Richmond, Virginia: 11:07am EDT
“This is Calvin Jones, traffic reporter for WJLA-TV in Washington, DC. We are broadcasting live from a temporary hookup here in Richmond at ABC affiliate WRIC-TV to give you an idea of what happened just one half hour ago. All I can tell you is that we are lucky to be alive. Our pilot's injuries are severe, but he pulled us through. It was the most horrific thing I've ever experienced.” Calvin's face still had shock embedded on it. His left arm was bandaged and in a sling. He was more animated than usual. This was big time. He was on national TV.
“We were on the West Beltway, five miles south of Bethesda , investigating a four-car pileup that was backing traffic up all the way to McLean--when it happened. There appeared a brilliant white flash to my left. Al, our pilot, screamed in pain and I felt the heat too. It was as if a torch had cut into my right arm, then disappeared. We veered to the right as Al struggled to regain control of our chopper. Somehow, he managed, and aimed us southwest toward Manassas. His instincts had took over and we were cruising at about 120 knots southwest for about three minutes when it hit. I felt the tail of our helicopter being lifted as if by some mighty hand. There was a jolt so strong that it threw me back into the seat and headrest, then pushed me forward into my harness with such force that it cut into my shoulders. We were tumbling! Jerky footage the cameraman had taken in the background at the time bore witness to what he was saying.
Somehow--I don't know how--Al pulled her out. He was still screaming in pain as he brought her to level flight through the dust kicked up by the shock wave we had just experienced. We flew on through unimaginable destruction. So many buildings flattened. So many people running in panic. I've never seen anything like it! …They’re all dead!” He started losing it. Thoughts of all his friends in the city crowded in. Overcome by what he was thinking, Jones put down the microphone for a moment, shaking uncontrollably--and cried. George Sharp, the local Richmond anchor for WRIC, took the mike from him and began to fill in a description of the remarkable footage being shown.
“There you have it. The eyewitness account of their survival from our colleagues at affiliate WJLA-TV. It is just one of many stories coming out of the blast area. We will bring them to you as they unfold. Back to ABC in New York.”
The Potomac Bottoms
Sgt. Marty Hamilton, Lt. Derek Granger, Pvt. 1st Class. John Post, and Pvt. Randy Smithson were on maneuvers in their Abrams M1A2 SEP Tank with the 29th Infantry Division across the river from Fort Belvoir when the bomb hit. Unlike many their buddies in jeeps, Hummers, Bradleys, and on foot, they were in a strong and highly defendable vehicle with NBC. They were also just far enough away to escape the initial deadly effects of the blast.
They were running down a gully about thirty miles an hour, kicking up dust when it hit. “What the hell was that!” Marty, the driver, yelled as the flash blinded his DID (integrated display), penetrated every other opening to outside view, and lit up the interior with a dull yellow glow.
Before Derek, the commander, could answer, radiant heat penetrated the tank's steel, depleted uranium, and ceramic walls--and their bodies, making it very uncomfortable. “Man, I think it was a nuke! If it was, we'd better get the hell out of here!” The Abrams was already going as fast as it could go in that terrain, so it didn't seem to matter what Derek said--they knew they were in for it. They didn't have long to wait. Derek tried to communicate with operations command, but the channels were jammed by electrical interference. They braced for the inevitable.
If they hadn't been in the gully, they might not have survived. Still, the shock wave caught them from the side and flipped the tank over a couple of times before it landed on its tracks still moving in the direction it had been heading. They were strapped in their positions. Marty in the driver's seat, Derek monitoring the CITV system, John manning the guns for the drill they had been running, and Randy in his loader’s seat.
The fire suppression system triggered. Derek turned it off as soon as it came on. Still, they choked until the fans cleared the air.
“Is everybody okay?” Randy yelled as dust rose in the still lit interior of the Abrams. “Poor bastards.” He muttered under his breath as he thought of the others caught out in that hell. He didn’t expect any of them to be alive.
