Diary of Sept. 11 Pentagon Hero

Eric Jones and Steve De Chiaro just happened to be at the Pentagon when the plane hit on Sept. 11, but what the two men did next saved countless lives.

The two civilians will receive the Medal of Valor today in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes.

The award, which recognizes acts of heroism in the face of danger, is the highest honor the Defense Department bestows on civilians for acts of courage and valor.

De Chiaro, 43, of Freehold, N.J., is the president of DSCI, a defense contracting firm. He was heading to a briefing when chaos erupted. Instead of evacuating, he rushed back in to help people.

Jones is a 26-year-old graduate student at George Washington University, who is also a volunteer firefighter/paramedic. He was driving to school when the plane hit.

Below is an excerpt of Jones' diary, called Stubborn Defiance, of what he saw on Sept. 11, and in the days that followed, as he assisted in rescue and recovery efforts at the Pentagon, and at the World Trade Center.

The hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men.

— Henry David Thoreau

A hero is no braver than anyone else;(s)he is only brave five minutes longer.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

I dedicate this to the men and women whom are loath to give themselves credit for the acts of courage and heroism they displayed following the attacks of September 11. They do not want recognition, they do not want attention, and they certainly do not want to be referred to as heroes. They feel that they were, "just doing their jobs", but what I witnessed was so much more. To my heroes,

Thank you,

Eric Jones PGFD

Three months have passed since the day that shattered our innocence. The nightmares are becoming less frequent, but I still cannot think about all that I have seen. It is very difficult for me to write about these events, and I feel uncomfortable speaking about them with anyone who was not there. However, I realize that my intimate involvement with both the Pentagon and New York recovery operations gives me a unique perspective on possibly the most historically significant event of my generation. The actions of human's inhumanity toward fellow human would be nearly too much for one to bear, were those actions not offset by some equally magnificent acts of compassion and humanity. I have seen the best of people, in their responses to the actions of the worst of people, and it is a few of these countless acts of heroism, courage, and kindness that I would like to share with you.

My involvement with the attacks of September 11 was simple; like countless other Americans, I simply stepped forward to offer whatever help I could. I am a volunteer firefighter who happened to be driving near the Pentagon when the plane crashed into it. Words cannot accurately describe the scene; the cacophony of sounds and the nauseating smells. It was total chaos. People were running and walking around in shock, not quite knowing what had happened or if more planes were inbound. We would carry someone out and as soon as we turned around someone else would appear out of nowhere. We could hear people calling out, clapping, or banging to lead rescuers towards them. Barely visible through the thick smoke, I noticed a man dodging falling concrete while walking with a severely burned woman. This man was Staff Sergeant Chris Braman, and the woman he was carrying was Mrs. Sheila Moody. Mrs. Moody was so badly burned that she could not speak to call out for help. All she could do was clap her hands and pray that someone would find her. Sergeant Braman answered her prayers by continuing to search through the smoke and fire until he located her. Behind him was another man, LTC Ted Anderson, also working his way through the debris in search of potential survivors. Chris is an Army Ranger, whose bedrock policy is to never leave fallen or injured comrades behind. Despite the smoke, heat, flames and crumbling debris, Sergeant Braman, Colonel Anderson, and several other military and civilian personnel risked their lives by rescuing victims from within the burning Pentagon. Many of these victims were seriously burned or otherwise injured, and it was quite wrenching to carry them out because in doing so we caused them even more pain. Thankfully however, most of these people survived, including Mrs. Moody.

About twenty minutes into the rescue operation, we heard something that still haunts me. An army Captain yelled out, "There's another plane; inbound; two minutes out!" Hearing this caused within us a horrible sinking feeling. We had no reason to doubt the accuracy of the report of a second plane, or the fact that we only had two minutes to reach a safe distance. What struck me was the fact that not one person left an injured victim behind to run for the nearby cover of an underpass. Every one of the rescuers stayed with the injured, carrying them to safety. When an F-16 came streaking overhead, there was a communal sigh of relief, and for some, a few tears. Fortunately there were no more planes.

