- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

The metal-frame clock found in the rubble at the Pentagon will always haunt rescue squad Officer Tim Robson. The clock's frame was twisted and its hour and minute hands were frozen at 9:42, but the second hand improbably, still working clacked against them, unable to pass.

"I'll never forget that image," Officer Robson said during a break from his recovery efforts. "It'll always be with me, wherever I go."

The workers digging through the endless piles of twisted metal and rubble have seen, smelled and heard things not easily forgotten.

But in "Comfort City" a makeshift town of tents they can grab a burger, make a call back home or take a hot shower and forget, if only for a little while, what they came here to do. It's a welcome bit of normal in a surreal place.

"It's a place where all of us can get away from it all," said John Gaffney, who came here with the New Mexico Task Force. "It's [a place] where you get away from the damage, the wreckage, the devastation. It's a place, really, where we can keep sane."

In a merciful stroke of planning, the military set up the two-acre city only some 200 feet from the crash site around the corner in the Pentagon's south parking lot, where workers can't see the charred, collapsed west side.

The fenced-in city has two "streets," American Way and Freedom Lane, and access to the area is guarded by a soldier 24 hours a day. It's closed to the public, except for volunteers with the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and a group of restaurants that has been helping the relief workers maintain a sense of normalcy. Members of the media are allowed to visit the site once a day, for 45 minutes, with a police escort.

Though it was created to provide relaxation, the city is charged with purposeful energy: Volunteers run in and out of their tents to help feed the workers and make them feel at home. The smell of barbecued chicken and grilled hamburgers fills the air.

Army Col. Rich Breen said that things would not be going as smoothly without the work of the relief teams.

"Our rescue workers have told me, and I personally feel that without their spirit, their smiles, dedication and positive attitude, our people would certainly be in a more depressed state," Col. Breen said.

The most popular area is the dining tent, where workers eat their meals and catch up on the news of the day on the five color televisions scattered about the tent. Cards of thanks and encouragement made by school children decorate the sides of a stage where bands play.

"You are our heroes," one card reads. "I know you did your best and that's all that counts," reads another.

The workers can pick up their food at one of the eight mobile kitchens, and for variety there are McDonald's, Burger King and Outback Steakhouse stands.

Tension, understandably, remains high: The Arlington County Fire Department received calls about smoke coming from the south side of the Pentagon, but it turned out to be the barbecued chicken being prepared in the serving tent.

Inside the dining tent where a large American flag hangs, workers try to eat fast and catch up with one another before they head back to work. The stories they share are of the devastation they've seen just minutes before.

"You can't help but wonder what it must have been like for those people who were on that plane and in those offices when the plane hit," said Henry Towles, a New Mexico Task Force technical specialist whose primary duty was to follow the cadaver-sniffing dogs.

Then, there are the personal items they find amid the destruction. Besides the clock, Officer Robson found a photograph of a man in uniform shaking hands with former President Ronald Reagan.

"You just can't help but think about whether that man in the picture lived or died," Officer Robson said.

Mingled with the grief is a nagging fear of what might go wrong, what other nightmarish scenarios might come their way.

"I don't think any one doesn't feel some kind of terror when we're in there," said Skip Navarrette, the task force's technical information specialist. "You always have that in the back of your mind. What if something else happens?"

The crash site is still considered unsafe. To prevent any accidents, each worker must wear a chemical suit, two or three layers of gloves, steel-toe shank boots, kneepads, respirators and construction helmets.

Most importantly, each worker carries on them a "passport," an electronic devise that sounds an alarm when the worker is still for more than two minutes. Outside the crash site, the managers keep a record of the whereabouts of each worker and keep in touch with them every 20 to 30 minutes to make sure they are all right.

"If something would go wrong, we could go in after them quickly," said Capt. Mark Dalton with the Alexandria Fire and Rescue Department.

Around the corner, on Freedom Lane, stands a tent where workers can talk to counselors and chaplains or get medical care. Each rescue worker works a 12-hour shift, lifting concrete blocks or clumps of what used to be steel beams that held up the western face of the Pentagon.

Don Hirsh, with the International Chiropractic Association, said being there to help is the least he can do.

"These people are fighters," Mr. Hirsh said. "They say it's hell in there. And when they finish here, they go back in that hell. I admire them."

•Brian DeBose contributed to this report.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide