Tuesday, Sept. 7, 11:19 a.m. EST - A plane crashed on the helicopter landing pad adjacent to the Pentagon this morning less than an hour after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack.
There were reports of injuries at the Pentagon, but no details. The Pentagon building was partially blackened on the outside and at least a portion of the structure had collapsed, witnesses said.
"We are across from the Pentagon. We are watching the smoke come across the [Potomac] river right now," a receptionist at the National Park Service's capital headquarters said.
The attack at the Pentagon, which occurred less than an hour after the New York attacks, triggered immediate security steps in the Washington area, including evacuation of the State Department, the Capitol building and the West Wing of the White House.
The nine top leaders of the House and Senate were taken into federal protection, according to the U.S. Capitol Police.
The Federal Aviation Administration shut down airports nationwide. The federal government closed all of its facilities around Washington at 10:30 a.m. and told the region's 340,000 federal employees they may leave at their discretion. "We have told people they may go home immediately. Right now because of the traffic situation the safest place might be their own offices," said Edmund Byrnes, spokesman for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
Within an hour of the New York explosions, the federal government took the additional step of shutting down national landmarks across the country, including the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty and the St. Louis Gateway Arch, among other locations, according to the National Park Service.
The Metro system remained open except for the Pentagon stop. Metro shut down the Pentagon station just after the explosion at 9:45 a.m. It is unclear if the station was damaged, spokesman Ray Feldmann said. Outbound trains are being turned around at Arlington Cemetery on the Blue Line and at L'Enfant Plaza on the Yellow Line and Metro officials were scrambling to put together a bus bridge" to ferry riders around the Pentagon station. Bus service at the Pentagon, one of the biggest transfer points in the region, was halted, Feldmann said.
Police closed I-395 northbound at the Pentagon. In the District, Constitution and Independence Avenues around the Mall have been shut down. By 10 a.m., traffic heading into the District was jammed on all major thoroughfares and across all bridges, said Connie Niebuhr of Smartraveler, the telephone traffic information service. This thing hit right in the middle of the rush, and now everything's jammed," she said. Traffic from the city to the suburbs began building at the same time, as federal workers were released from work and began heading home, she said.
Officials shut down the Virginia State Capitol building shortly after 10 a.m. this morning, locking all doors, with only key personnel inside. "The building is shut down," said a Capitol Police officer as he locked one door.Dan Nichols of the U-S Capitol Police told the Associated Press that the mandatory evacuation covers all 19 buildings under its jurisdiction - including the office buildings and the Capitol itself.
Nichols says extraordinary precautions are being taken to ensure the security of both House and Senate leadership. He declined to say where the leaders were.
In the District, city officials created an emergency command station.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport spokeswoman April Thompson said the airport is taking arrivals not departing flights. She would not elaborate.
Navy Capt. Charles Fowler, assigned to the Joint Chiefs, was working on a speech for Gen. Henry Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, when he heard the explosion. "You could feel the building shake," said Fowler. You knew it was a major explosion. I grabbed all my gear and grabbed the laptop and headed out."
"The interesting part was we didn't hear the alarm go off, but word got around very fast. It was an orderly evacuation."
Fowler's office, on the river side, appeared to be on the opposite side from the explosion, he said. "Tons of smoke was coming up from the wedgelots of black and gray smoke."
Large numbers of emergency trucks and equipment were coming in as workers departed. The number of cars leaving the parking lot caused a minor back-up but no major delays, he said. Fowler went to his home in Arlington.
Dozens of office workers gathered on the rooftops of their office buildings in Georgetown, staring across the river into Virginia where a huge cloud of smoke billowed from the Pentagon. Some held their heads in disbelief; others stared ahead stonily. Sirens could be heard wailing from both Virginia and other parts of the District. Traffic crept along the Whitehurst Freeway and then slowed even further on K street, where dozens of workers gathered to cross the busy street at every intersection. At parking lots downtown, city workers gathered to get their cars for the drive home.
"Are you sure you want to stay?," one man asked a driver who pulled into a garage on 15th Street. "Everyone's going home."
The news of the attacks and evacuation of federal buildings sent hundreds of office workers into the streets and created a frenzied atmosphere downtown today. Fire engines roared down streets, dozens of office workers milled in Farragut Square and K Street was jammed with cars at a time when most of establishment Washington usually would be in their offices.
The Secret Service received credible threat of a terrorist act against the White House, according to the Associated Press, sending dozens of workers into the streets and drawing onlookers.
"They said the White House was under attack and I wanted to come see for myself," said veteran Washington lobbyist Jack Valenti, who was standing at the edge of Layfayette Park across from the presidential mansion. "I wanted to see for myself that everything was fine."
As Valenti spoke, the White House press corps stood side-by-side with the White House mess staff in a cluster across from Layfayette Park as dozens of onlookers looked toward emergency vehicles racing to the White House.
"This is classic terrorist tactics," said Valenti, former press secretary under the Johnson Administration and now president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "You cause panic and fear and strike fear in everybody's mind and heart."
In Farragut Square, dozens of office workers milled in a park that normally would be left to unemployed and homeless spending the day on benches.
"It's scary," said Anthony Riker, 23, an employee at a non-profit with offices next to the New Executive Office Building. Added co-worker, Ruben Duboin, 25, "It's something we always joke about, being right close to the White House, but this is scary."