Escape From Hell
Fort Myer, Virginia, five days after.
“Marty, wake-up. Marty, it's me Randy. Wake-up. C'mon, man!”
Marty Hamilton was trapped in a box. The walls were closing in. It was more like a coffin. Radiation was out there and it was seeping in. He could hear someone calling in the distance. He hoped it was help to get him out before the walls closed in. He heeded the call, “Ahh ... ahh ... Randy. Wha … What's happening?”
“You've been asleep for 15 hours! It's nearly noon! We've got orders to move out. The Commandant has assigned us a special top-secret mission. Don't know all the details yet. We are to meet in his office at 13:00. Better get your act together and some food down. We may have a long day ahead of us.”
Marty rose from his bunk feeling 10 years older than he had a week before. He was still tired to the bone and every muscle ached of it. But he was a career soldier and knew his duty. Nothing would keep him from it. It had been a horrendous five days since they miraculously escaped the blast. They had engaged in many rescues of people calling on cell phones from their homes in the vicinity of the blast. They had seen the burns and the anguish on the faces of those they had rescued. It was a living nightmare. As soon as they checked out as being okay at the river, they drove the Abrams to Fort Eustis. After a short debriefing, they were reassigned to Fort Myer and the rescue missions they undertook for four days nonstop. The first day was very difficult because of all the vehicles escaping the blast area. They had to use the shoulders and ditches of the road many times on the way to Fort Myer. So many vehicles were disabled or damaged and they kept breaking down and blocking traffic behind them. After the first day, wreckers cleared out most of those cars. But the calls kept coming—anguished and haunting--the legacy the bomb left. Finally, the evening before, when they brought in a couple that had survived in their basement with their badly burned dog, the surgeon in charge of Triage 49 had seen them stumbling and ordered them to get some rest.
Freshly showered, shaved, and with a pint of beer and the camp chef's special resting nicely in his gut, Marty felt a lot better when he joined the others in the Commandant's office precisely at 13:00 hours.
The Commandant was brief. He too, showed signs of the stress of five days of effort without sleep or respite. “Gentleman, I've called you here because I've heard that you escaped the blast and still had the courage to continue with our search and rescue operation. I'd like to say that I've called you here to give you medals for your valor and courage, but I can't do that just now. Because of your experience and your knowledge of the D.C. area, I've chosen you to conduct a very special, top-secret rescue mission for the Army.”
“Your mission is a very difficult and dangerous one. If you choose not to volunteer, I will understand. There are many who are willing to step in and take your place. We have prepared a special Abrams tank. In some ways it's similar to the one you're familiar with, in some ways it's not. It has a built-in air supply that will last twenty hours, and extensive radiation and air filtering capability far beyond the version you currently drive. The tank will pull a specially constructed trailer that is designed to carry twenty people. The trailer has the same air supply, filtering, and radiation protection as the tank.”
“There are fifteen people trapped in a bunker beneath where the Pentagon used to be. The prevailing westerlies have blown most of the airborne radiation out to sea. The heat of the blast, and subsequent fires quickly consumed all of the fuel and oxygen in the vicinity. Infrared readings from our satellites suggest that the area has cooled sufficiently for vehicles to enter. We have made contact through long wave. They are attempting to establish an antenna so that they can communicate more directly with us. There are three escape towers leading from the bunker. We have the plans and the specific GPS position of each of the escape towers. From below, the people trapped will attempt to free one of the towers so that you can pick them up. Timing is critical, because I want everyone to receive as little radiation as possible. Just the dust that you kick up going in could contain lethal doses. Everything has to work according to plan if we are going to succeed. Do I have your willingness to volunteer for this mission?”
Everyone replied, “Yes, Sir!”, in unison, and saluted. Marty was the first to speak. “Sir, when do we begin?”
“Just as soon as we get that trailer outfitted, you can proceed to the Hot Zone. After that, you'll wait until we've established which of the three escape towers they plan to use. Your equipment is under guard in Garage 34. I suggest you go examine it and help prepare the trailer for your mission.” With that said, the Commandant saluted his volunteers and left the room. Marty hoped that he was going to catch some sleep.