As the day progressed, it became evident that there would most likely be no new survivors, and the objective quietly shifted from search and rescue to search and recovery. Chris and I got to know each other over the next three days while working with the Army mortuary affairs unit and the FBI to locate, mark, and remove the bodies from the building. LTC Mahee Edmonson headed up the mortuary affairs operation, and despite the overwhelming task she was faced with, she proved to be an excellent leader and organizer. In describing what we saw, I think the words of Army Sergeant Major Aubrey Butts summed things up best when he told those of us about to go in, "You are about to enter into Hell. The things you see inside there will stay with you for the rest of your lives". Many of those tasked for recovery operations were young soldiers from the Old Guard whom, despite excellent leadership by Colonel James Laufenberg, were not quite prepared for the devastation and death they encountered. Even my experience as a paramedic could not have prepared me for what we saw. However, every one of them performed their duty, and not one of his soldiers lost their composure while working. Perhaps this can be attributed to some additional words by Sergeant Butts and Captain Nuremberg, which helped us through the grim process. The Sergeant said, "Bring them out with dignity, feet first, and remember to hold your heads up high and proud". This was followed by the Captain who quietly said, "We will do our jobs as best we can, and like all good soldiers, we will save our tears for until after the war … " No further details are needed to describe the horrors of the recovery operations.

On the third day, we were all beyond exhaustion. Some of us had been there since moments after the plane hit, and were walking zombies. However, we were energized by some kind and encouraging words from President Bush and members of his cabinet, the leadership of various civilian and military personnel, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, there might be someone still alive. The FBI and the Fairfax County and Montgomery County Urban Search and Rescue teams were responsible for the initial searches and stabilization of the building. Their professionalism and dedication was amazing to witness. They never gave up hope of finding survivors. That morning, some members of the FBI asked Chris and I to go in and assist them, since we had been in numerous times and knew what to expect. The area where the plane hit was totally destroyed. Everything, including the bodies, was completely burned. By the time we finally had to evacuate the area due to structural instability, we were very depressed and demoralized. Our hopes of finding any survivors were quickly vanishing, and the images from the past three days were beginning to burn through the haze of shock. We had reached our emotional nadir. Chris and I were sitting solemnly on the back of a truck drinking Gatorade and trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of what we had just seen. For some reason, we looked up at the hole in the building and saw an amazing and beautiful sight. In front of us, hidden from view from most angles, standing proud and tall amongst total devastation was an apparently intact, United States Marine Corps Flag. We stared at it for what seemed like five minutes, looked at each other, and simply nodded. It was the most beautiful, inspiring, heartwarming thing we had seen. The flag had survived!

Despite being less than two feet from the shear line where the walls had collapsed, she had withstood a plane crash, flying debris, a voracious conflagration fueled by thousands of pounds of jet fuel, a collapsing wall, secondary fires, secondary collapses, smoke, water, and initial demolition work. Though it is just a piece of cloth, what she stood for that morning is something I will never forget. For us, feeling beaten, broken and defeated, she represented good, smirking in the face of evil; hope, gently waving off despair; life, vehemently opposing death; and triumph, standing alone, stubbornly defiant over defeat. Almost simultaneously, Marine Major Dan Panteleo walked towards us. He too had seen his flag, and must have realized what was on our minds. He asked, "Are you guys thinking the same thing I am?" We all knew someone had to bring her home. The three of us spent the next couple of hours trying to figure out just how we were going to recover the flag from the fourth level, so close to the gaping, still smoldering hole in the building. We knew some of the firefighters with a ladder truck and we asked them if we could use their long extension ladder. They loved the idea but sent us to the command center. Command also liked the idea but said it might have to wait, as there was too much debris to get the ladder truck close enough. The trouble with waiting was that demolition work had already begun, and the flag was so close to the edge that we feared it would fall into the smoldering rubble pile below. They gave us permission to recover the flag if we could figure out a safe way to do so that did not interfere with ongoing work. We eventually persuaded a crane operator to hook a basket up to his crane and raise one of us close enough to grab the flag.

