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Heroism at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001

Aug. 20, 2021
Editor’s Note: Twenty years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, news networks shared live reporting as terrorists launched a series of deadly attacks against targets in America. While the world struggled to come to terms and understand what was happening, there were men and women on the ground struggling to save lives.  Among the many stories of heroism from that day is Lt. Cmdr. David Tarantino and Navy Capt. David Thomas who worked together to help multiple people escape the wreckage of the Pentagon. Their story was captured in Pentagon 9/11 a history of the attack prepared with inputs from all the services by the Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Lieutenant Commander David Tarantino, a Navy flight surgeon, served as a disaster relief specialist in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict. His office, 4A531 in Wedge 2, did not experience the direct impact of the collision. Aware of the attacks in New York City, Tarantino suddenly "felt a violent shudder and a loud explosion." He left the office, but instead of departing from the building as did most others from his area, he decided to make use of his medical skills at the crash site. Making his way to smoke-filled Corridor 4, he moistened paper towels in nearby restrooms, passing them out to persons with breathing trouble, while continuing on toward the impact area. When the smoke and noxious fumes became too dense for Tarantino to walk upright, he dropped to the floor and crawled slowly on his belly. He moved down to the lower floors and at each level helped dazed and confused people to reach the Center Court. Moving on to A-E Drive, Tarantino encountered human remains, a large hole in the C Ring wall, a large airplane tire, and smoke billowing along the roadway. Cries for help coming from trapped victims compelled response.
Naval History and Heritage Command
Naval History and Heritage Command
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command
VIRIN: 010911-D-N0147-001
After first helping evacuees in A-E Drive, Tarantino joined Navy Captain David Thomas, who had come from Corridor 6 in the E Ring area, and other volunteers preparing to enter the building. Thomas later explained that he "went to the scene because that was where ... [I] thought... [I] should go. It was just an instinctive thing for me. I don't even know why, but it was like being back on the ship. You go to where your shipmates are having a problem." He wanted to search for Captain Robert Dolan, the commanding officer of the Navy Command Center, his Naval Academy classmate and the best man at his wedding. Unbeknownst to Thomas, Dolan was already dead. Other volunteers included Commander Craig Powell, a Navy SEAL new to the building who came from the 5th Floor; Surgeon General of the Air Force Lieutenant General Paul Carlton, Jr.; Lirette; and an unidentified Army sergeant. Of this multi-service party the general, who had organized a medical rescue team, later observed, "I don't know how we could get any more joint than that."
Naval History and Heritage Command
Naval History and Heritage Command
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command
VIRIN: 010911-D-N0147-005
The rescue group went into the building from A-E Drive through one of the holes spewing smoke. Working his way into the impact area, Powell came upon dazed and injured Nancy McKeown and helped her reach safety. Powell then joined Army rescuers in A-E Drive working to get people out of a 2nd Floor window in the C Ring. Another participant, Army Lieutenant Colonel Kenny Cox, had run to A-E Drive from his office in 1D711. The group positioned a six-foot ladder on top of a dumpster hoping to reach the 2nd Floor window, but finding the ladder not long enough, Cox had the ladder hoisted to his shoulders. This still did not do the job. Finally, group members returned to catching escapees dropping from the 2nd Floor window.
Meanwhile, armed with fire extinguishers and flashlights, some of this group made their way from A-E Drive into the Navy Command Center on the 1st Floor, a scene of utter devastation and chaos. Tarantino described the scene as he and Captain Thomas sought to respond to calls for help:
At this point in this area there were live electrical wires. I got shocked twice. It's so hot that the debris is melting and dripping off the ceiling onto your skin and it would sear your skin and melt your uniform. We went a little farther, turned a corner and came into this bombed out office space that was a roaring inferno of destruction and smoke and flames and intense heat you could feel searing your face.
Naval History and Heritage Command
Naval History and Heritage Command
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command
VIRIN: 010911-D-N0147-010
With only a moistened T-shirt to beat back the fire, he made "a serpentine path" through the debris.