The bunker under the destroyed Pentagon
Colonel James Forsythe and his crew got the word that they had been waiting for. It was only the day before that Communications Specialist First-class John Briscoe had managed to force a tube nearly to the surface without compromising their airspace. An antenna inserted in that tube had brought them the first clear communication since they were trapped. A cheer went up when Forsythe began talking to the Commandant at Fort Myer and making plans for their escape. An escape plan had been worked out and tested before. But it never had been tried under conditions as real as this. It would take every bit of the day they had to prepare.
The three escape towers were widely separated. There were tunnels that led to each one. The towers were rather simple, about three feet in diameter, containing a welded steel ladder on one side, and CO2 and air tubes on the other. The tubes were constructed in fifteen-foot sections, bolted together. Every fifteen feet there was a hatch that could be manually opened from either side. The hatches were lead lined and sealed so that little or no radiation could get past them from above. Sensors built into the tubes at various levels indicated status, primarily temperature and radiation. From the time of the bomb blast onward, the southwestern tower showed the most promise. It emerged at the base of a gully about a half-mile from the Pentagon. From the beginning, only the top two sections were affected by heat and radiation. The northern and northeastern towers were more damaged, showing radiation reaching four sections below the surface. The northern tower was built before the Beltway and emerged very near it. The northeastern tower had also been built over, and emerged near a small shopping center. Forsythe decided to concentrate their efforts on the southwestern escape tower.
Jim Forsythe called radiation officers Lt.George Michels and Corporal Tom Roosevelt into his office. He wasted no time. “OK guys, your time has come. I've selected the southwestern tower as the most likely route out of here. I don't want you in there more than two hours at a time. You'll go through the decontamination process as many times it takes to get the job done right, … all right?” The two men nodded in agreement. They were as eager to get out as their commander.
“The top section appears be exposed to the surface. Radiation readings are high and it may be filled with radioactive debris. The temperature appears to be only 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The second section has lower radiation readings and a 125-degree temperature. You have to do some repairs there. Good luck. Keep me posted on your progress.”
George and Tom left the office and proceeded immediately to their task. After walking the half-mile to the containment room at the base of the tower, they donned their radiation suits, gathered their tools, and began climbing, one section at a time. With the suits on and the heavy gear they were carrying, it was slow going, especially since they had to open each hatch. They were grateful that the towers had received maintenance after 9/11. The hatch screws operated smoothly and the hatches opened easily with their newly replaced seals. There were seven sections to the top of the tower. While the men were only concerned with the last two, they carefully closed each hatch behind them at each section and made sure they checked the radiation levels on the other side before they opened any hatch door. Any mistake now could create a danger for the others. Just as they expected, the door at the 75th foot level was hot. Opening valves in the piping, they flooded that chamber with fresh air, a spring valve inside the chamber was forced open by the pressure, and any radiated air or debris would be forced out an exhaust tube. It worked. The next readings they took showed that the chamber radiation and temperature were acceptable levels. They opened the hatch.
“Watch out!” George yelled as a piece of jagged burned metal fell past them as the hatch door opened. It ripped a gash in Tom's radiation suit before clanging on the hatch below. The gash in the white suit soon blossomed red with blood from the deep cut in Tom's arm. The only thing they had at the moment was duct tape. George pulled out a roll from their gear and wrapped it tightly around Tom's arm. It stopped the bleeding on the outside, but they couldn't tell if it was still bleeding on the inside. They had to return to the bunker. Going through all the hatches took them 45 minutes. By the time they got to the bottom, Tom was so weak, he passed out. George radioed for help and started to carry him back to the bunker.
Back at Garage 34
Marty, Derek, and Randy took an active role in preparing the tank and trailer, not wanting anything to escape their supervision. By 22:00, they turned in. They had a 04:00 wakeup call.
An incredible bloody red sunrise from all the radioactive dust in the air to the east was breaking as they left Stafford on I-95. Inside their armored and insulated tank it would have been lost on them if not for their incredible plasma display vision. It cheered them to know that they were embarking on a mission of great promise as well as danger.