Major Dan Pantelo had been working tirelessly with mortuary affairs doing body recovery, and in the refrigeration truck helping the pronouncing doctors. The refrigeration truck was the worst experience because those working in the truck had to view every body and every body part that came out of the building. The Major was great at organizing recovery operations, communicating with fire department and law enforcement agencies, and looking after the rescue workers. He helped arrange for President Bush to come over and speak with a few of us. This meant a lot to us because we were scared, exhausted, and feeling overwhelmed. The words of the President and members of his cabinet did wonders to lift our spirits, and it helped give us the strength and courage to continue with the recovery operation. Dan was especially touched to see his flag still standing, and Chris and I agreed that since he was a Marine, he should have the honor of recovering his flag. We helped him into the basket, handed him some tools we had rounded up, and wished him luck. He got the flag, and we took turns carrying her up the hill to Marine Headquarters where we relinquished her to the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael Williams. I was particularly impressed by the way Major Pantelo and Staff Sergeant Braman handled themselves while delivering the flag. They respectfully declined media interviews, and they had no interest in anything other than getting the flag safely to headquarters. Growing up in a military family — my grandfather is one of the original Tuskegee Airmen and my father is a retired Air Force Colonel — I have always respected and appreciated our military. Now I had a new respect for the women and men who serve our country so proudly. Major Panteleo and Staff Sergeant Braman are truly fine military men, and I am honored to have shared such a significant experience with them by rescuing our country's flag.

What none of us had counted on was the effect that recovering that flag would have on people, especially the hundreds of rescue personnel, firefighters, law enforcement officers, military personnel, construction workers, politicians, and civilians at the site. I cannot speak for anyone else, but what I know is that before we got that flag, all I felt was disappointment, grief, and despair, and after we got that flag I felt a sense of pride, determination, and most importantly hope. If a piece of cloth could survive, perhaps we would as well.

The following morning, September 14, recovery operations were once again put on hold due to structural integrity concerns. By now the brief euphoria from recovering the flag had been replaced by the renewed realization that this was definitely no longer a search and rescue operation. I left the Pentagon disturbed but somehow confident that our country would be all right. I had great faith and confidence in President Bush and his cabinet, and I felt that our nation had competent leaders at the helm. I decided to finally go home and get some much-needed sleep.

This proved impossible except for a few brief naps, as my mind just would not release me into the arms of the deep-sleep fairy. The images were still too fresh and vivid. I awoke to the ringing of a firefighter friend, calling to tell me about the front page of The Washington Post. Apparently he recognized our picture with the flag, and was calling to make sure I was all right. He was also calling to ask if I wanted to join a group of firefighters going to New York to help relieve the exhausted FDNY men and women who had been working and searching around the clock. Though I felt relief that we were able to pull a few people out within the first few minutes of the attack, I was still very disappointed that there were not more survivors at the Pentagon. In New York, there was still a good chance of finding survivors, and I really wanted to be a part of finding someone alive. Therefore, I didn't need much convincing.

New York was a completely different scene. I had yet to see any television footage, so my first glimpse of the devastation was while driving across the GW bridge. The cloud of smoke was so massive it could be seen for miles away. Driving to the site, rescue workers drove down streets lined with hundreds of people holding signs, handing out bananas and drinks, and basically just saying "thanks". This helped give us the strength and courage necessary for what we were entering. Indeed, the strength and spirit of New Yorkers was incredible.

Again, words cannot describe the scene, but the word that comes closest is "wasteland". Complete and total wasteland. Having not seen any footage of the collapsed towers, I was not really ready for what we saw. I would later realize the even had I seen such images, I still would not have been prepared, because even photographs cannot convey the magnitude of the destruction.

We reported to the search and rescue command and they told us to just join one of the bucket brigades. What this entailed was hundreds of people, mostly FDNY firefighters, NYPD officers, and various search and rescue and law enforcement personnel from around the county, forming human daisy chains. We would pass five-gallon plastic buckets of rubble to central piles, which were re-examined for body parts or evidence. It was truly a sight to behold. People were mostly quiet, and the only sounds were from hand tools and the heavy machinery operating in the distance. Most of the men and women there had been doing this nonstop for the past four days, stopping only for bathroom breaks and an occasional cat nap on the floor of an adjacent building. These buckets were being filled with steel and concrete, and each weighed up to fifty pounds. The air smelled of death and burning plastic. Acrid smoke mixed with dust and irritated the lungs. People had masks and respirators, but after wearing them for so many hours, many workers eventually took theirs off. The footing on the rubble piles was quite unstable and people would occasionally slip while carrying tools or buckets. Some of these piles were still smoldering and intensely hot. The fires still had plenty of fuel to consume, but they had been starved of oxygen. When a large piece of debris was moved, some of these fires would flare up and the surrounding area would be temporarily evacuated. At the heads of these human chains were groups of several firefighters or search and rescue personnel. They were on their hands and knees, digging feverishly through the debris, carefully looking for human remains. It took me a while to figure out the process. A search dog would start barking or sit down, indicating that it had found "something". A new human chain would form, and people would start digging around the area. Digging is a relative term, because shovels were often useless. The fear of hitting a body, and the amount of twisted metal, concrete, and various pieces of debris meant that most of the excavations were done with gloved hands. Seeing people from all different backgrounds working together for a common cause was truly uplifting. Here, there was no such thing as race, religion, political, or sexual preference. It was purely one American, passing a bucket down a line to help find other Americans.

