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Looking Back Sept. 11

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Each week Albany Herald researcher Mary Braswell looks for interesting events, places and people from the past. You can contact her at (229) 888-9371 or mary.braswell@albanyherald.com.

Construction began on the Pentagon on September 11, 1941. Exactly 60 years later, a hijacked plane struck the facility, killing 184 people and damaging roughly one-third of the building.

In the beginning

• On May 27, 1941, three weeks after Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a state of national emergency. The War Department work force in the Washington, D.C. area numbered more than 24,000 personnel scattered in 17 buildings in Washington, D.C.

• Roosevelt himself had personally approved construction of a new War Department facility at 21st Street in the city’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Built for $18 million, it was set to open in June 1941. By that time, however, the building was deemed far too small.

• General George C. Marshall, the Army’s chief of staff, turned to Brigadier General Breton B. Somervell, head of the Army’s Construction Division, for a solution. Somervell’s proposal was audacious: a headquarters big enough for 40,000 people, with 4 million square feet of office space.

• A building this large could not fit in Washington, so Somervell chose a site across the Potomac River in Virginia, just east of Arlington National Cemetery. Known as Arlington Farm, the plot of land was once part of the grand estate of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

• When Somervell’s lead architect, G. Edwin Bergstrom, drew up the design for the building, he was forced by the position of existing roads at the site to use an asymmetrical five-sided shape. Somervell had determined that the building could be no more than four stories high, both to accommodate a wartime scarcity of steel and to prevent the blocking of views of Washington.

• The three-story air-conditioned building would be completed, he claimed, within a year, with 500,000 square feet ready for use within six months.

• The House of Representatives passed the necessary legislation for the project on July 28, 1941; the Senate on August 14. By that time, however, controversy had arisen over the scale of the building, as well as its location so close to the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery.

• Moved by the protests, Roosevelt declared that the project should be moved to a site three-quarters of a mile south of Arlington Farm, adjacent to Washington-Hoover Airport. He also directed Somervell to reduce the size of the building to no more than 2.25 million square feet.

• Although the new site, known as Hell’s Bottom, did not require the unique shape of the building’s design, time was tight and things went ahead as planned.

• Construction on the Pentagon began without fanfare on September 11, 1941. By early December 1941, 3,000 workers were on the site during the day, but construction was still behind schedule. Their supervisor was Corps of Engineers Colonel Leslie R. Groves, who would later be chosen to head the Manhattan Project and build the atomic bomb. On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the acceleration of the U.S. move toward war gave Somervell free reign to expand his project.

• The already-tight construction schedule was moved up, and by March 1942, more than 10,000 men were working on the site. At one particularly intense stage, 15,000 people were working three shifts, 24 hours a day, with floodlights illuminating the site at night.

• The Pentagon’s first employees moved in on April 30, 1942; the building officially opened on January 14, 1943.

By the numbers

• The Pentagon includes 683 acres. The total cost to the government for the land was $2,245,000.

• The original structure included 410,000 cubic yards of concrete, made from some 700,000 tons of sand dredged from the Potomac River.

• The Pentagon itself covers 29 acres, 34 including the center courtyard.

• Parking spaces cover 67 acres.

• Each outer wall is 921 feet long.

• Offices, concessions and storage cover 3,705,793 square feet.

• Corridors span 17.5 miles. Due to the design of the structure, however, any point can be reached from another in about seven minutes.

• The following are some basic numbers: Clocks installed - 4,200; Restrooms - 284 (Virginia required segregated facilities at the time the building was constructed); Light fixtures - 16,250; Telephone cable - 100,000 miles; and Drinking fountains - 691.

• The nation’s Capitol could fit into any one of the five sections. There are three times as much floor space in the Pentagon as in the Empire State Building.

• Each day approximately one million e-mails are sent and 200,000 phone calls are made or received.

• On an average day, 1,700 pints of milk, 4,500 cups of coffee and 6,800 soft drinks are consumed within the walls of the Pentagon.

September 11, 2001

• The renovations started in 1994 were in their final stages by September 11, 2001.

• That day, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon’s first floor west wall at 9:37 a.m.

• Traveling 529 miles per hour at the time of the impact, the hijacked Boeing 757 made a gash 30 yards wide and 10 yards deep, puncturing the three outer rings of the building.

• The resulting fire raged for 36 hours. By the time it was extinguished, 189 people were dead (including the five hijackers).

Good as new (or better)

• A $501 million repair and renovation initiative, dubbed the Phoenix Project, began in early October 2001. Its leader, Lee Evey, publicly declared on October 5 that the goal was to have repairs completed by September 11, 2002.

• The team’s considerable efforts were largely successful. By then, the Pentagon’s focus was already changing from hunting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to gearing up for the coming war in Iraq.

• The Phoenix Project was officially completed in February 2003 at a total cost of some $5 billion.

• The renovations included sweeping security upgrades, including a move of the Defense Department’s command centers to the basement.

• The Pentagon Memorial, located just southwest of The Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, is a permanent outdoor memorial to the 184 men and women who lost their lives, killed both in the building and on American Airlines Flight 77 in the September 11, 2001 attacks. It opened to the public on September 11, 2008.