Pentagon Rising From Ashes in 24/7 Repair Effort

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 3, 2002
Workers broke ground for the construction of the American military's
future nerve center—the Pentagon—on September 11, 1941.

Less than three months later, the horrific surprise attack on Pearl Harbor made the need for a centralized command center a national priority. The sense of urgency driving design teams and construction workers was so strong that the Pentagon was completed in just 16 months.

Exactly sixty years from the day its construction began, the seemingly impregnable fortress was violated. On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked a commercial airliner and slammed it into the building.

Nearly two million square feet of office space sustained damage from the attack. Despite the devastation, rebuilding efforts began almost immediately. One component of that effort is the Phoenix Project, dedicated to the reconstruction of sections of the Pentagon directly hit by the plane.

The project's logo is the phoenix, a mythical bird that represents rebirth and immortality; their motto, proudly displayed on a worksite sign, is "Let's Roll." The slogan echoes the last words of Todd Beamer, one of the heroes of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania as passengers battled terrorists high above the ground.

With patriotic fervor perhaps matching that of 1941, the Phoenix team set itself a daunting goal: to complete their task by September 11, 2002—the anniversary of the attack.

Exterior Completed, Celebrated

Although many found the goal audacious, and some thought it impossible, the team is closing in on its self-imposed deadline to rebuild 400,000 square feet of office space and have it open for business on September 11.

A ceremony celebrating the completion of work on the outside of the building took place on June 11 when the final piece of limestone was placed into the outside wall. The limestone block was one of the original, damaged blocks recovered from the original building's façade.

"I was kind of shocked when I first saw that piece of limestone," said Walker Lee Evey, program manager for the Pentagon Renovation Program Office. "I'd already forgotten just how dark, how damaged the building was September 11th. And the contrast between that old piece of limestone, which was never cleaned, which we had retained for this purpose for all this time, and the new building, the new limestone around it, is quite dramatic."

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz placed a commemorative capsule honoring the victims of the September 11 attack behind the limestone block.

To close the ceremony, the lights that had illuminated the exterior of the building during after-dark construction for 273 consecutive nights were turned off. The message was loud and clear: Work on the building's façade was complete.

Rebuilding on a 24/7 Schedule

The construction site has operated on a 24-hours/7-days-a-week schedule to meet the ambitious goal of reopening the damaged portion of the building on September 11, 2002.

"I must emphasize that that's not that we scoot a couple of folding chairs in there, and a couple of card tables, and people sit there and pretend to work," said Evey in a briefing. "We intend to have real people, real furniture, real equipment, real computers, real printers, real telephones, real servers, and they're going to be performing their mission. That's our expectation by September 11th."

Even after nine months on the job, work on the site still features double-shift efforts seven days a week. But the construction team hasn't balked at such a tough task—they've embraced it.

That shouldn't be surprising; it was their idea.

"That goal wasn't dreamed up by management," said Evey. "The workers came to us and said 'you ought to adopt this goal, you ought to challenge us this way.'"

Initially, the ambitious plan had plenty of skeptics. "At first we didn't know what to think," Evey remembers, "and when we did, we realized that we were taking a [rebuilding] process which might ordinarily take three years and condensing it to one."

Many people felt that the goal was unreachable, but ultimately, Evey said, management felt that "when the workers take it upon themselves to set such a goal, it's pretty hard not to take them up on it."

No one is betting against the crew meeting the one-year anniversary goal, or their long-range objective to have all of the areas damaged by the terrorist attack completely restored by spring 2003.

"Everybody's under a lot of pressure because we made that pledge to have it done and nobody wants to back down an inch," said Dave Gable, the project manager at the site, summing up the workers' attitude.

Public Support Boosts Workers' Efforts

An outpouring of public support has buoyed the Phoenix Project team throughout the reconstruction effort.

In the early stages of rebuilding, a constant stream of visitors gathered on a nearby hillside to watch construction and cheer the efforts of the workers.

Last month, students from Parkside Elementary School in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, raised enough money to bring pizza and sodas to the site, providing hundreds of workers with a free lunch.

The emotional investment many Americans feel as the Pentagon rises from the ashes have sustained the team through the grueling work schedule, and given them a sense of responsibility that they take quite seriously.

"I think that in some way we've served as a type of recovery, some type of symbol for the whole nation," said Evey. "Something positive is happening, something is being built and not torn down, and people feel a part of that and I think that has been healthy for the whole country."

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