Accessibility links

The First Rescuer - 2001-10-13


In New York, the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York were witnessed by thousands. Hundreds of firefighters rushed into the building.

But the attack on the Pentagon 45 minutes later was seen by relatively few people, was not captured on videotape, and the first rescuer on the ground was a lone U.S. Army Captain, a former member of Special Forces. "I was physically close enough to the aircraft as it came in that I could see through the windows as it flew past. I couldn’t see anything inside the plane, but I was close enough,” he said.

Army Captain Lincoln Leibner wasn't scheduled to work his Pentagon job until the night of September 11. He was at home reading the newspaper when a friend called and told him an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. He turned on the television and saw the second airplane hit the Trade Center.

"I called work, and told them I was coming in and drove to the Pentagon. I was standing right there, about a hundred yards away. So I parked the truck and started running directly towards the building, and right about when I needed to make a turn to go in the building, I heard an aircraft. I saw the airplane come in very low, very fast, it was accelerating and the wheels were up,” he said. “I recognized what was happening, there wasn't any doubt in my mind what I was watching. I started running towards the building. There were some construction workers going the other way, people were saying get away from the building, because they thought maybe a secondary explosion or what not.”

He was the first rescuer into the building, through a door that had been blown off its hinges. The room he entered was very dark.

“As you walked away from the door, and whatever light was coming through the door from the outside, it was almost like stepping out of a spotlight on a stage into the darkness on either end. I could hear people inside moaning, asking for help,” he said. “Immediately I came upon a woman who had been very badly burned on her face and her hands. And I took her under her arm, which was probably the only place I felt I could touch her, walked back out the door, back outside. There was a police officer who had pulled up his car on the grass at this point. And I went back inside the building.

“As I said, it was very difficult to breathe. I called out for anyone who was there to come towards me. I would call out and people inside would call back trying to use sound to locate an exit…

“The worst feeling was you couldn't touch people because the skin came off in your hands. Any way you would normally reach for someone, any way you would normally try to effect movement, you couldn't. So it was very difficult. I never pulled anyone in uniform out of the building. Every person I saw who was either dead or badly wounded was a civilian worker. All but one were female.

“At some point, I don't know when, they told us to get away from the building, they thought there was a larger fire burning above us that we couldn’t see. And at that point, I needed to get out because I couldn't breathe anymore.”

Captain Leibner was made to go to the hospital for treatment for cuts and burns. He returned to the Pentagon later, and along with the rest of his communications office, worked through the smoke and chaos of the next 24 hours, and in the days since. He later learned that he had lost friends in the attack. He didn’t return to the scene of the devastation until nearly a month later. The morning of September 11 continues to play in his mind, he says.

“The seconds of the aircraft going into the building kind of repeats itself on and on in my mind. I almost wish there were film cameras like at the World Trade Center present, because I feel very much isolated, I feel like I'm the only one who saw this thing come in,” he said. “I know there were other witnesses who saw it come in, but I see that over and over again. I still hear people inside the building. I have no idea how many people were able to make it out. According to one of the rescue workers I’ve talked to since, there was basically a 20-minute window or so to effect a rescue, and essentially anyone who was not saved at that point was left to the flames.”

XS
SM
MD
LG