Pentagon: an interview with former US Navy Captain William Toti

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Undicisettembre is offering its readers today the personal account of US Navy Captain William Toti who was in his office at the Pentagon when the plane crashed into the building. Having survived the crash, Toti became then of the first responders at the scene.

We would like to thank William Toti for his kindness and his time.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what happened to you on 9/11?

William Toti: That morning I was in my office, which was the outer office of my boss who was a second admiral in charge of the Navy, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations. This office was in the outer ring, the E-ring, on the fourth floor of the Pentagon. We always had a TV going, I was just doing my work when one of our enlisted men screamed "Oh my God, look at that!" I looked up at the TV and I saw the first World Trade Center tower on fire. That's how we discovered that it was happening.

William Toti

On CNN they were saying that a small plane had a navigational malfunction. I used to fly airplanes, so I knew you can't accidentally fly into a building like that on a clear day. I knew this was intentional, either somebody trying to commit suicide or a terrorist attack; but we didn't know it was terrorism until we all watched live as the second plane hit. A friend of mine, a classmate from the Academy in Annapolis, was on duty that day in the Navy Command Center, he called up and spoke to another guy who was in the office with me to say that the FAA had reached out to the National Military Command Center to tell them that they suspected several planes had been hijacked, not just the two that we already knew about. But they couldn't say for sure.

A little while later, he called back and said they were pretty sure that one plane had been hijacked out of Dulles Airport, which is near Washington DC, and was turned back around and headed back towards DC; but they didn't know what the target was. I was thinking about the two World Trade Center, they'd already said on TV that there were about 20,000 workers there and I started wondering "What in DC is big enough to see by air?" because I've flown around DC before. Somebody was speculating of the White House and I said, "No, the White House too small to see from the air at a distance. You can see the Capitol building from far away, but there are not many people in that building; it's not continuously occupied by thousands of people, the Congress is only in session occasionally. What can you see from the air a long way away that has tens of thousands of people in? The Pentagon!” And I said it out loud.

There were eight or nine people in my office, most of them civilians. As soon as I said it, one of the secretaries started losing it, she started panicking. I said to myself "I’m an idiot. I shouldn't have said anything, it does no good to say things like that when I'm just speculating." But about a minute later we could hear an airplane. The Pentagon is right next to Reagan Airport, and airplanes are taking off all the time; when you hear them take off, you hear the engine go to full throttle even from inside the Pentagon, and then the noise decreases in intensity as the plane ascends. We could hear this plane on full throttle, but it was getting louder and not quieter. And that's when we knew. It was only ten to fifteen seconds from when we first heard the airplane to when it hit, so we didn't have any time to react at all. Also because we weren't sure precisely where it was going to hit on the Pentagon. We just could hear it getting louder and louder.

Once it hit the Pentagon, the building shook. My office was maybe a hundred yards from the point of impact, and you could feel the floor vibrate. Interestingly, I could hear the boom as a low frequency sound not a high frequency sound, but it reverberated through the hallway more than around the outside of the windows, the sound was carried down the hallway like a tunnel that traps the sound. whereas outside the sound expands. It was not something I would have thought about beforehand.

At that time I was already a full captain in the Navy, and when you're on a ship if you have a casualty you can't call the fire brigade, you are the fire brigade. In the Navy you're trained to run to the scene of a casualty so that's what I did.

I run down the hallway towards the sound on the fourth floor together with two other guys from my office, we got to a point where the smoke was too thick I couldn't see and couldn't breathe but what I could see was bright light. Which was bad. Because there are no windows in the hallway, they are all in the rooms, and the doors should be shut. So if there's bright light, that means there's a hole in the building, and you don't want to run where you can't see and run out the hole and fall four stories. I was surprised by the fact that there was no fire alarm sounding, I run by a fire alarm and I hit the button which tells people to evacuate. I did that and then I started running back because I couldn't see or breathe.

I ended up finding a staircase, I run down it to a fire exit and out the building to the outside at ground level and then started running towards the point of impact from the outside. It was a long way, because it's a big building; from the point I exited I had to all the way around. The point of impact was on the other side of what was a helicopter landing pad at the Pentagon. There was what we call an outbuilding there, a separate building that houses all of the helicopter firefighting equipment. I could start seeing bits of the airplane as soon as I got within line of sight as I was still running. For example, I saw pieces of painted aluminum from the fuselage. I saw a silver piece of aluminum with a red "A" painted from the American Airlines logo.

