Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpArlington was one of the three American communities to solemnly mark last week’s 9/11 anniversary with personal experience.

Arlington County Fire Chief James Schwartz Thursday evening recounted his role as head of unified command at the smoking Pentagon death scene on that harrowing day. His audience from the Arlington Historical Society felt proud that our county is viewed around the nation as a model for first-responders.

Fresh from a Capitol Hill ceremony that bestowed congressional gold medals on the 9/11 memorials in Arlington, New York City and Shanksville, Pa., Schwartz made it clear how familiar his team has been with firefighting at the Pentagon.

He showed a July 2, 1959, photo of trucks battling a blaze there from Air Force computer tape that for years constituted the country’s largest building loss to fire. “In my career, we’ve had more multi-alarm fires at the Pentagon than anywhere, including one three weeks before 9/11 and another two weeks later,” said Schwartz, who joined Arlington’s force in 1984 and has been chief since 2004. Ironically, the 9/11 plane struck 60 years to the day after ground was broken to build the Pentagon.

As the weaponized 757 jet that had taken off from Dulles flew shockingly low and clipped light poles, it was watched by drivers on Columbia Pike and Washington Blvd., he recalled. Deepest impact was felt by rescue vehicles from Fort Myer that were on the site for other reasons, Schwartz said, but the first responder was Truck 105 from Crystal City, which was there in two minutes.

Schwartz arrived within 10 minutes to confront carnage and flames from 6,000 gallons of jet fuel and white-hot rivets that bored through to the building’s C Ring. “Fortunately, much of the building was unoccupied due to a renovation,” he said. “If the full 25,000 had been there, I’m sure casualties would have been worse than at the World Trade Center.”
Ad hoc Pentagon reconstruction over the decades made the building more of a death trap, with poorly designed walls and an often-repaved tunnel road whose clearance could no longer accommodate the fire team’s vehicles until their roofs were cut.

But the result “was a rare incidence of unified command working,” said Schwartz, who led with an FBI counterpart. Coordinating with Arlington’s Emergency Operations Center, his team worked 12-hour shifts (he worked 36 hours straight).

They evacuated personnel; summoned mutual and automatic aid from neighboring jurisdictions; assigned police to gather evidence (including employees’ cars, which had to remain on the site); briefed the press; set up a high-volume food station; and navigated the politically fraught intergovernmental permissions process.

Arlington, Schwartz noted, was better rehearsed for such eventualities than most communities owing to lessons from several past experiences: The 1973 collapse of the Skyline Towers construction at Baileys Crossroads; the 1982 Air Florida crash on the 14th Street Bridge; and the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway.

One of Schwarz’s photos shows clearly marked debris from the American Airlines plane that should end all conspiracy theories about what caused the Pentagon fire. “On the Internet, you can find calls for my arrest, blaming me and my FBI colleague for 184 deaths,” he said.

The careful evidence gathering—down to the finding the terrorists’ drivers’ licenses—“explained how the hijacking occurred.”

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On a lighter note, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand made an inadvertent news splash last week when her book came out containing a dismissal of Arlington as a “soul-less suburb.” Though the New York Democrat later apologized, snarky bloggers weighed in to second her motion. To them all, I offer definitive proof that Arlington has soul: In the fall of 1968, Yorktown High School hosted a concert by… the one and only… wicked Wilson Pickett.