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Episcopal chaplains respond to Pentagon disaster

[Episcopal News Service]  Navy Chaplain Jay Magness was attending a meeting at the Pentagon when the airplane hit the building and he quickly went to the site to offer his ministry. Soon after the crash he was joined by CDR Charles Neal Goldsborough, a Navy Reserve chaplain and rector St. Luke's in nearby Arlington, and the Rev. Marcel Algernon, an active duty Air Force chaplain from South Carolina. Magness reflects on his involvement.

When I worked on the staff of the Navy Chief of Chaplains in Washington in any given week I would be in the Pentagon 3-5 times. Now since I am in Norfolk on the U.S. Atlantic Fleet staff I only get to the Pentagon about once a year for a conference of Joint Command chaplains.

Well, last week was my week to be there. In the Pentagon last Tuesday morning at 9:40 a.m. people out in the hall began yelling to evacuate the building. I thought it probably was a bomb threat.

We exited out into the North Parking area. About 100 yards out of the building people began to turn around and point up in the air at a plume of smoke coming from about a third of the way around the building. At that point I still thought it was a bomb. Only later did someone tell me that a plane had crashed into the building.

Though it was a tense time for me and my chaplain colleagues there at the conference, it was also fortunate that we were there.

We immediately began to stage ourselves with the medical treatment stations to help take care of the injured. Over the next 4-5 hours we cared for about 35-40 people who experienced various types of wounds. Almost all of the people were burned, some rather severely. We transported them to the hospitals using any available type of vehicle. We found that a mini-van can serve as a pretty good make-do ambulance.

My ministry consisted of a great deal of 'arm about the shoulders' work and keeping victims talking so that they would be able to resist going into shock. I can't say how valuable it was to have a good cellular phone with a full battery. Not only was I able to connect with the anxious family members of the injured, also the rescue workers and medical treatment personnel frequently needed to call home and tell someone (usually a spouse, son or daughter) they were okay.

On a number of occasions we tried to re-enter into the building to rescue people, but the intense fire continually drove us back. The heroic firefighters tried and tried to get the fires out, but they just couldn't seem to effectively douse the flames on Tuesday. I suspect that there was too much combustible fuel available. In fact we did go into the Pentagon inner courtyard for about 2-3 hours, but all that enabled us to do was eat a lot of smoke. Time and time again we gathered as teams to go into the damaged area, but could not gain entry because of the enduring fires.

At around 2:30 p.m. we moved the medical treatment function to a location outside of the Pentagon immediately adjacent to external wall impacted by the aircraft. When I first saw the damage all I could do was stand there and stare. I could not believe what I was seeing. After an hour or so in the new location we realized that there was nothing else we could do.

Three of us from Christian sacramental traditions (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal) had organized ourselves to receive bodies in the temporary morgue. Though we spent that last on-scene hour waiting for more bodies to be brought out, the persistent fire brought all such removal efforts to a standstill. Aside from that, a number of local military chaplains had massed up on the scene and were ready to take over for us.

By 4:00 p.m. I left the area to return to my hotel, check out and get on the road south to Norfolk. Even that was not without its problems. I was staying in the Sheraton atop the hill above the Arlington (Navy) Annex. Until about 5:00 p.m. the Arlington Police had the upper floors closed. The reason for that never was clear to me. It had something to do with the fact that the hijacked airliner had to nearly skim the top of the hotel building in order to fly low enough so it could hit the Pentagon.

At about 6:00 p.m. I got into my car and left town headed back to Norfolk. Though I didn't get home until about midnight, it was worth it. I needed to get to my office early the next day to begin to play my part of the unfolding operational plans.

Right now, after six days of reflection, I struggle with what our response ought to be to this tragic, unnecessary and basically evil action. As a Christian believer the concepts of justice and peace swirl around in my mind. Obviously, in accordance with New Testament scriptures we are called to be peace-makers and peace-builders. How can we perform those functions while persons inspired by religiously based righteous indignation are moving about within the societies of the free world with a mandate to create terror through mass murder? Will our understanding of Christian moral theology allow for such a thing as retributive justice? How will we ensure that through some form of social defense we protect innocent citizens?