Remembering 9/11: 'We're Still Taking Bodies Out of This Building'

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"Ah, this is Dulles approach control. We're tracking a fast moving primary headed toward the White House. White House has been advised."

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Minutes later: "Looks like it went into the Pentagon."

-- FAA and emergency responder tapes

The building was still on fire when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called a news conference inside the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, to tell the nation that the military would deal with those responsible for the terror attacks.

The rumors and leaks already had it that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were behind the attacks, but Rumsfeld brushed off questions on whether Afghanistan would be targeted.

"We're still taking bodies out of this building," he said.

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Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also would not speak to the U.S. response but made clear that there would be one. "Up front, I have no intention of saying what's next, but make no mistake, your armed forces are ready," he said.

As part of the ceremonies marking the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Pentagon press officials played the videotape Friday of the news conference Rumsfeld held on the evening of Sept. 11 in the effort by the Defense Department to show the federal government was in control and responding to the crisis.

Later that night, President George W. Bush would address the nation from the White House.

"These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation," he said.

Bush sought to calm Americans still reeling from the series of attacks that began at 8:46 a.m. that morning when American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the north side of the north tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.

At 9:02 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south side of the south tower.

American Airlines Flight 77 hit at a 40-degree angle on the west side of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., spreading burning jet fuel through the "E," "D," and "C" wings. As one survivor put it in a PBS documentary aired earlier this week, "11,000 square feet of the Pentagon just turned into flames."

At 10:03 a.m., United Flight 93 crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The aircraft, believed to be headed toward Congress or the White House, went down after passengers and crew sought to retake control.

During the hastily called 9/11 Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld said he could give no assurances that there would not be more attacks. "The government is certainly aware that it's difficult to know when attacks are concluded," he said. "It is not possible to give guarantees."

The Pentagon, where the response to the attacks would be planned and directed, had not closed when the airliner hit and would not close, Rumsfeld said. "It will be in business tomorrow."

Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican and then the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, joined Rumsfeld and Shelton at the news conference. He called the attacks "the most tragic hour in our nation's history," but "it can be our finest hour."

"We call upon the entire world to step up and help," Warner said. "We're in this thing together."

On Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S. began bombing targets in Afghanistan with support from Great Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Canada in an expanding coalition for the "war on terrorism" that continues today, primarily against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Earlier Friday, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work presided at a 9/11 commemoration in the Pentagon's courtyard to honor the 184 victims of the Pentagon attack -- 59 aboard Flight 77 and 125 inside the building.

"It is difficult to remember the tragedy that befell our nation" on Sept. 11, Selva said in the Pentagon's courtyard, but that day "is also a symbol of our national strength. That moment united our nation" in defiance and resolve.

"Our very way of life came under attack," Work said. "We must never allow, never allow, those who lost their lives to fade from our memories."

In the years since the attacks, nearly 6,900 service members have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 52,000 have been wounded, Work said. "Yet, still they come, knowing the dangers they face" to join the all-volunteer force, Work said. "They are, without question, the best we can offer."

Prior to showing the tape of the Rumsfeld news conference, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, noted the changes that have taken place to strengthen the nation's defenses against a terror attack. However, the overall message Rumsfeld and Shelton meant to convey on the night of Sept. 11 was that, "We are ready to go to war," Davis said.

The Defense Department now has a full-time assistant defense secretary for homeland defense -- a job that had been part-time within the office of the Secretary of the Army, Davis said.

The Pentagon also created a new combatant command -- Northern Command -- for homeland defense and began the Noble Eagle overflights with Canada to deter attacks. In addition, the White House and Congress created the Department of Homeland Security.

The tightened security meant that the nation is relatively secure against a replay of the 9/11 attacks, Davis said.

"This is something that really couldn't happen again today, given the measures we have in place," he said.

On Sunday, the 15th anniversary of 9/11, President Barack Obama will join Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford at a private ceremony at the Pentagon with families of the 184 victims of the Pentagon attack.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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