“At this rate, we should be there in a couple of hours.” He broke into a little, … “I feel good, like I knew that I would, now …,” by James Brown. They were doing about 40 clicks and the trailer, with steel tracks instead of rubber wheels, was following nicely. Marty Hamilton was feeling better than he had in days.
“This is incredible! I never thought I'd get to go on a mission like this. It would be even better if we could use these big guns.” Derrick echoed his sentiments.
“Aw, Derek. Don't cha know that we're the first in history to drive into a hot nuclear bomb zone? By the time the talk shows get through with us, you'll be a hero!” Randy had to stick his 2¢ worth in.
“Knock it off, Randy. We've got serious work to do here. Pay attention your monitors and keep me posted, okay?” Marty suddenly lost his exuberance thinking about what they were up against.
“Aye, aye, sir, right away Sir!”
They approached the last checkpoint and Marty slowed down. There were about fifty assorted vehicles waiting to go in. There were still rescue vehicles going in, but mostly they were locals trying to get back to their homes. Most would be turned back until radiation levels were safe for them to return. He took to the ditch and Marty saluted the National Guard troops manning the checkpoint. There were only two vehicles coming out. They both were hazmat vehicles that had gone in to decontaminate. Rescuers had done all they could do. Theirs was the only rescue mission in progress.
Marty left the ditch and began making their heavy mark on the asphalt coating of I-95. He cranked her up to 55 and they had the highway to themselves. They were less than an hour out of D.C. They had seen the devastation from satellite and long-range photography, but the knots in their stomachs told them that they were about to see it close up on their monitors. Their cameras were rolling, and, like the drones and robot vehicles before, would be sending clear video back to headquarters for recon and some distribution to the media. In some ways, the major media were riding with them. Their stomachs told them they were alone.
First, they encountered abandoned vehicles. Most showed almost no damage, except maybe, a flat tire. But some were burned and some were without tires at all. With doors open and fresh body damage, sometimes in the middle of the road where they died, the hulks still showed the desperation of their occupants--long gone. It reminded Marty of Desert Storm. Before long, they would be cleared from the highway. But their memory would haunt the video viewers for a lifetime. Within ten miles they could see fires burning left and right, not from the blast, but from the effects of having the power off, buildings unattended and the like. People fled in the middle of cooking meals and starting fires. Now these unattended fires burned with impunity. The road became crowded with disabled and trapped vehicles. Marty found himself slowing and leaving the road often to try to avoid them. Pushing vehicles might be too hard on the equipment at this point.
They began to see the effects of the shock wave--a limb here and a shingle there. Before long, it was a tree here and a roof there. And finally, trees were flattened outward with precision from the blast, and frame buildings were spread out like scattered lumber. Broken chimneys and two-story plumbing gave testimony where buildings had once been. Marty wondered how people got out of those alive. It only got worse.
Back at the Bunker
George had to throw Tom over his shoulder and carry him through the tunnel leading back to the bunker. Two guys with a stretcher met them halfway. When they got back to the bunker, they quickly cut Tom's radiation suit from him. His whole arm and glove were filled with blood. The gash was arterial, and he had lost a lot of blood.
“What's his blood type?” Army Nurse Sergeant Nancy Thorne yelled through the commotion. “Get it from the computer! I haven't got time to do that now. She was working on the wound, using direct compression to stop the bleeding. Tom was out cold and white as a sheet. And his vital signs were failing. He needed blood, fast. Medic Henry Slovak was attaching an IV to Tom's good arm. Blood plasma was all they had right now. They would need blood soon. The refrigerator in the infirmary and been out of order for some time. There was no blood or perishable pharmaceuticals being kept when they were caught by the blast.
“Type O positive!” Marvin Kroll yelled. “Got it from Tom's data sheet here on the computer. Did a quick search and found that Colonel Forsythe, Jennifer Williams, and you, Nancy, are O positive, too. I'll go get the Colonel.”
