Inside the Pentagon's 9/11 Nightmare

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A rescue helicopter surveys the damage to the Pentagon as fire fighters battle flames after a hijacked airplane crashed into the U.S. military headquarters outside of Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Updated | In our collective memory of 9/11, certain images predominate: Airliners slicing through a blue sky into the World Trade Center, people jumping from the uppermost floors and, of course, the immense buildings crumbling in a smoky heap of concrete, glass and steel with about 2,500 souls inside. In some of the most poignant images, rescue crews and medical teams wait vainly for survivors.

The nearly simultaneous attack on the Pentagon usually gets far less attention, for obvious reasons: the relatively few casualties (184, including the 54 passengers and crew of the hijacked airliner flown into the building) and the absence of comparatively dramatic TV footage that unfolded in real time from lower Manhattan.

But there's another reason, as 9/11 Inside the Pentagon, a dramatic new PBS documentary marking the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, suggests: With a belly full of jet fuel, American Airlines Flight 77 penetrated three rings deep into the Pentagon offices. Most of the damage–and ensuing drama–was inside the building, out of view. The long-distance TV shots of a large, fiery cavity and clouds of thick black smoke billowing out of and over the iconic building only hinted at the scope of the carnage. "When people are looking at the building on television cameras, that gash looks quite small," Steve Vogel, a Washington Post reporter who rushed to the scene, recalls in the fast-moving one-hour film. "Looks almost like a pinprick," he says. In reality, the swath of destruction inside was "equivalent to a large shopping mall."

Like the best of such documentaries, 9/11 Inside the Pentagon (which debuts on September 6) assembles a "cast" of key participants and re-enactments to unpack the story. There will be few surprises for viewers familiar with the tragedy. But some of its anecdotes, narrated by survivors in a gripping tick-tock pace, still have the ability to shock: the calf-deep pools of jet fuel, which one woman mistakes for water and uses to cool her face in the opaque, smoke-filled corridor; the soldier in an office packed with desperate workers who repeatedly hurls a printer at one of the bomb-proof windows shielding the building, hoping to open an escape route; the plumbers and electricians who, warned that another hijacked airliner is heading toward them, refused to leave the building until they fixed the plunging water pressure.

Some critics may fault veteran filmmaker Kirk Wolfinger (Cold Case JFK, The Nazi Attack on America) for raking over the ruins without finding a bombshell, but his loving tribute to the survivors, the rescue workers and, of course, the dead, is plenty.

And it has an added bonus: A tour of online websites devoted to the Pentagon attack finds plenty of truthers insinuating that it was an "inside job," or that a missile, not Flight 77, struck the building. 9/11 Inside the Pentagon should serve as a strong, documented rebuke, but of course in such paranoid quarters, it probably won't."

Correction: A previous version of this story credited both Kirk and Lisa Wolfinger as the filmmakers of 9/11 Inside the Pentagon. Kirk Wolfinger is the sole executive producer.