Several hours later, many of the same men that I had seen the previous night were still sleepless, still digging and searching. I met a New York firefighter who had not slept in over eighty hours. His hands were cut and bleeding, his knee was swollen from a fall, and his lungs were so congested that he had a chronic cough. Yet he continued to dig, on his hands and knees, never griping. It was about respect. It was about not leaving your fallen brothers and sisters. It was about not giving up. It was then that I fully understood the dedication of these men and women. I have never seen such sheer acts of courage, selflessness, and dedication, as exhibited by the men and women of FDNY and NYPD. It still inspires me.

As day once again turned into night, the digging continued, even becoming more intense. The rescue dogs were being phased out. This is because, as each day went by, their sensitive noses were needed less and less, as the smell was gradually getting worse and worse. Eventually, we would locate an area to search simply by standing still and determining which way the putrid breeze was coming from.

The night of September 15 is perhaps one that causes the widest array of emotions for me. For many, there is nothing sadder than the death of a fellow firefighter. The deaths of three hundred and fifty were beyond comprehension. The Pentagon was undoubtedly horrible, but even that did not numb me enough for what I saw day after day, night after night in New York. Thousands of people were digging and searching for thousands of people. When a body was found, particularly a firefighter, the machines would shut down and the area became eerily quiet. As he or she was carried out, people stood and paid their respects. Then, moments later, everything would start up again. This scene repeated over and over, until it became almost routine. On this night, we had found a fire truck buried under tons of debris. It took hours to remove all of the rubble that had come crashing violently onto it, destroying the truck and killing its occupants. This was the most horrible one I had seen because it was feared that so many firefighters had been near the truck when the building collapsed. There were approximately fifty people digging out and around the truck, using handsaws and acetylene torches to cut away twisted metal and steal beams. Several daisy chains were removing the debris, but hardly anyone spoke. I am sure that many people wanted to cry, but no one did. There was a huge, twisted steel beam protruding over the fire truck. What was on that beam is one of the most vivid images in my memory, and still makes me well up every time I think about it.

Sitting on top of that beam, silently observing the recovery operations below, was a FDNY Battalion Chief. The saddest thing I have seen in my twenty-five years was the look on the face of that chief, and he stood silently, solemnly sentinel over his truck, as literally hundreds of his firefighters dug on their hands and knees for literally hundreds of his firefighters buried beneath him. Behind him was an American flag that had also been buried in the rubble but was still intact. Behind that was smoke rising from a smoldering fire, lighting up the otherwise pitch-black sky. I walked out onto the beam to deliver a requested cigarette and sat and talked with him for a few moments. What he spoke of is so moving that I do not want to corrupt it with words, but it nearly brought me to tears. I returned to digging without saying another word. I honestly do not think it is possible to convey the significance of seeing that chief, sitting over his men and truck, framed with an American flag, rising smoke, and twisted steel. Later that night I took a picture of him and that truck with a small camera I had in my pocket. Although I do not believe there are any similar pictures of the chief or the truck, I decided to keep them private because I do not want such a sacred moment to be exploited.

