Recollections of Lieutenant Commander David Tarantino, MC [Medical Corps], USN, who was assigned to the Secretary of Defense in the Office of Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Affairs, and became a rescuer during the attack on the Pentagon.
Adapted from: "Pentagon Rescuer." Navy Medicine 92, no.6 (Nov.-Dec. 2001): 23-24. [Based on an interview conducted by Dr. Gary Weir and Commander Mike McDaniel of the Naval Historical Center on 25 Sep. 2001.].
It was a normal day. I reported to work, started logging into the computer, checking e-mails, taking phone calls, talking with the office about what was going on. Then someone heard about the happenings at the World Trade Center - the first plane. We were able to watch the live video and started hearing the reports. Then we saw the footage of the second aircraft coming into the second tower.
It did not seem like it was too much longer after that when we felt a violent shudder and a loud explosion. We looked at each other and pretty much made the implicit assumption that we were under some sort of attack. Everyone said, "We better get out of here; we gotta get out of here!" So we started heading out. Obviously, a lot of people in the corridors were evacuating as well.
I stopped and thought, "Well, I obviously have medical training. Perhaps I should go to the site and see if there were some injured people around." I went down the 4th Corridor, a long corridor that goes from the inner courtyard to the outer court. It was full of smoke from ceiling to floor. There were some walking wounded coming out. People were saying there were injured people down there. I grabbed some paper towels, moistened them, and started heading down there. You literally had to crawl on your belly. Even on your hands and knees you could barely breathe, the smoke was so thick. I crawled, feeling along the wall, and was able to assist getting some people out to the inner courtyard. I do not know if they thought to come to the inner courtyard or they were injured, dazed, and confused.
I went back in and found myself in the open air space between the B and the C Ring on the inner aspect of the C Ring between the 4th and 5th Corridors. There was a big exploded hole in the wall that was pouring out thick black smoke, and there was a big plane tire sitting there, and evidence of human remains. I heard cries for help from inside this wall. This was not an exit through which people could come. The doors, 20 yards either way, were spewing out black smoke. A couple of people exited from there.
But [then] we heard these cries in there from people who were trapped. So a few of us - four or five people - grabbed fire extinguishers and started fighting our way in through this exploded breach.
We made a serpentine path through there throwing out some debris, spraying back the fire. And as we did that, we came into a space where two Navy personnel were trapped and very close to succumbing to smoke and flames. We were able to get them out through this makeshift passageway. They would certainly have perished in there not aware there was a possibility of an exit.
Then they told CAPT [Captain] Dave Thomas and me that there were more people in there so we continued on in further. There were live electrical wires in this area. I got shocked twice. It was so hot the debris was melting and dripping onto my skin, searing it and melting my uniform. We went a little further, turned a comer, and came into this bombed out office space that was a roaring inferno of destruction, smoke, flames, and intense heat. You could feel it searing your face. We thought we heard something off to the right. Dave Thomas or someone handed me a flashlight. I shined it through this little opening and saw the bruised and bloody head of a gentleman who was leaning back saying, "Help me.” Help me.
I had a moistened Tee-shirt I was using to beat back the flames a little bit. I threw it into him and told him to breathe through that. I then told him he had to get out of there. There were secondary explosions going on. The structure was collapsing. Stuff was falling from the ceiling. The flames were approaching and he was pinned by this debris that was on fire. On one side of him there were no flames but the other side was all flames. He did not have very long at all and it looked like he was drifting in and out of consciousness from his injuries or oxygen deprivation.
We tried to free some of the debris from where we were but it really could not be done. So I crawled along on my belly and hands and knees over the debris into the space where he was. It was a very small cramped space. I said, "I am a doctor. We are going get you out of here, but you have got to help yourself. You have got to fight your way out."
He said, "I can't. I'm pinned. I've been trying and trying. I can't move."
I tried to pull him. I tried to push. There was nothing I could do. I, myself, was very close to succumbing to the smoke and fumes, and I do not know how he was even still alive because he had been there for awhile and was losing strength quickly. Out of desperation, I lay on my back underneath him and put my feet up on the pile of debris over his head. I leg-pressed up as hard as I could and was able to raise it a few inches, just enough to free him a little bit so he could start to wriggle free. I grabbed him; he grabbed on to me and I pulled him out right through my legs. I told him not to knock my legs because I did not want the debris to come back down again. As he crawled right over my body, and we were almost face to face, I said, "Is there anyone else in here?"
"Yes, I think there are others." I was very distressed to hear that. I then pushed him on past me out to where CAPT Thomas grabbed him and escorted him outside.
Hearing that there might be others, I still held up the debris and yelled, "Is there anyone else in here? Is there anyone else in here?" After not hearing anyone, I lowered the debris, hoping it would stop, and it did. I then rolled over and crawled my way out, coughing, retching, and trying to catch my breath. A few people were standing about. They had already taken Jerry Henson to the courtyard. He was the victim, a retired Navy captain. It seemed like less than 60 seconds before that whole space was just engulfed in smoke and flames going all the way up the side of the building.
I gathered myself and went into the courtyard where there were a few casualties. Some medical personnel from the clinic had brought up some medical supplies and there was a corpsman attending to Mr. Henson. I went in and assisted getting some oxygen started on him, starting some IVs [for introducing intravenous solutions in the bloodstream], getting some fluids going, taking his vital signs, and triaging the few casualties that were there. I determined that Mr. Henson was the worst off, mostly from respiratory distress. We ensured that he was loaded first on an ambulance and sent him on his way.
I went back to the scene where we had been, hoping the fire crews would arrive and maybe we could rescue some more people. They arrived not too long after but were unable to penetrate any of these spaces, even with their protective gear. By then, conditions had really deteriorated and they could not go in. We kept waiting and hoping there might be more people to assist but it did not turn out to be the case.