Taken from the ABC News live coverage of 9/11.

Most of the pieces of aluminum were shredded, they were like the size of a piece of paper, but there were other bigger fragments: pieces of the wing, landing gear, engine nacelle. I couldn't see seats and I didn't know why until later. I learned the next day that all the seats had continued to fly into the building. They were all piled up where the nose of the airplane had made a hole between the B and the C rings, there was a five feet or so hole and the seats were all piled up there. I saw them when I ended up going in the Pentagon after the fire was put out into the area that was destroyed.

There was a lot of smoke pouring out. Smoke was curled up over the top of the building, it wasn't coming towards us but it was rising. So we could actually approach the building right up to the point of impact except for the heat that kept you from getting too close. There were a couple of emergency doors that people were coming out of and as long as people were coming out I thought it was okay. Then occasionally you would see heavy black smoke booming out of these emergency exits and people coughing and you can tell they couldn't breathe.

Let me tell you something: at this point I have zero sense of timescale. I can't tell you, how many minutes after the impact this happened, I just know it was it was early. The first fire truck hadn't shown up yet. There was always a fire truck stationed sitting there, idle at the helicopter landing pad in case the helicopter started a fire: that fire truck was there when I ran up to the point of impact but it was on fire. That was a very odd sight: the fire truck was itself on fire. I looked inside the fire truck and I saw a body, I thought "Who is this guy? Is he a fireman? What's going on?" The first thing I did was I opened the door of the fire truck that was burning to get this guy out, I didn't even know if he were dead or alive. I opened the door, I grabbed him and he jumped. He didn't find this out until I met him in 2015, he was wondering who the crazy guy is who was trying to pull him out. He was a firefighter, we're good friends now. He had his head down in the Fire Truck close to the radio speaker because he was trying to call on the fire truck’s radio for help and with all the noises of the burning, the mini explosions from the Pentagon he couldn't hear. Anyway once I realized he was okay I gave up pulling the fireman out of the truck, I looked back at the door and saw this smoke like wafting out of the door.

There was smoke, then no smoke, smoke, then no smoke again. In between these like puffs of smoke, I thought I saw a human being which wasn't coming out. I ran into the door, I couldn't see, I went in maybe five or ten feet and I tripped over somebody who was on the ground. While holding my breath, I grabbed this person by their clothes and tried to drag them out but I could not. I ran back out, there were a couple of US Army officers, I yelled and asked for help and they came back in with me. The three of us grabbed one leg, the belt of pants and the shoulders and dragged this person out, turned out it was a woman. We got her outside, put her down, made her catch her breath because she couldn't breathe, picked her up again and carried her about twenty-five meters away from the door and put her down again because her skin was coming off in our hands, especially from her arms. Her pants were singed, she was all burnt. We laid her face down first because we couldn't flip her, we then turned on her side and flipped her over.

We then ran back down, because I thought there were more people inside. We found a guy laying on the ground by himself who was burned worse than that woman was, he was laying on his back like a crab, with his hands and his knees up in the air. His face was all burned, his eyes were like he was blinking but corneas were burned white. He was screaming, he was conscious. We said "Okay, we got to get this guy out of here too." Somebody carried down a backboard, I don't know where it came from, I guess the first ambulance showed up around this point. So we rolled this guy onto the backboard and then carried him away from the building.

There were other people coming out. Mostly walking wounded, they were able to walk on their own and there are other people assisting them. There were five gallon bottles of water for water fountains in that outbuilding for the helicopter landing pad, and some guy was bringing water bottles out of that building to pour water over people coming out of the Pentagon just trying to cool them off.

After a while, people stopped coming out of the building. I ran back in one more time, as far as I could go on one breath. I couldn't see very well and frankly I was afraid to get lost and ran back out. I was coughing like crazy. I put my t-shirt over my mouth and nose and tried breathing, but it didn't help. I fell onto my hands and knees and coughed up a bunch of stuff for a while. As soon as I stopped coughing I went back towards the road because I saw there were many people that had been carried or assisted next to the side of the road and there were some ambulances pulling up. The Navy put me through EMT training because on submarines they put as many people as they can through the training because you don't have a doctor. So I had a little bit of medical training and I figured I would go there to try to help because at this point there was one maybe two ambulances. This was maybe twenty minutes post impact and this is when the first fire trucks start showing up.

