Every day, Bernard Ingold, along with hundreds of other civilian and military personnel, walks to an office built on the spot where 125 of his colleagues died on Sept. 11, 2001.
“There are reminders just about every day that bring you back,” he said. “I lost friends.”
It was the heart of the situation for many of his coworkers, who have returned in the past few weeks to the newly rebuilt and renovated “Wedge One” of the Pentagon. The country rebuilt from a threat to national security, and Ingold, who serves as legislative council to the Army, got back to work in a place where friends died.
Final restaffing of Wedge 1 is currently underway and will be completed this week, almost eight months ahead of schedule and two weeks after the release of the Pentagon Building Performance Report, a study completed by a team of researchers from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
That study, released on Jan. 23, finds that even more lives would have been lost in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, if not for features of the building that helped withstand the force of the attack.
TEAMS FROM ASCE researched each of the buildings affected in major terrorist attacks in recent years – the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“We expected to find much more devastation than we did,” said Paul Mlakar, the team leader on the Pentagon study, who also participated in the Murrah study. In Oklahoma City, he said, a localized explosion made the entire building collapse, but the Pentagon fared much better.
“While the loss of life exceeded that in the Oklahoma City bombing, it is
remarkable that it was not greater,” he said. “This can be attributed to certain features of the Pentagon’s original design.”
Fifty support columns on ground floor were destroyed by the plane’s impact, but the remaining steel-reinforced columns were able to support the floors for about 20 minutes before finally giving way, allowing hundreds of people to escape.
Even though the building performed surprisingly well, there was still room for improvement, and the renovations capitalize on that.
Michael Sullivan, acting program manager for the Pentagon Renovation Program, said officials could not comment on all the safety and design features of the renovation, but they were “worth every penny.”
Sullivan’s goal was to begin moving staff back into Wedge One within a year of the terrorist attack, and to complete the process within two years. Restaffing began August 15 last year, and will be completed Saturday, Feb. 8.
PENTAGON STAFF said the move to the rebuilt section of the building brought a mixture of emotions, but concern for safety was not among them.
“I feel safe,” said Master Sgt. John Frazier. “I felt safe when we moved back into the old part,” he added, referring to a temporary relocation in a different section of the building, during reconstruction.
State police continue stopping all trucks on Route 110 for mandatory searches to ensure terrorists don’t have easy access to the building from the ground, and Frazier said he doubts that another attack from the air would be likely.
Engineers studying building design didn’t have the luxury of making that assumption. Building plans focused on “personnel safety rather than structural sustainability,” Sullivan said. In other words, staff assumed there could be another attack when they planned for building improvements.
Support columns are everywhere in the renovated portion – no more than 20 feet apart, and in some cases as close as 5 feet. Exit signs were mounted not just overhead but at ground level. Survivors of the terrorist attack reported they had to crawl to safety to avoid thick smoke – so thick they had not been able to see exit signs over doors.
Safety measures like that are one of the mixed-blessings for Pentagon workers like Ingold. It’s nice to know the building was designed for safety, he said, but even the presence of those signs is a reminder of the devastation he saw, and the danger that still exists.
“I guess you try not to dwell on it,” he said, “But you know they have put a concerted effort [into the safety measures].”
THERE’S A STARK contrast between the renovated section of the building and the old portion, which looks almost the same as it did when it was first built in the 1940s. The difference, Frazier said, was “like night and day.”
Old hallways tend to be cavernous and poorly lit, and the yellowish paint looks dingy and faded. The new section is brighter and more modern. That difference, like the safety precautions, brings mixed reactions from Pentagon employees.
“There’s a sense of loss in a way,” said Ingold. “There’s a different look to it, so there’s a readjustment.”
Ingold has worked in the building for a decade, and calls himself an “old traditionalist.” The “shabby” look of the older section has a certain appeal, he said.
Frazier took a different perspective on the renovated section. “It’s a lot nicer than the old part,” he said. “It’s good to be back down here.”