Army Lt. Col. John Thurman said that when he was blown back from his desk, he first thought terrorists had planted bombs in the Pentagon _ not smashed it with a Boeing 757 jetliner.
Thurman, now 39, and two colleagues lay in the darkness on Sept. 11, 2001, their heads on the carpet to avoid choking smoke and the searing heat from a “curtain of fire” nearby, he told a riveted federal jury Tuesday.
He credited his harrowing escape to a wave of anger that swept over him just as he was succumbing to the smoke _ anger that terrorists would kill him and that his parents would lose their eldest child on the same day their first grandchild was to be born. His colleagues weren’t so lucky.
Thurman, other Pentagon employees and a Navy officer’s widow shared their stories and their grief, some for the first time publicly, as federal prosecutors neared completion of their case for the execution of confessed al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
On Wednesday, prosecutors plan to air for the first time publicly the cockpit voice recording of passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who rushed to take back that plane before it crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
Thirteen more Sept. 11 victims and family members strode to the witness stand Tuesday as jurors endured a third day of graphic evidence of the horrors and haunting impact of the nation’s worst terror attack.
While the material was supposedly toned down in response to defense lawyers’ complaints, it included videos of American Airlines Flight 77 hitting the building at 530 miles per hour and photos of charred bodies _ one on a stretcher and another sitting upright in an office _ of some of the 64 airline passengers and crew and 125 Pentagon workers who died that day.
Moussaoui, who was found eligible for the death penalty last week, seemed unfazed. He smiled as an FBI agent summarized the damage to the military’s headquarters, and during a recess shouted: “Burn all Pentagon next time!”
Prosecutors also played air traffic control tapes in which a pilot of United Flight 93 shouted “Mayday! Mayday! Get out of here!” moments before his apparent stabbing death as hijackers seized the cockpit.
Moussaoui’s court-appointed lawyers, who will begin their last push to spare his life on Thursday, asked U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema to subpoena testimony from attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who is in a federal prison in Colorado. Brinkema issued a sealed writ for a witness not identified publicly. Defense lawyers are seeking to show that Moussaoui lied in testifying that, before his Aug. 16, 2001 arrest in the Twin Cities, he was training to pilot a fifth plane on Sept. 11 with Reid in his crew.
As witnesses told of the Pentagon strike, Alice Fisher, chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, sat teary-eyed in the front row.
Pentagon police officer Jose Rojas Jr., 43, described rushing to his boss’ office upon learning that morning that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Then a jet hit the other tower.
“All of us just said together . . . ‘We’re next,’ ” Rojas said.
Moments later, he said, the building shook and he looked out at “a mushroom cloud of fire.” Rojas said he ran around the perimeter of the building and heard “moaning, groaning, screaming” through blown-out windows. He shouted to people to come “to the sound of my voice,” he said, and a man approached. But when Rojas grabbed his hands, his skin was so burned it came off.
“I had to dig my fingernails into his flesh,” Rojas said. “He screamed. I carried him as far as I could.”
Rojas said he rescued nine people, eight of whom survived.
Thurman, a major who was working on Pentagon promotion policies on Sept. 11, said the initial blast may have temporarily deafened him, because he could not hear two colleagues _ Lt. Col. Karen Wagner and William Ruth _ as they crawled to him in the dark.
Ruth soon stopped talking, and Wagner did so later, he said. As he nearly drifted off to sleep, he said, he suddenly “got very angry that this was the method that I was going to die . . . that terrorism was going to take my life.” He said he mustered his strength, pushed some file cabinets and opened a door into a smoke-free hallway. A senior Pentagon official tried to go back inside to search for Wagner and Ruth, but the heat was too intense, he said.
Thurman said he knew 26 of the dead and now feels “guilt about getting the lucky break.”
Navy Lt. Nancy McKeown, a 42-year-old meteorologist, similarly groped her way to a hallway where she was carried to safety. Sobbing, she said she later escorted the body of one of her two dead aides, Petty Officer Tom Earhart, home to Kentucky for his funeral, ensuring that “his buttons were buttoned and his medals were straight.”
Shari Tolbert, 37, of California, was also in tears as she described life without her husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Tolbert, of Lemoore, Calif.
“I get to raise three kids alone. I get to never have a 50th anniversary. I get to go to church alone. I get to go to bed alone. That’s what I get.”