“I'm OK, but the CITV system seems to have gone haywire--what I can see of it!” The pitch of Derek’s voice was significantly higher as he tried to recover from what had happened. “The IVIS isn’t picking up anything either. Guess they didn’t make it.” He was referring to the other two tanks, commanded by Col. Mathers and Lt. Dickinson.
“She’s still running, but I can't see a damn thing. We took one hell of a hit, didn't we?” Marty drove on blind as the others acknowledged. Unable to see, he slowed noticeably. “Can you give me any help here, Derek?”
“The radar and GPS are still working. The thermals are all out. We may not sense some small objects, but I think I can guide us out of here, once I figure out what is the best way to go.”
"Well, you had better figure it out soon, because I'm starting to run over some pretty big stuff already.”
Randy dragged out the radiation hazard suits and they put them on. The air conditioning was running full blast, but it could barely keep ahead of the heat outside. The suits didn't help that situation. They didn't know how much radiation they'd received, but the suits could help them now. Thank goodness the filtration system was working, protecting them too.
With Derek giving directions, Marty felt his way along, often having to back up to get around obstacles. After about an hour of this, the wind started to clear the dust and smoke away, so that Marty could see to drive.
They headed southeast, away from the river. Everywhere, buildings were torn apart and burning. They didn't see anything alive or moving. Only the hulks of burned out cars that may have, at one time, held passengers. They were indeed lucky to be alive. Marty found a road that they took east. Occasionally they came upon a car turned over near the road that they assumed had been on it. Except for dust and debris, the road was mostly clear, so they made good time, over 40 mph, until they began to see the shapes of familiar buildings and trees, broken and charred, but still recognizable. Arriving at Maryland 210, they turned right and continued south. They were still in mortal danger, so, with Derek's direction, Marty pushed on.
They had been underway for about an hour and forty minutes, that seemed like hours, and were in danger of running out of fuel, when they began to see green fields and trees. Buildings had damage and their windows were blown out, but they were still standing. The scene was eerie and calm in the midday sun. They were the only ones moving. The only cars they saw were abandoned by the road or parked by buildings. Finally, nearly out of fuel, Marty pulled into a little country convenience store gas stop, right up to the diesel pump. The windows of the storefront were blown out and the door was open, so it was easy for them to enter and release the pump.
Derek and Randy raided the shelves for bottled water and other supplies, while Marty filled up the 250 gallon tanks outside. The Browning had been completely torn off when they rolled over. The M240s were all bent up and the M256 smooth bore was bent, rendering it useless. There was nothing more dreadful than an impotent tank. Marty hoped that they weren’t at war. In their suits, they looked like aliens from outer space, raiding a deserted store--just like in the movies.
Except for the damage to buildings and the absence of anything moving, the scene seemed almost normal--peaceful. They knew better than to try to take off their suits. Before they left, a mournful wining could be heard coming from the back of the store. Derek went around to look. A German Shepherd, probably used as a guard dog in the store, was chained and lying in a doghouse. As much as Derek wanted to take him with them, he couldn't. He didn't know how contaminated the dog was, or how long it had yet to live. In 15 minutes, with full fuel tanks, they were back on the road. With the tubines wound up, they barreled full bore down the middle of deserted 210 toward safety.
Finally, with the Sun slanting into Marty's irritated and tired eyes, he could make out a roadblock in the distance at the Potomac bridge. He saw people moving by it, and knew they were safe. By nightfall, they had joined the 80th Division from Richmond, Va. And were out controlling traffic. A stream of military vehicles left the U.S. Army Transportation Corps at Fort Eustis to join them. They were sick and tired, but they didn’t have the luxury of sleep or mourning.
The Bunker at the Pentagon
They were the lucky ones. Colonel James Forsythe and his staff, assigned to the bunker when it hit. They were going through a readiness routine that had been changed a hundred times since the bunker was installed to defend against nuclear attack in the 1950s. The command now depended upon satellites and GEO positioning, the Internet, and hundreds of other logistical techniques unheard of when the bunker was first built. It still contained the standard three months supply of water, food, and medical essentials for a long stay under nuclear threat. There had been some problems with the infrastructure and systems. Budget cuts and other priorities had not kept the bunker in tiptop condition. Fortunately, the 911 disaster pumped new funds into the security of the Pentagon. Readiness was better than it had been in 20 years.