The ambulance had one paramedic, one EMT and a driver, so there were three or four rescuers and maybe fifty or sixty injured people either on the ground or standing. I remember one woman standing, her hands were burned, she was African American, and she was just screaming like crazy. I told her "Look, you're gonna live, you're okay. I get that it hurts, but we got to focus on these people on the ground who are hurt worse than you" so we started going through those people. I found the woman that we carried out of the building, nobody was near her, she was laying there by herself on a backboard. I leaned over to see if she was okay. I was trying to check her capillary refill: you press the fingernail down, you let go and you see how long it takes to the fingernail to get pink again, to figure out if she’s getting good oxygen. I learned to do that in EMT school, but I had never done it on an African American. I couldn't figure out what was normal for her. I looked inside the lips to see if it's pink and she was turning blue, so I knew she wasn't getting enough oxygen. I got the one of the guys off of the ambulance to give me one of the bottles of oxygen and I put the oxygen on her. There was a guy running around the Navy uniform like mine, he was wearing a vest that said, "Pentagon physician", so I said "We need to get an IV on her"; it had been eight or nine years since I ran an IV, so I figured this guy should know how to do that. He got an IV bag and he was struggling to use it, I said "Look, okay, we need to put a tourniquet. You're the physician here", he said "I'm actually a dentist. I’m supposed to just do triage." I would have laughed, except it wasn't funny.

He didn't know much more about how to do the IV than I did. We got the IV running, there was an Army enlisted lady, and I had her hold the IV bag up. The injured woman wasn't doing well, I got her name, her name was Antoinette but I couldn't understand her last name because she couldn't talk very well. Anyway, we knew a MedEvac helicopter was coming. Among the injured there was also the really, really badly burned guy. They already had him on a gurney and they were about to load him on an ambulance. Basically everybody was ignoring the lady that I was next to and so when the MedEvac helicopter showed up I said "Look, she's not getting oxygen. We have to put her on the helicopter". There was nobody there with authority to override, that was the irony of this. Nobody was in charge and each of the ambulance crews were basically handling people that they encountered and decided to treat, this lady only had me.

I got five other guys, of which one was a firefighter and one was a Marine, and I said "Let's grab the backboard and get her to the helicopter" because the helicopter was landing up the road from where we were. So the six of us carried her all the way across the field, over the guardrail and into the parking lot up to the helicopter. We loaded her in, and I yelled at her, "I'll see you at the hospital" but I don’t think she could hear me because the helicopter engine was running.

William Toti, second from the left, carrying Antoinette with five other people.

I ran back down and by the time I got there the security guards and the police officers from the Pentagon were screaming that everyone had to run away because they heard on the radios that another plane was coming in. Inside the Pentagon at the National Military Command Center they knew a fourth airplane had turned somewhere between Cleveland and Indianapolis and was coming back, nobody knew that was United 93 and that it had already crashed in Pennsylvania, so they assumed it was coming towards DC because two planes had hit the World Trade Center so it made sense for two planes to hit the Pentagon.

They wanted us to run and I thought "This is stupid, where are we going to go?" Across the street from the Pentagon is a wooded area owned by Arlington Cemetery, so there was no place to go. The police officers wanted us to move in front of this fifteen meter high concrete retention wall across the street, I'm enough of an engineer to know you don't stand in front of a wall if you are going to get a concussive effect, that wasn't going to do us any good. I said, "I'm sorry, I'm not going there, I am staying here", because we still believed that there were still people who needed to be helped. We ended up loading as many people as we could on these few ambulances, we had maybe five ambulances into which we loaded maybe thirty people, and the ambulances drove away.

After a while there were still no more wounded; we didn't know that, we thought we could go back and find more people to help. Firetrucks were also coming in with firefighters who had Scott air packs. But from that point on, I did nothing useful even though I stayed there till 8 PM. But we didn't want to leave, believing we could still help somebody.