The following day I joined up with a five-man team of FDNY, Company 154 "Black Knights" doing search and rescue in some of the large voids of the rubble. We spent the day walking from one corner of the collapsed area to the other; over, under, and through the massive rubble piles. The dedication to duty by these men was astonishing. Several times they would disappear into smoldering holes, without SCBA packs or rescue tag lines, to search a large void. Many times I would think to myself, "There's no way they are going to go in there!" Sure enough, a few minutes later one or two men would disappear into the pile, emerging several minutes later coughing and covered in dust and debris. What strikes me is that they fully understood and accepted the risks they were taking. The captain at one point even said — after a massive rubble pile shifted just as two men emerged — "Look you guys, I'm not going to stop you from doing your f … ing jobs, but we have to be more damn careful. If the pile shifts and one of you gets stuck in the f … ing rubble, no machine is going to be able to get in here to get that crap off of you." They nodded and continued searching, spraying neon paint to indicate areas we had already searched. These men, and the hundreds of other search and rescue personnel scrambling in, under, over, and around piles of burning plastic and molten steel, wanted so desperately to find survivors that they repeatedly put themselves in life-threatening danger. They did it day in and day out, covering every square foot of searchable terrain.

I feel confident in my belief that if there had been anyone alive, the men and women of FDNY and the myriad rescue personnel would have found them. Unfortunately, we found only bodies. We were all disappointed, and some even felt a sense of failure because they did not rescue anyone. They did not want recognition, they did not want attention, and they certainly did not want to be called heroes. They just wanted to do their jobs as best they knew how, while quietly mourning their fallen brethren. But to me, they are heroes, for as Lieutenant General John Van Alstyne told us at the Pentagon, sensing our disappointment at not bringing out more survivors, "It is not what you did, it's what you were prepared to do that matters." The people I had the privilege of working beside were all willing to risk their lives and die if necessary to save lives, and that is what heroes are made of.

Time became irrelevant as the days turned into a continuous loop of dig, eat, rest, dig, eat, and rest. Gradually the machines moved in to assist the exhausted rescue workers. The New York firefighters and police officers had been very appreciative of those who came from all over the county to assist, but as rescue operations were gradually scaled back, the help was needed less and less. There reached a time when the general consensus was that it had been so many days that the chances of anyone still being alive were virtually nonexistent. This was a very hard pill for people to swallow, and it was at that point that I decided to leave. I spent a day just walking around the outskirts and surrounding buildings, trying once more to comprehend the scope of the devastation; something I have yet to fully realize. As I was returning some equipment, I walked through an area I had been previously. It was part of the shopping arcade in the still standing adjacent building.

The first night I arrived, I had noticed dozens of cash registers in the retail stores open, still filled with money. I was absolutely shocked to see these same cash registers still there, still filled with twenty and fifty-dollar bills. Though the money was in plain view of the hundreds of people, both civilian and rescue personnel, who walked through the area daily, nobody had touched it! Similarly, jewelry stores, clothing stores, and electronic stores remained un-looted. A Ritz camera store, covered in debris and surely destined for demolition, had dozens of wrappers from disposable cameras on the floor. That did not surprise me, because I had seen many people taking pictures of the site for their own memories. What surprised me was the pile of wadded up money on top of the dusty cash register and on the counter. People were taking the cameras and film, but they were leaving money because, despite the devastation, they did not want to feel as if they were stealing. I spoke with an ironworker who had returned to leave ten dollars for a disposable camera he had taken a few days earlier. That day was the first time he had left the site and was able to get some money.

As backup batteries released their last volts of juice, the ebbed shrill of dying alarms, combined with aberrant lighting conditions in passageways from waning illumination by emergency lighting systems, made for a surreal egress from an even more surreal scene. Walking through the adjacent buildings one last time, I took a moment to read some of the inscriptions written in the thick dust. One that I still often think about simply wrote, "R.I.P. True Heroes, America's Bravest, Special People." I sat on a bench in the atrium for nearly an hour just taking everything in.

On the way out, I passed by an office that had the door broken off. Inside, I noticed a small, potted ivy plant sitting on a desk. The wall, and half of the office was missing, but there, covered in an inch of dust sat this little plant. For some reason this sight caused overwhelming sadness; I tear up just writing about it. It could have been exhaustion finally catching up to with me, but I think that it was the realization that the owner of that plant had probably been killed. Up until that point it had been only bodies, only body parts. We had subconsciously avoided looking at photographs or "missing" posters. My mind had done its best to block the grief out, and it hadn't sunk in yet that those bodies were real people, with real lives, and real family and friends that cared about them and would miss them. It suddenly occurred to me that this little ivy plant had likely lost its owner. I realized that this tattered little plant, with no one to take care of it, would also die. This tore me up inside. A part of me really wanted to take that plant, to bring it home and care for it, to save it. Maybe this desire stemmed from an egocentric yearning to rescue something, anything from that nightmare. It was only a silly little plant, but at that moment, it was like the Marine Corps flag and the American flag on the fire truck in that it represented hope and life. Salvation from Hell.