The room shook--hard. Everyone was knocked off their feet. The lights went out. The computers blinked. Bathed in the soft glow of emergency lighting, dust rolled up from the floor and trickled from the ceiling. It could have been an earthquake. It wasn't. Everyone knew what it was. Amid the alarms blaring, the computers were telling the tale. Above them, the Pentagon was gone. Recovering from the initial shock of it, one by one, they turned off the alarms. Except for the universal, “Oh! Shit!” and occasional, “Damn!” Everyone was silent. As the alarms died out, they turned to Colonel Forsythe for help. The Colonel spoke:
“Well, they finally did it! The bastards dropped the bomb! I never thought I'd see the day. I thought I'd go off to my retirement and never have to go through this stupid routine again. But, based on what I just felt and the computers say, I'd say that 30 ft. above us, the Brass are gone. It's up to us now to help keep our military forces pulling together and strong. But, first things first. We've got to save ourselves. I know we've been through a hundred times, but this old hole may have some leaks, some problems that we had better overcome, or we’re doomed. You know what to do. Let's get busy before we all start dying of radiation poisoning.”
All 15 people in the room went different directions to their work assignments. Air Quality Specialist First-class Gregory Samuelson checked the monitors and determined that the air in the bunker was still free of radiation. Apparently all the dust kicked up by the blast was internal and not affected by radiation from it. They would have to breathe this air refiltered for several days until they could attempt to get outside air into the chamber. Quartermaster Cheryl Stoddard reported that the food and water supplies were undamaged and could last them six months with rationing. There was no immediate danger. Only the creepy feeling that each of them had, that they could die there, alone and trapped.
Forsythe and two Communication officers were huddled over the communication console trying to determine what ability they still had to communicate. The deep wire system, installed in the 1950s, was still intact, but the points where it surfaced were knocked out. Only long wave radio, beamed through the ceiling, was working. Through the static, Forsythe attempted to make contact with military bases. He had limited success. The people he contacted knew as little as he did in the first hour or so. except for automatic military emergency preparedness protocol, nothing was coming from the Commander in Chief. Forsythe assumed that the President was dead, and, with the Brass decimated too, that it would be a while before there was clear leadership again. For now, his command was isolated. When things cooled down, they would attempt to raise antennas through tubes specially designed for that purpose. In the meantime, they would have to rely on the long wave.
Two days later.
“Boomerang, do you copy? This is Big House calling, do you copy?”
Through the static, a faint voice was heard, “This is Boomerang. We’re mighty glad to hear from ya. As you already know, D.C.'s been wiped out. The good news is it was only D.C. Are you guys all right?”
“Big House is in order. We are proceeding with Code 4-B. This old shack is operating as designed and we're very happy that it is. What intelligence can you give us?” Forsythe and the crew were glad that they were finally talking to NORAD Command.
“It's as bad as you could imagine. The President's dead. The whole damn Congress is dead. The Vice President is it is in charge, and she's doing a fine job so far. It's only D.C.--as far as we can tell. We haven’t heard anything from anyone as to who caused it or why. The rest of the country is intact, but in shock. We have been on alert since it happened. So far we've had no hard targets and just remain on alert. . We'll get you guys out, but it will take time. It's too hot to go in any time soon.”
Jim Forsythe didn’t tell the others, but he spent some of the waiting time contemplating his fate. Two stretches in Nam, exemplary service in Panama, Geneda, and Desert Storm, a Silver Star and a raft of distinguished service medals had all come to this—being trapped under a nuclear inferno during the greatest crisis his country had ever known.
How could they—he—have been so stupid. In a nuclear direct hit, a bunker under the Pentagon was as useless as a tit on a boar. No Brass were safe here with him. Even if they were—what could they do? That question burned a hole in him as he secretly fumed and waited. Divorced and 56, with no children, the Army had been his life. Now he had to wait and try to keep everyone’s spirits up until they were rescued or broke out.