By Steven Donald Smith
WASHINGTON, Sep. 6, 2006 – When Jose Rojas went to pull a badly burned woman from a Pentagon window after Islamic extremists drove a commercial airliner headlong into the building, her skin came off in his hands. "I had to actually take my fingernails and dig into her flesh with her crying and screaming to get her out of the window," Rojas said, describing his efforts to help the victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Rojas, 43, a police officer with the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the successor of the Defense Protective Service, was working that fateful morning at the Pentagon's remote delivery facility, where packages get inspected before entering the building.
A driver making a delivery asked the officers on duty if they had heard that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City. Rojas, his supervisor and two other officers immediately went into an adjacent office and turned on the television. They watched in disbelief as they learned that a second plane had also crashed into the trade center. "We all just looked at each other and said, 'We're next,'" Rojas recalled.
As he was about to exit the office to start spreading the word of what had happened in New York, the ground shook beneath his feet. "When I stepped out of the door, all I could see was a big mushroom ball of flames going up into the air," he said.
Rojas immediately ran toward the flames. What he witnessed when arrived near the crash site will haunt him for the rest of his life, he said. "This one guy was just holding his eye in his hand," he said.
The scene was chaotic. People were clamoring to get out of the building as fast as possible, many through windows. "I said to a bunch of people standing there, 'Let's see if we can get some of these people out," Rojas said. He went to a ground-floor window and began yelling for people to come toward his voice. "People just started appearing out of the thick, black smoke," he said.
The first person he encountered at the window was the lady whose skin came off in his hands. Rojas, who had once been a fireman in his native U.S. Virgin Islands, said the severity of her burns surprised him. "I've seen burnt bodies," he said, "but this was bad."
He carried the woman away from the building and then ran back to the window, where he started pulling others to safety. "I was just trying get out as many as I could," he said.
Everything that followed the crash seemed to happen in slow motion, Rojas said, yet the details about the people he encountered throughout the day are lost to his memory. "I can't really remember any faces," he said.
When the fire department arrived, Rojas explained to them that he had been a fireman and asked if they wanted him to suit up. "I think they knew the building was getting ready to collapse, so they told us to get everybody back," he said.
A renovation project had recently been completed near the crash site, and numerous propane cylinders used for the project were still sitting in a fenced-in area, he said. When flames reached the tanks they began to explode. "These tanks were just shooting off up in the air. Poof! They were landing all over the place," he said.
Rojas stayed at the Pentagon until 2 a.m. Sept. 12. When he finally did go home, he said, he took a quick shower, briefly chatted with his wife and kids, and then went back to work.
"I was angry. Angry is being mild," he said. "My thing was, 'How dare they hit our house?' When we're on duty this is what we swore to protect."
His seething anger began to dissipate over time as he was heartened to see the country pull together. "I feel 9/11 brought the country a lot closer together," he said, "especially people."
Rojas said he and his fellow police officers were not well prepared to respond to this type of terrorist attack. "That was something never conceived," he said.
He said the force's procedures and training have improved drastically, and the agency has grown by several hundred officers since the attack. "Our officers are better prepared to deal with a major catastrophe. Training is 100 percent better now," he said.
Pentagon police officers now receive various specialty training, including counter-weapons of mass destruction training. "When the anthrax scare started, I was part of a three-man team that actually started (our) chemical, radiological, biological and nuclear unit," Rojas said. "We started the hazmat team where we'd actually go around sampling."
In addition, Rojas said PFPA's interaction with other federal agencies, like the FBI, is also now much better.
"It's tremendous the amount of respect the Pentagon police department and the agency as a whole gets now with other agencies. We didn't have this before," he said. "It makes me very proud."