The Pentagon, September 11

Interview with Firefighter Tomi Rucker

I'm a firefighter with the District of Columbia Fire Department, where I've worked since February of 1996. I grew up in D.C., went to St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, North Carolina, and worked as a corrections officer prior to joining the fire department.

On September 11, I was working at our department's training academy, where I was assigned as a fitness instructor. We got word that the World Trade Center towers had been hit, and we were watching it on television when we heard this huge explosion. Pretty quickly after that, they started dispatching units. And these big military planes with the guns hanging off were flying overhead; we said, "It's on: we're under attack."

Engine 34 is a reserve piece that's kept at the training academy, and we were one of the units dispatched to the Pentagon, shortly after 10 a.m. There were seven people on the crew, all of them officers except me, and I was the only woman. The academy is about six miles away from the Pentagon, and even from there, you could see the black smoke going up. We headed out, and everyone was trying to put their gear on at the same time they were on their cell phones trying to call home, to call the schools and make sure their kids were okay. But the phone lines weren't working, and there was no way of communicating.

Traffic was awful: everyone was trying to get out of D.C. We kept hearing rumors: "They're on their way to the White House!" "A bomb went off at the Defense Department!" People along the sides of the streets were running; it looked like something off one of those movies, like "Independence Day" or something. Everyone was nervous, scared: they had fear on their faces. People in cars were jam-packed in traffic going nowhere. Normally, it would have taken us about five minutes to get to the Pentagon running red lights and siren; with all the traffic, I think it took us fifteen to twenty.

As soon as we got on the scene, the Secret Service ran up to us and told us to find as many body bags as we could. We thought, "Oh, my God, this is real!" And actually, the Secret Service man called me by my name: "Hey, Rucker, we need body bags." How did he know who I was? I wasn't wearing a name tag. I thought, "This is some heightened security here!"

We got whatever we could from our EMS units for bodies and body parts -- Level A suits, whatever we could use. Then we went back to our engine, pulled off the 3" hose and ran towards the fire. Just as soon as we did that, they told us we had to evacuate, because there was another plane on the way. But we'd gotten all of this hose, we were just trying to run to get there with it, get geared up and go in, so we did.

When we got into the building, we started to feel the heat right away, and as we walked deeper down the hallways, it got hotter and hotter. It was just fire everywhere: not so much smoke, but just fire all around us. You couldn't see the plane, just debris wherever you looked. We'd put water on it, but it would come right back up. We were probably in there 20-25 minutes before they took us out and sent other crews in. After that, we worked outside, doing SCBA changes and other support tasks.

People on the scene were angry. Actually, it was a whole host of emotions: angry, scared, confused. We knew about the firefighters in New York, we couldn't accept how many must have died, but we knew from seeing it on TV they had to be dead. I remember thinking, "How much hatred could a person have for this country that they could do something like this?"

Then you start thinking retaliation. We've got to get these people back for this. At that point, we really weren't sure who had initiated the attack. We were still trying to make ourselves believe that it had really happened. Was it really an accident? The media tells you a lot of things, and you don't know what to believe.

I eventually got a chance to call my son's school, but of course all I got was a recording. I was fortunate that my son's father, who is a police officer, thought to go pick him up and get him taken care of. Once I found that out, I was fine.

We were gone for 24 hours. We got to the Pentagon around 10:30 or so in the morning, and didn't leave until 6 that evening. We were sent to the D.C. convention center, which they'd turned into a housing area for fire personnel. They had those Army cots, and we had to stay there and eat Army food. It was a terrible thing.

I was still in my physical training clothes and completely sweaty -- I had just finished running 6 miles when the call came in. I had no toothbrush, no soap, and there were no showers: I was functified. I wrapped up in a blanket and just hoped nobody could smell me.

Women from Arlington County and Alexandria and Fairfax County were also working at the scene. We had at least 20 DCFD women there; I was the only woman from DC I know of that actually got inside to fight fire. We had one female officer, Lt. Brenda Fitzsimmons, who was working with one of the chiefs on incident command.

With these military people running around with these Ouzis or whatever they are, it was like Beirut or something. I was like, "This is crazy, this is America!" It was like some other country, with all these huge guns I don't even know the names for. It was like it wasn't even in America. They had these weapons out, with their hands on them. And seeing this became common after a while.

We went home, but you really didn't sleep: everybody in your family's calling and making sure you're okay, and you have to reassure them that things are fine. I talked a lot with my son, who is ten. He was worried whether there was going to be a war and everybody was going to die. He saw we were under attack, and wondered if it was going to get worse. I tried to reassuring him that we have a really strong fighting force, and we were going to be okay.

He goes to a school in the same area as the kids who were killed on one of the planes. That made me realize that this isn't outside of us. This is us.

In the aftermath of September 11, I've come to see how much I took everything for granted before, especially our freedom. I did grow up during the 60's and had parents out fighting for our rights, but I just took it all for granted. Now since 9/11 nothing is the same. Even going to the airport isn't the same. Whatever you have, you have to appreciate. Because as bad as it was, it could have been worse. Now, you don't know when the next attack is going to be, or where it's going to be, or how it's going to be. You've got to take what you have and make it work.

Copyright © 2002 Women in the Fire Service, Inc.




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