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Environmental Health Issues at the Pentagon

Arlington, VA, September 12, 2001 - FEMA Urban Search &
Rescue teams evaluate the crash site at the Pentagon.
Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA News Photo

Ironically, shortly before Sept. 11, Arlington County had just finishing drafting a new disaster plan, begun the year before because of the much-feared potential ‘Y2K’ computer fiasco. Even though employees had not been fully oriented to the recently approved plan, this was immediately activated after the plane hit the Pentagon, and worked well, according to Val Jefferson, a management specialist with the Arlington County Environmental Health Bureau.

That didn’t make it any less of a shock to the county Health Department, says Jefferson.

“It was quite a shock when we got the call, and we were far from prepared,” she says, recalling that the Emergency Response protocol at first caught them off guard. Within hours, Arlington County’s sanitarians were out at the Pentagon parking lot making sure that the food fed to the first responders was safe, says Jefferson. However, the responsibility would have normally fallen to some of the senior staff.


“Our greatest fear was that there could be a food-borne outbreak in the middle of the disaster.”


“All the senior folks were finished with swimming pools and away on vacation or at conferences,” she recalls. When she tried to run down the list of sanitarians on call, she got a wrong number—an automotive supply garage.


Food donations started pouring in almost immediately, as the Red Cross began working to hand out 2,000 meals a day from supply tents set up in the parking lot. So Jefferson immediately sent out two inspectors to check on all the donated food from the many restaurants and hotels, and started setting up a system to insure proper food handling that would continue for two weeks during the crisis.


 “Our greatest fear was that there could be a foodborne outbreak in the middle of the disaster,” she says. That, and a fear of intentionally adulterated food prompted her and her agency to carefully monitor the rapidly mounting pile of food to volunteer soup kitchens and other food service vendors that set up around the perimeter of the Pentagon after the attack.

At the Pentagon, as at Ground Zero, there was little to keep volunteers from throwing themselves into the fray to help rescue any remaining survivors.

One example is that of Pentagon Police Officer Michael Benedict, who was conducting a training class at the nearby Navy Annex Building on the morning of September 11, 2001, when he heard a plane fly closely overhead, and then ran to the window to witness the effects of the crash. His supervisor, Pete Donaldson, wrote: "Showing no concern for his own safety, Benedict successfully escorted personnel to safety and retrieved wounded personnel in need of assistance to the triage area. After a short time, [he] became overwhelmed by the fire and smoke, and was forced to leave the building." (17)

But whereas firefighters who volunteered at Ground Zero weren’t taken off the site, at the Pentagon volunteers without sufficient respiratory protection were thrown off the site, say officials in the Emergency Management division.

Arlington, VA, Sept 14, 2001 - FEMA Urban Search & Rescue enter the Pentagon site.
Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA News Photo

Nevertheless, according to the After-Action report, “Arlington County, like most other jurisdictions, was not logistically prepared for an operation of the duration and magnitude of the Pentagon attack.” The county fire department was unequipped logistically and did in fact lack enough stock of personal protective equipment (PPE), critical high-demand items (such as batteries and breathing apparatus), equipment for reserve vehicles, and medical supplies for EMS units.” (18)

The September 11 attacks spurred a crisis of unparalleled dimensions, striking America’s population in its most densely populated centers. Undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of people were present in Lower Manhattan that day from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, places all visible from the viewing platform of the World Trade Center before it fell. And none of the 20 million in that metropolitan area escaped breathing the air during the days that smoke and dust swirled around inevitably.


September 11th was the first time that New York City was physically shut down, with all of its bridges and tunnels closed and military troops mobilized. For the first time ever, signs read “New York City closed to all traffic.” That day, too, roads were closed in Washington, D.C., and the mayor gave the order to evacuate the city of Washington, D.C. ten minutes before the American Airlines flight 77, a Boeing 757 out of Newark, N.J., striking the Pentagon. (19)


Email messages from that day, preserved on the Internet, described a city in a state of crisis. Sidewalks were crowded with people covered in cinders and dust from head to foot. Streets were lined with cars driving with inches of dust on their hoods. “Trucks with spools of cable wiring are coming, and ambulances going. Sirens everywhere,” wrote one person. (20)


With banks and stores closed, and even small delicatessens running out of food, people retreated to their apartments and homes. Most restaurants shut their doors with notes posted saying they’d closed in light of the tragedy. Mayor Rudy Giuliani and other city leaders urged people to stay home and stay calm.



Many are aware of the heroism of the fire fighters and other first responders but few know about the challenges placed on environmental health people that day and in months to come.



Responding to such an event would require an unprecedented level of coordination and cooperation among agencies and departments not accustomed to working together. (And some say that in the future public health professionals need to better understand, communicate with and work within the broader context of emergency management.)


Many are aware of the heroism of the fire fighters and other first responders that day but few know about the challenges placed on environmental health professionals—decisions they had to make that day and in the days and weeks to follow.

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