Jim Forsythe had his hands full. John Briscoe and he had been working nonstop with Fort Myers to establish their pick up point.
“Colonel! Your needed, stat! Tom's been hurt and we need your blood. There is no time to lose!” Kroll was not used to being this forceful with his superiors, but the urgency of Tom's condition demanded it.
Jim Forsythe knew exactly what Kroll was saying. He patted the Briscoe on the shoulder and said, “John, tell them that we will be at the southwestern tower at 16:30.” And then he turned and followed Kroll out of the room. In five minutes all three of the donors were giving their blood to save Tom. Precious time was being wasted. Their rendezvous with the rescue was being postponed. It troubled Forsythe, but he didn't let the crew in on it. He just tried to relax until he could get back to his mission--getting everybody out.
George took the time to brief Colonel Forsythe. “We cleared the next to the last section to the top. It was badly damaged, but intact. That piece of metal must have weighed ten pounds. Still, the section is intact. Must've been well built. We still have to clear the last section. It is bound to be a mess. I'm not looking forward to that. Give me Jim Hennessy, and we'll go see if we can finish the job.” Forsythe nodded his approval and George left with Hennessy.
Back on the Road
The destruction was complete now. The highway was littered with debris, most of it not cars. The going was slow. What Marty couldn't go around or go over, he had to push out of the way. Pulling a trailer made that difficult when he had to back up. It took them two hours to make a mile. The sensors told them that it was very hot outside. Some metals were still nearly a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Radiation levels were lethal. It made them feel confined--trapped in hell. It made them want to just get out of there. They no longer joked. Except for routine reports they just stared at their monitors and kept going.
Finally, after about five miles of very heavy debris, they reached a place where almost everything was pulverized. Only the natural features of the land remained with ghastly structures jutting up here and there. Going got easier because the pulverized material provided a great roadbed for the tank to run. There were still snags and outcroppings of ragged steel, but they were easier to avoid. With GPS and their topographical maps, Marty was sure that they would be able to find the southwest escape tower. According to GPS, they were close. About 5000 meters and closing.
In the Southwest Tower
George and his new partner wasted no time. The hatches opened more easily now. To save time, they left every other hatch open. It was a calculated risk. They closed the last two before the final section, because they knew this was where the danger was. It was easy to enter the section where Tom got cut. Except for splinters near the top that created the piece that cut Tom, the section was intact and holding pure air. The last section would be different. Their probes indicated that it was hot: both radiation and heat were present. They had to get the debris out of that section. A blast of CO2 would quench any fires. George opened a valve and they heard the CO2 rush into the chamber. It appeared to be unobstructed. The last three sections had a screen mounted just above the hatch. Pneumatic tubes, mounted on four sides of the escape tower would force the screens upward when the compressed air valve was turned on. It was time to see if the system worked.
George turned on the valves that operated the pneumatic system. A groaning sound was heard, and then, scraping, as the pressure slowly built up and the screen was forced upward, it took whatever debris was on it with it. A flow of fresh air was introduced into the tube to force any radioactive air out. That done, and the two hatches below them formally sealed, they opened the last hatch cover. Rust colored dust filtered down as the hatch was opened. The screen had been completely forced out of the section. Above them, near the jagged end of the top of the section, they saw a round sphere of blue sky. They cheered their good fortune, but didn't linger. The tower was still filled with deadly radiation. They closed the hatch and purged the section they were in with fresh air. They repeated the procedure in the next section, and then continued down to the tunnel and back to the bunker with the good news.
In the Rescuers ' Tank
They were getting near now, but they couldn't keep their eyes off the scene before them. Off in the distance they could see the remains of buildings. Limestone blocks and columns that had somehow withstood the force of the blast and the fires that followed. Like some eerie ancient ruin, they rose from the rust colored plain that was now, Washington D.C.
Marty was on the radio. “Angel Run here, do you read me, Big House?”