Several times I walked back and stared at that plant, toiling over what to do. Another part of me told me to leave it, I guess out of respect for its owner, and the uncertainty about his or her fate. Maybe they survived and would one day return to clean out their office. If I took it, would they wonder where their plant had gone? Would they not experience similar feelings towards the plant as I had felt, and miss it? Is it ironic that around so much death and destruction, the thing that brought me the closest to tears was a scrawny little ivy plant? In the end, I left it there, still not knowing the fate of the plant or its owner. I like to think that it is sitting in a kitchen somewhere, being watered by its original caretaker, basking in sunlight, oblivious to what it was involved in. I like to think that it survived.

While walking away from Ground Zero, I noticed several more moving acts of kindness. Firefighters and civilians were washing a ladder truck, which had been totally crushed in the collapse. It was on a flatbed trailer and was being towed from the scene, but they did not want it to pass through the city covered in dust and debris. It was their way of showing their respect and pride. Hundreds of volunteers continued to hand out food, drinks and clothing. A civilian man was walking away in socks because he had donated his own boots to a rescue worker with especially large feet. Huge piles of clothing that had been donated from well-meaning people around the country were being distributed to workers. Dozens of people were petting and caring for the exhausted rescue dogs, finding comfort and peace in the dogs' tranquility. Truckloads of donated tools and pieces of equipment were lined up waiting to be used for the operation. Ironworkers, many of whom had been working alongside rescue workers from the beginning, were returning for yet another day on the job, responsible for the difficult task of cutting and moving steel beams. Many, if not most of them were working for free.

A Red Cross worker lifted our spirits when she told us that even though we had not found any survivors, we had still succeeded in our mission. By finding bodies, and preserving the victims' dignity she said, we made it possible for a family to properly bury their loved one and say goodbye. Finally, on the roads leading away from the site, were the hundreds of people with their "thank you" signs and bananas, cheering and waving to the solemn-faced workers, doing what they could to help out.

My memories from those two weeks are composed of extremes. I witnessed life among death, goodness in the face of evil, hope surrounded by tremendous despair, faith through disbelief, and beauty standing stubbornly defiant among total destruction. But what impressed and simultaneously confused me the most was the dichotomy between goodness and evil. Perhaps one day I will understand how it is possible for human beings to be capable of such evil and hate yet also such incredible love and kindness.

In the days and weeks since September 11, I have had a chance to reflect on what our country has endured. My initial depression is gradually being replaced by a newfound sense of pride and patriotism. I have a new love for my countrymen, and a new respect for our flags. I will never again forget the sacrifices so many have made to defend and protect our Colors. Our country's leadership, and the incredible strength and spirit of my fellow Americans, make me certain that we will rebuild bigger and better, and that we will eventually triumph over terror.

These attacks were about symbolism. Those who hate America thought that by destroying symbols of our prosperity and symbols of our strength, they could cripple our Nation and beat us into submission. But what they failed to realize is that America and patriotism were not founded with steel and concrete, but with determination, blood, sweat, tears, and a few stitches of cloth. The symbols that are the fundamental life-blood of our country withstood their attacks. Our sense of patriotism became even greater as our Nation rallied. Our flags — symbols of our pride, honor, and freedom — continue to fly not only at the Pentagon and in New York, but also on people's cars and homes. Most importantly, our sense of national unity and our determination to prevail have never been stronger.

This experience has helped me realize that those who would have us destroyed can crash our planes, destroy our buildings, and even take our lives. But they will never win, because there is nothing they can do that will weaken our combined spirit. There is nothing they can do to break the bonds that bring us and hold us together in times of need. There is nothing they can do that can take from us the things that make us truly a great Nation; our pride, our determination, our resolve, and our love for this great country.

For no matter what befalls us, together we will stand, stubbornly defiant, saving our tears for until after the war.

Reprinted with permission from Eric Jones, copyright 2002