Calls for help heard by Tarantino and Thomas came from Petty Officers Christina Williams and Charles Lewis, trapped beneath collapsed partitions and other debris, as was Darrell "Jerry" Henson, the office chief. Henson's deputy, retired Navy Captain Jack Punches, had died at his desk. The door to their office was jammed shut. The two young sailors trapped in the debris remained conscious but had increasing difficulty breathing. They had talked with each other and Henson for about 15 minutes after the explosion, repeatedly calling for help, but smoke and heat gradually sapped their energy and hope. Encouraged by the rescuers calling out, Lewis squeezed out from under the wreckage and escaped with their assistance. Williams, unable to escape from under a pile of rubble, had to wait until the rescuers could pull her out and take her to safety.
Thomas described the scene as he and Tarantino struggled to reach Henson, trapped in a mountain of wreckage: "There is this face... almost like a caricature of a face. It appeared to be floating in space, just this face at an angle, cut up. It looked like a Halloween thing.... It was just sitting there. It looks like it's floating. ... Then I focused a little further in and it's actually a guy's head squashed between furniture and his desk, actually his computer." Tarantino crawled into the "little tiny space" alongside Thomas and shone his flashlight on Henson, a retired Navy pilot with 72 combat missions in Vietnam to his credit. Sitting upright at his desk, Henson was saying "Help me! Help me!" His "bruised and bloody" head was pinned against his left shoulder by a massive weight; he couldn't move in any direction. The injured and weakened Henson, with flames licking ever closer, had almost given up hope when Thomas and Tarantino found him. Craig Powell had also inched into the room and helped by clearing some of the debris.
Crawling into the cramped space where Henson lay entrapped, Tarantino reassured him: "I'm a doctor, I'm here to help. We're going to get you out of here, but you have to help yourself. You've got to fight your way out." But Henson, pinned down, couldn't move. At first Tarantino alone, then with Thomas, tried but failed to move the partition or clear the wreckage atop Henson. It seemed to Thomas that the debris entrapping Henson looked like "a couple of tons." Adding to the urgency, the flames and smoke were starting to weaken the rescuers who feared also that the ceiling was about to collapse on them. Finally, "out of desperation," Tarantino lay on his back underneath Henson and leg-pressed against the cubicle wall, while Thomas lifted with his shoulder. After Herculean effort the two officers finally succeeded in raising the confining mass a few inches. Exerting himself mightily, Henson wriggled almost free of the wreckage when a computer cable snagged his shoe; leaving the shoe behind he made good his escape, crawling over Tarantino. Thomas "dragged him the rest of the way out of the hole."
Other members of the rescue party, including General Carlton, who witnessed Tarantino's and Thomas's heroics, helped Henson out of the Command Center, placed him on a stretcher, and carried him out to the Center Court. Tarantino, while still holding up the heavy weight with his legs, called out for other victims but heard nothing. Urged by others to get out, he rolled over and crawled out. When Powell saw that the ceiling might collapse, he held up the ceiling mesh until all had gotten out of the room.
Later, in A-E Drive, Tarantino and Thomas, "coughing and retching," wiped "the crap off our faces and tears from our eyes." Thomas remembered: "I'm thinking ... I was motivated looking for my friend [Dolan], I don't know what the hell is motivating this guy, but he's just as insane as I am. He might not make it and I don't even know who the hell he is." So that he wouldn't forget the man with whom he had just been through so much, Thomas reached over and ripped Tarantino's name tag off his uniform, exclaiming, "in case one of us doesn't make it, at least if I do, I'll know who you were and I'll tell your parents." "Hell of a guy," Thomas later pronounced him, Tarantino provided medical assistance to Henson and saw to it that he was loaded on an ambulance bound for the hospital. For the rest of the day, Tarantino assisted with triage outside the building.
Tarantino continued his naval service and retired as a Commander. Thomas also continued his naval service and retired as a Rear Admiral (upper half).