Colonel Forsythe responded from the cot he was resting on. “Angel, we read you loud and clear. We've had a delay here, one of our men got cut and I've had to give some of my blood. Three of us are weak from giving blood, and one is in real need of it, so it will be a couple of hours before we can get to you. The good news is, that we have successfully broken through to the surface and should have little trouble getting out. Just bear with us and we'll be there. Over and out.”
“That's a Roger, Big House, we'll be waiting there for you. Out.”
Marty could see the gully ahead of him. He drove the Abrams down into it. Dodging a snag here and there, he could see something sticking up ahead. It looked like the top of a barrel buried in the ground. It wasn't. It was their objective. There was a pile of scrap metal and the screen fifteen feet to the side; otherwise, their path was clear. As he straddled the tower with the tank, the GPS system told him he was right on target. With all the monitors in place, he positioned the trailer directly over the tower. When the remote sensors told him he was precisely over the tower, he dropped the telescoping shroud over the top of the tube and sealed it off.
It was 16.54 hours. It would be getting dark soon. They spent the time waiting double checking everything in the trailer and watching the light change over the eerie landscape they occupied. It looked like Mars.
In the Bunker
Colonel Forsythe didn't feel like he had lost any strength. He had taken the required fluids and sugar to replace the two pints of blood that were being given to Tom. Maybe it was adrenaline. They gathered up the packs containing the only belongings they could take with them, and headed down the tunnel to the tower that would take them out. The stretcher carrying Tom did not slow them down; they alternated carrying him. They hadn't bothered turning anything off in the bunker. It was on purpose. If anyone, for any reason, would be left behind, the bunker was the only thing they would have for survival. Strange. It felt like they were leaving home. They had no homes left in the D.C. area. They would identify with the bunker for a long time.
They donned their radiation suits and began the climb. They couldn't use the stretcher for Tom, so they tied him in a sling and pulled him up. Because George had left the lower hatches opened, they reached the last section in about twenty minutes. After they all checked their radiation suits to see if they were sealed and working properly, George opened the hatch to the last section. The blue sky he had seen earlier was gone. It gave him a start until he realized that it was only the trailer overhead.
Forsythe got on the radio. “Angel Run, we are cool. We will try to transfer taking with us as little radiation as we can. Do you copy?”
It was a call everyone in the tank had been waiting for, startling them from the trance their wait had put them in. “Roger, Big House, we have you cool. The door is open and your quarters are ready. We can't wait to get this show on the road! Over and out.” The radiation levels inside the tank were rising slowly. Not enough to be dangerous, but enough to scare them.
Marty and the guys cheered. The Commandant and the guys in Garage 34 cheered. Shortly thereafter, a highly censored version was piped to the media, and the country cheered the rescue of a few people in a bunker under the ruin of Washington D.C. It was time there was good news for a change.
With the push of a button on the remote in Marty’s hand, the hatch on the trailer uncoiled a rope about fifteen feet long. When pulled on, the spring-loaded hatch door opened easily to a locked open position. The rope made it easy for George to pull himself up into the trailer, and began pulling the others up one by one. Larry Hennessy, the last man in, made sure that the last hatch was closed on the last section. It was important to maintain the integrity of the bunker, even if they weren't going back. As soon as they were all in, Forsythe radioed Marty that it was okay to continue. They pulled the hatch up, sealed it, and retracted the shroud. They felt a lurch, and they were under way.
It was getting late, and the setting sun cast long shadows over the Mars-like landscape. Marty headed down the gully, then back up out of it to begin their journey home. The heavy tank left good tracks, so it was easy for him to follow them out. The radiation suits were getting on everyone’s nerves, but the crew would have to stay in them until they were back home and could be decontaminated. Except for sipping water through a tube, none of them had had anything to eat since they left. If a fast-food place had suddenly appeared by the track, Marty would have pulled over so they could get a bite to eat.
Once they had Tom tied down on a cot and reestablished a blood drip, euphoria broke out. In spite of the heavy radiation suits, everybody hugged everyone else as a trailer began to bounce along down the gully. Before long, they had strapped themselves in the comfortable seats for the long ride back. A large display in front of the trailer gave them the visual image from the periscope on the tank. They were seeing basically what Marty was as he was driving. In spite of the terrible devastation they were seeing, it was comforting to see the tracks they were following out.
