Restoring Our Defenses
A firsthand account of one company's response to 9/11 and how it helped prepare the Pentagon for reconstruction.

Sept. 11, 2001, began in its usual manner for John Nienabar, operations manager at ServiceMaster of Springfield, Virginia. At 11:30 a.m., however, Nienabar received an unforgettable call. It was the office of Nancy Judd, head of facilities contracting at the Pentagon, a department that had previously worked with the ServiceMaster Springfield office. This time, the call was for a project that was unprecedented.

American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked by terrorists and hit the U.S. government’s military nerve center, the Pentagon. The 180,000-pound Boeing 757 rammed the Pentagon at 530 mph, carrying about 7,200 gallons of aviation fuel. A huge fireball—more than 200 feet high by some accounts—shot up with plumes of black smoke and soot that were visible for miles. The smoke and soot coursed through the 6.6-million-square-foot building. Sprinklers sprayed hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, and firefighters fought the blaze with even more, leaving all five floors near the point of impact in standing water a half-meter deep.

The Pentagon provides office space for approximately 20,000 military and civilian personnel. In addition to the search-and-rescue efforts, one priority of Pentagon officials was to help people get back to work in the least impacted areas as quickly and safely as possible.

Photo courtesy of ServiceMaster.

By 8 a.m. on Sept. 12, a crew of 50 ServiceMaster disaster restoration technicians arrived at the Pentagon’s western parking lot to begin the cleanup and restoration process. Using a nationwide dispatch procedure, supplies and equipment, franchise owners and technicians were mobilized up and down the eastern U.S. from as far as Michigan. ServiceMaster also sent employees experienced in managing large catastrophic events along with 50-foot trailers containing additional equipment and supplies. During the weeks that followed, ServiceMaster employees provided the disaster cleanup that allowed government employees to return to work and the restoration that prepared the site for reconstruction.

Jeff Coulter, former vice president of ServiceMaster Clean and now a company consultant, said the most difficult challenge in the first couple weeks was waiting for security clearances.

“In some sections of the Pentagon, it was a crime scene secured by armed guards,” Coulter said. “Orders to ‘freeze and stay’ were frequent. It was pretty chaotic. Delays were common, and it often took up to three hours to get through all the security clearances and get escorted into the building.”

During the first few weeks, each group of five workers was required to have an armed military escort who had strict orders to keep all workers in sight at all times.

After rescue efforts were completed, restoring normalcy to the building was the priority, Coulter said. Pentagon workers needed to do their jobs. These were the military and civilian personnel responsible for the security of the country, and President Bush relied on them for immediate military information and response. Additionally, the president promised it would be business as usual in the Pentagon.

Amid rescue operations and critical military decisions, the ServiceMaster franchise owners and crews got to work. “Imagine the combustion from the heat and fuel,” Coulter said. “The high heat and heavy smoke left a sticky black soot and residue in every possible crack and crevice. This was so much more than just wiping off a desk. We had to use special chemicals and products not only on phones, chairs and desks, but on everything exposed.”

Photo courtesy of ServiceMaster.

The first step toward reconstruction on a normal fire and water job is to go to the source and begin proper drying that meets Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) specifications. Failure to dry the site according to these guidelines could negatively impact reconstruction. Once water mitigation is complete and the affected areas are dry, a professional contractor can evaluate what is necessary for reconstruction—replacement of structural materials removed during the drying process or removal and replacement of additional structure. Examples include wood flooring and partial or total wall and ceiling replacement. In addition, many jobs require fresh paint on new or cleaned structures after the drying is complete. Fire damage requires professional evaluation to determine what needs cleaning and preparation for painting or what cannot be restored and needs to be removed and replaced.

Because of strict security, the section with the most water damage—the area where the plane hit—was inaccessible to ServiceMaster for drying.

Once the ServiceMaster crews got to work, they evaluated the damage to the accessible areas to determine whether the walls and ceilings needed to be cleaned and painted or only cleaned with a specialized chemical to remove the corrosive soot. The corrosive soot was heaviest on the walls and ceilings in the area closest to the impact of the plane. The crew’s process of using a dry chem sponge would often smear the soot; in these instances, Coulter said that once crews analyzed the situation, they immediately prepped most walls with finishes for painting.

Despite having six zip codes and 17.5 miles of corridors, no office in the Pentagon is more than a seven-minute walk from any other office, and ServiceMaster crews covered much of that ground numerous times.

“We were awed by the Pentagon,” Jay DeWart, franchise owner of ServiceMaster in Henderson, North Carolina, said. “You can’t comprehend the size of it. I wore a pedometer and averaged 14 miles per shift. My feet bled some days after our shift.”

Photo courtesy of ServiceMaster.

The work was painstaking, requiring attention to detail and hard labor, most of it by hand. The crews had to take into consideration odor remediation and national artifacts and displays that required specialized cleaning to restore them: display cases of flags, national treasures of valor in the Hall of Heroes, historical memorabilia made from fabric, wood and other materials, and framed letters from presidents.

In all, about 700 people—two teams of 350 people—worked around the clock in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week until Oct. 14 to complete the major recovery work as quickly as possible. When Nov. 16 rolled around, the crew of 700 had completed the cleaning and restoration of more than 5 million square feet of office space, corridors and other common areas.

Numerous government officials in office at the time paid visits and voiced appreciation and support for the work of first responders, including President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Darryl O. Diggs, assistant services program manager at the Pentagon.

“While most of the country felt helpless, we were able to help restore lives,” Coulter said. “It was amazing how long every franchise owner and crew member stayed with this job. We had to turn down other ServiceMaster franchise owners who wanted to help. Everyone who served on this project felt this was not just another job but a way to help our country.”