Three firefighters who were on duty at the Pentagon fire station on that fateful 9/11 visited Fort Knox earlier this week for a special reason. They wanted to see the truck--their truck--that was badly damaged in the Penta-gon attack. Recently, the truck has been cleaned and somewhat refur-bished in order to join a museum display that is planned for the General George S. Patton Museum of Leadership on Fort Knox.
The firefighters--Mark Skipper, Dennis Young and Al Wallace--were on duty at the Pentagon fire station Sept. 11, 2001--when they had no reason to expect anything other than their usual routine. However, they had heard the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Skipper and Wallace had just repositioned the fire truck for a totally unrelated reason and exited the vehicle when they heard American Airlines Flight 77 coming toward the Pentagon.
According to Wallace, as soon as they saw the plane, they were involved in an explosion of sound and fire and heat. Skipper estimated they were perhaps 200 feet from the point of impact.
"I started running away; I totally forgot about Skipper," Wallace said. "I felt like I was on fire."
Within seconds, he said he crawled under a van parked beside the fire station. But Wallace didn't stay there long because it was even hotter under the van.
Crawling out from under the van, Wallace realized he needed to move the fire truck (Foam 161) away from the burning building if it was going to have any impact on the subsequent firefighting. He jumped into the truck and started the engine, unaware that the rear of the truck was already engulfed in flames. He radioed the call for help to the nearby Fort Meyers, Va., fire station, then stepped on the accelerator to move the truck away. He was confused that the truck wouldn't move, even though the engine was running. Meanwhile, Skipper, who was outside the truck, kept giving Wallace the "cut engine" signal. Every time Wallace goosed the accelerator, the flames on the truck shot higher as the gas was being fed to the engine.
"Once we realized the truck was obviously not operational, we shifted to (emergency medical services) mode," said Skipper. "There were so many people trapped in the building, we began helping with evacuations."
From that point on, Wallace said his brain really wasn't too functional; he just operated on adrenaline and instinct. In the aftermath, looking at the damage and learning more about the attack, the crew knew how narrow their escape was.
"If our truck hadn't been parked where it was, we would not have survived; if the truck hadn't been parked where it was, our staff inside the fire station would not have survived," Wallace said. "The truck absorbed and blocked much of the impact. It was just a miracle that we were in the right position; the Lord allowed us to live so we could help others that day."
The truck damage from the Pentagon attack has been intentionally left in place, as a reminder. Many metal parts were scorched or worse. According to Young, the metal parts fail at 1,200 degrees but actually melt at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
The truck--which is not operational--was towed through Radcliff and Elizabethtown Tuesday so spectators could get a glimpse of it before it was dedicated in the Patriot Day ceremony Wednesday. Later it will be installed in a virtual reality exhibit at the Patton Museum on Fort Knox.
Although the crew normally operated a sophisticated fire fighting machine, on Sept. 11, 2001, it wasn't much help.
"We had a $270,000 machine and we ended up working with nothing but our hands," Wallace said. "We didn't do anything heroic, nothing that cops and firefighters aren't doing every day. But we worked together, and we worked as a team and I'm proud of that.
"We're so thankful that these wonderful folks restored this truck."