“Colonel Forsythe? This is Captain Martin Hamilton, your tour guide speaking!” Everyone laughed. The tension was broken. “I know you guys are dying to talk to us, but remember that we are in direct communication with the Commandant, so you can't tell me how you survived down there without sex so long.“ Everyone laughed again. “Is everyone accounted for? Or do I have to turn this thing around and head back?”
Colonel Forsythe found the mike on the wall panel next to him and plugged it into his suit. “Were all accounted for here, Captain. And very happy to be out of that place. This is quite a limousine the Army has prepared for us. My compliments to the Commandant. I was unsure how we were gonna get out. This is much more comfortable and luxurious than I expected. We're just going to sit back here and watch you guys drive us out. Godspeed!”
That formality out of the way, Marty concentrated on the task at hand. He was tired from many days of tension like this, but he wasn't about to give up the helm at time like this. As the day grew dim, he started to doze a bit, seeing ghosts amid the ruin before him. He shook it off, concentrated on the familiar track he was following, and drove into the night.
Even with powerful headlights, it was slower going in the dark. Marty couldn't remember so many obstacles when they came in. And the ghosts were back. He stopped counting the times the trailer would hang up, and he’d have to back up and maneuver to get it free. Every time that happened, the people in the rescue vehicle held their breath until they were moving again. Forsythe wished that they had made this trailer drivable, so he could have driven them out. Instead, they were dependent on the tank making it. It did.
When Marty passed the last car obstructing their path, and the highway was clear, he opened her up to 40 clicks. As they roared down the highway to their destination with destiny. The roadblock was empty going out, so Marty didn't even slow down. He just radioed that they were coming out “heavy.” The guys at the roadblock raised a cheer and threw their helmets in the air. Soon, they were waved off with men in flashlights to a large car wash that had been set up just beyond the checkpoint. Running the tank and trailer through it washed any radiated dust and dirt that they had collected in the hot zone.
When they got to Fort Myer it was almost midnight. A Hummer escorted them to a remote part of the camp, where a special facility had been set up. They were in constant radio touch now, and given very specific orders on how to disembark. Marty and his crew would go first. Walking directly from their tank to a doorway in the side of the facility in their radiation suits. After walking through a three-phase shower in the suits, they were to remove them and dispose of them in large barrels. Then they were to take another shower and put on robes waiting for them when they came out of that one. They were to immediately go to the waiting doctors to be examined. There was radiation-detecting equipment at every interval.
The young Army doctor had just finished checking Marty. “You check out okay, Captain. By the look of those pupils, I'd say you need about two days shuteye. But the press is waiting outside that door. So close your eyes to all those flashes and hot lights, and you get to bed as soon as you can get there, Doctors' orders.”
Marty nodded. Decked out in a new jumpsuit, he still felt like a piece of used hamburger. Still, he put on his best smile, walked through the door, and faced the cameras and microphones.
Colonel James Forsythe and his crew followed close behind. On the podium talking to reporters, everyone got to hug their rescuers. Before he knew it, Forsythe was being whisked off to see the Commandant. After Marty and his crew got the hero treatment, they all staggered off to bed. By 4am, they were being airlifted to New York City for Good Morning America. Their country needed them.
“Colonel Forsythe, it is good to see you back with us. It had me worried there for a while, but I knew that old bunker would hold up and we'd get you out. Have you ever heard of Destination 35?”
“Not specifically, but I do know of destinations used by the brass to do top-secret work in defense of the country.” Forsythe knew more than he was willing to tell the Commandant.
“Well, my orders are to send you to Destination 35 as soon as you are fit. You look fit to me, so I'm sending you off at first light. I'm sorry that you won't get the media attention the others are getting, but it's best that the public doesn't know who you are. Last orders to your crew are that they should not reveal you in any way. Is that clear?”
“Clear, Sir.” Forsythe snapped to attention and saluted him. Once Army, always Army. By dawn he was half way to Destination 35.