against the building with the front end facing
One of the Fort Myer firefighters had been inside the
station watching the World Trade Center events on
television and the other two were outside when they saw
the 757 roaring toward them. Suffering minor burns and
injuries as they dove for cover, they tried
unsuccessfully to start their burning rig, which was
soon a total loss. (The U.S. Army has since replaced it
with a new Titan.)
Captain Defina drove onto the heliport and directed
Foam Unit 331 to set up there, where Fort Myer Rescue
Engine161 had established a hydrant water supply. The
only other firefighting apparatus he saw on the west
side was Arlington County's Engine and Truck 105 on the
far north end. Their crews went into the building to
conduct search and rescue.
While Foam Unit 331 hit the fire with foam from its
roof and bumper turrets, Rescue Engine 335's
four-person crew used hand lines in an attempt to
control the fires from several vehicles and adjacent
diesel fuel and propane tanks. A severely burned woman
they helped out a door died several days later, one of
the 124 Pentagon workers killed. Most Department of
Defense workers escaped from the Pentagon without help
or with the aid of coworkers.
While the Arlington County Fire Department's command
post was swamped with coordinating the response,
National's crews used their own radio frequency to call
for more units, with eight arriving on scene in the
early stages of the incident.
Prior to Foam Unit 331 running low on foam, National's
Foam Unit 345 was called to respond. EMS Battalion
Chief E. Glenn Butler, the initial treatment and
transportation officer, requested that SERV-362, the
mass casualty unit from Dulles Airport, in Chantilly,
Virginia, respond. Captain Defina also called for a
1,000-gallon (3.7-kiloliter) foam trailer to respond
from Dulles. The Metropolitan Washington Airports
Authority operates both airports.
TRAINING PAID OFF The 33-year-old Captain Defina had
never before experienced a catastrophe in his 15 years
at National. But he credited his training with knowing
what to expect from the jet fuel inferno.
"The initial fire was extremely intense, but I expected
the intensity," he said. As recently as 1999, National
had conducted a mass casualty disaster drill with a
live fire on an airplane simulator and the rescue of
victims from a simulated fire in a terminal. And,
Captain Defina had given a presentation on mass
casualty incident response at the ARFF Working Group's
1999 annual conference.
Mass casualty units SERV-329 and SERV-362 are equipped
to handle about 150 patients each.
"A lot of military medical personnel arrived and looked
to our mass casualty units for direction," Captain
Defina said. "It was the first time the military was
dealing with our mass casualty units and it worked out
to be a well-coordinated effort."
At 0952, the airport crews started an interior attack
and search and rescue. Although National was not part
of a pre-incident fire plan for the Pentagon, a few of
the airport personnel were familiar with the building
since National's medic unit often responds to calls at
One of the world's largest office buildings, with
23,000 employees, the Pentagon has five concentric
office rings, with "E" ring being the outermost. Each
of the Pentagon's exterior walls are 924 feet (281.6
meters) long, with about 400 windows that are roughly 5
feet (1.8 meters) wide and 7 feet (2.1 meters) tall.
The wall that the 757 hit was the first and only one so
far to be reinforced and have blast-resistant windows
installed after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Still, at 1005, Captain Defina "saw the classic signs
of a collapse – buckling along the roof line and debris
falling" around the 50-foot-wide (15.2-meter-wide) hole
the jetliner had torn into the five-story building. He
notified the Arlington fire command post, which sounded
an evacuation tone several minutes before the collapse.
No firefighters were injured.
UNIDENTIFIED AIRCRAFT SCARES
During the morning, National Airport's control tower
radioed to ARFF crews on scene several reports of
unidentified aircraft in the area. Captain Defina
relayed these to the incident commander who ordered
evacuations. The ARFF crews ran for about 100 yards to
and across nearby Washington Boulevard, where they
crouched behind Jersey barriers.
That afternoon, Captain Defina and airport Battalion
Chief Walter Hood, as well as other jurisdictions'
battalion chiefs, led crews inside with attack lines to
fight fires on every floor of the "D" and "E" rings.
The aircraft had penetrated all the way to the "C"
"The only way you could tell that an aircraft was
inside was that we saw pieces of the nose gear. The
devastation was horrific. It was obvious that some of
the victims we found had no time to react. The distance
the firefighters had to travel down corridors to reach
the fires was a problem. With only a good 25 minutes of
air in their SCBA bottles, to save air they left off
their face pieces as they walked and took in a lot of
smoke," Captain Defina said.
While still on duty, the following morning he was able
to sleep from 0200 to 0500 in a chair at National's
ARFF station, which was crowded with all three ARFF
shifts sleeping there in makeshift cots or working
through the night in fire attack or search and rescue
crews at the Pentagon.
STUBBORN ROOF FIRES
Back at the Pentagon on September 12, Captain Defina
worked with airport firefighters on extinguishing the
stubborn roof fires.
"It was very labor intensive," he said. "The work
really beat on you. The roof is layers of slate
shingles, sheet metal, wood, wood supports and
concrete. You can only imagine what it took to get into
The most frustrating thing though was a false
unidentified aircraft scare while they were on the
roof. Several dozen firefighters had reached the roof
through a window and up a step ladder.
"There was no way to have enough time to evacuate down
that ladder,'' he said. "When the evacuation tone
sounded, someone asked me why I wasn't leaving. I said
I wasn't leaving until all of my crew was with me."
Later while still on the roof, he saw F16s fly by and
knew everything would be okay from then on. Captain
Defina had been told firefighters had to stop the fire
from going any further because of Department of Defense
security concerns, and they did the afternoon of
WELL PREPARED, WELL ORGANIZED
In hindsight, he wouldn't have done anything
differently in fighting the fire.
"The ARFF crews were very well prepared, very well
organized,'' he said. "Our training paid off."
Even the staffing was more than adequate. All 32
off-duty personnel reported for duty at National within
two hours of the attack. ARFF headquarters staff, the
assistant fire marshal, and the training officers came
to the Pentagon. Eighteen airport units and more than
36 personnel responded to the Pentagon on September 11.
Dulles Airport also moved two foam units to National.
Captain Defina and other ARFF personnel continued to
work their regular 24-hour shifts at National and
Dulles and then worked at the Pentagon 12 to 16 hours
on their days off, doing anything that needed to be
done until fire operations ended September 21.
He knew his response to the Pentagon was tough on his
wife, son, daughter, and parents when he couldn't call
them on September 11 because the cell phone system was
"My family had no easy time; they were watching all
this on TV," he said. "When I came home at 2200 hours
on the 12th, my wife hugged me and cried. The kind of
hugs you used to take for granted."
Stephen Murphy is executive editor of NFPA Journal and
managing editor of ARFF News, a newsletter jointly
published by the Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting
Working Group and NFPA.