'The Pentagon Goes to War': National Military Command Center

A look at 9/11 at the Pentagon's National Military Command Center.

by Bill Hemmer, Barbara Starr
CNN American Morning With Paula Zahn
September 4, 2002


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: It will be a year ago next week when we all watched with horror as the events of 9/11 unfolded in front of us. But inside the Pentagon, this war, the United States, just beginning now, under attack, and the job of the military was to find out what was going on and then respond.

All week, our correspondent at the Pentagon Barbara Starr in her series "The Pentagon Goes to War" -- she has been focusing on the events and the people that have driven the Pentagon since 9/11. Today, Barbara has a rare look at what actually went on during those horrifying hours beneath the building, actually, at a very secure location.

Good morning to you.


At the very heart of the Pentagon is the National Military Command Center, a very secure facility. We were able to get a rare look inside and exclusive access to the NMCC logbook, and an equally exclusive interview with the man who was in the hot seat that morning.


STARR (voice-over): September 11 began as a routine day inside the National Military Command Center. The world appeared quiet -- then the world changed.

GEN. MONTAGUE WINFIELD, NATIONAL MILITARY COMMAND CENTER: We realized that the seemingly unrelated hijackings that the FAA was tracking were actually a part of a coordinated terrorist attack against the United States.

STARR: Brigadier General Montague Winfield was in command of the military's worldwide nerve center that morning, the center's logbook a record of the opening moments of the war: 8:48, first plane hits the World Trade Center; 9:02, second explosion at the World Trade Center; at 9:38, American Airlines Flight 77 slams into the Pentagon.

The Command Center is on the other side of the massive building. Winfield and his staff never feel the impact. They see the flames on television as alarms go off inside. Smoke soon reaches the Command Center. Still, the Command Center remains icy calm. Winfield is running a secure phone call with the White House, the FAA, and the North American Air Defense Command, NORAD.

WINFIELD: NORAD ordered all aircraft to battle stations and combat ready. It was like hitting a hornet's nest with a stick.

STARR: It is now 9:40, and one very big problem is out there: United Airlines Flight 93 has turned off its transponder. Officials believe it is headed for Washington, D.C.

WINFIELD: That is almost the exact same scenario that the other three hijackings had followed.

STARR: Fighter aircraft begin searching frantically. On a secure phone line, Vice President Cheney tells the military it has permission to shoot down any airliners threatening Washington.

WINFIELD: If you can imagine for a split second or two there was complete silence in the NMCC as the impact of those words sunk in.

STARR: Minutes later, the wreckage of Flight 93 is spotted in Pennsylvania. 10:10, all U.S. military forces ordered to Condition Delta, highest level. 10:30, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld enters the National Military Command Center. There are new worries.

WINFIELD: We received some reports to make us concerned the security of air force one was in question.

STARR: Fighters are sent to escort the president's plane. 1:50, NORAD reports its has 20 fighters over United States.

Still, it was the order to be ready to shoot down a civilian plane that was the most unsettling moment.

WINFIELD: That was pretty tough. To just think about that makes me -- it runs a chill down my spine, if you will.

STARR: Twenty hours after coming to work on September 11, General Winfield went home. The war on terrorism had begun.


And Bill, what was really the most remarkable on this day when the building had been attacked, when America was under attack, these men and women in the Command Center remained icy calm and went about their business and did their job.

HEMMER: I can't believe they didn't feel the impact.

STARR: The Pentagon is a huge building; it covers many, many acres. On their side, they didn't feel it. On the other side of the building, ground zero.

HEMMER: And as you say, this was personal for so many of them down there.

STARR: It really was.

HEMMER: Thank you, Barbara. Good series. We'll see you again tomorrow when Barbara Starr's series continues, here on AMERICAN MORNING, a look at the skies over America -- that is on Thursday, tomorrow morning.

Copyright 2002 CNN

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