I couldn't drive home because my keys were in the office, so at 7 PM I had called my wife with a phone I borrowed from somebody to tell her to come and get me. My phone battery had died long before so I could not use it. I told her "Drive north up interstate 395 and I'll find you." I started walking down the interstate which was blocked so there were no cars. I was walking south in the northbound lane till a police officer saw me and thought I was out of my mind. He told me to get in his car but I told him, "I can't, otherwise me and my wife will never find each other". I kept walking and he followed me driving south in the northbound lane behind me. My wife, my mother and my two kids showed up in my sister's minivan, the plan worked! They found me because I was the only idiot walking on the highway, and that's how I got home.

Undicisettembre: What happened to you on the following days?

William Toti: The Navy had lost a lot of offices so they decided we would assemble in a building up the hill from the Pentagon called the Navy Annex. I showed up there and the Chief of Naval Operations decided we needed somebody in charge of the recovery, which was not a regular job but one they would have to create. I was asked if I’d be willing to do that, so I volunteered for that role because my regular job, which was public outreach kind of things, was not needed at that point. I went back into the Pentagon because I needed to understand the extent of the damage, you needed special permission to get back in, but I had the Chief of the Navy's authority to do whatever I needed to do and I used it.

Once the fires were put out three days later I was one of the first Pentagon workers to get in the destroyed areas to map out the extent of the damage to Navy areas. I went in with four other people. There was a structural engineer who was going in and declaring which areas were safe to go into and which were not. Then we had environmental engineer who was testing for asbestos and particulates, we were indeed wearing breathing equipment and respirators and white coveralls. Then there was also an FBI agent, because it was crime scene and the FBI was doing a criminal investigation, so they didn't want anything touched or moved, and didn’t let any of the bodies be recovered; this guy was making sure we were not damaging anything that could have been useful for the investigation. And we also had one person marking bodies or parts of bodies. My job was to outline where the Navy offices were, and begin to identify Navy uniforms on human remains.

After a week or so of the FBI processing the crime scene, soldiers from Fort Myers came in and were tasked with bagging remains and carrying the bodies out to refrigerator trucks, that was done together with law enforcement to make sure that bodies were identified; of course they were interested also in identifying bodies of the terrorists. But I didn’t get involved in that.

On the thirteenth or fourteenth day after the fire was out we went in and we saw the seats of the airliner piled up at the exit point, that was where the nose of the airplane had push-punched a hole through the wall between the C and the B rings. Everything else was all in fragments: the landing gear, the engine rotors, wires, aluminum.

Taken from the ABC News live coverage of 9/11.

Undicisettembre: How long had you been working at the Pentagon after the attack?

William Toti: I worked at the Pentagon for another year. Initially while I was managing the recovery effort, I made my office in a copy machine closet near the destroyed area. There was still all kinds of debris, dust, soot on the floor, so that was really stupid place to work out of because I suffer to this day from lung problems. That was the only room I could use because the other office doors were locked and I could not open them using the keypads because there was no electricity. The only room I found unlocked was that closet. I dragged a desk in there, used an extension cord for electricity, then got a computer and a phone working, and I worked there for six weeks overseeing the recovery effort.

I was angry, I wanted revenge: my friends had been killed. I was lucky to be alive, so I was going to do whatever I could to get us back in the fight. But after six weeks working seven days a week, I couldn't do it anymore, I was exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically. I had this bad cough, I had a lung infection, they were treating me with intravenous antibiotics because they thought I had anthrax. They assumed maybe the terrorists had brought anthrax onboard the plane, but my problem was actually regular pneumonia. I started to fail physically, so I created a new job for me: I recommended that we stand up a war plans cell for the Chief of the Navy. Normally the chief of the navy doesn't have war planning staff because it's done by the Combatant Commander in Tampa, Florida. But my point was "What is he supposed to do? The joint chiefs have to approve war plans that somebody else prepares. Is he just going to rubber stamp the plan, or does he want to actually evaluate the plan?" So we created a staff that we called Deep Blue tasked with evaluating the war plans, and I was named the first deputy director.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life even today?

William Toti: Well, for the first fifteen years or so, I thought about it every day. Two vivid memories stand out for me. The first one would be the noise of that boom resonating down the hallway. The second was the image of the hole and the fire as I came around the building.

Even these days, when I look at what is going on in Israel, I know that can happen here again. I am heartbroken by kids who weren't even born then who read a letter by Osama bin Laden on TikTok and they are too stupid to understand that is totally a nonsense or they are too ignorant to understand that the whole dynamic of people wanting to kill us is not over yet. There are still people who want to kill us.

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