Tuesday, September 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Up from the ashes: 'Phoenix Project' restores Pentagon

WASHINGTON — The offices behind the nearly white limestone of the Pentagon's newly renovated southwestern facade look, eerily, as they did in the early-morning hours of Sept. 11.

But 8 inches of standing water from the sprinkler system, plus the resulting mold, and the stench of the exploding kerosene-type fuel from full jet tanks had left construction crews with little choice but to replace nearly every visible inch of the scarred slice of the building — from the cement and marble of the poured terrazzo floor to the blast-proof windows and freshly painted drywall on the ceiling.

Yesterday, the last group of employees moved into their E Ring offices at the Pentagon, and the outer ring where a Boeing 757 jet struck the building once again was fully occupied.

It's an achievement that many considered impossible, particularly for a government-run construction program. Not incidentally, it has transformed the image of a Pentagon renovation program that just a few years ago was so mired in cost overruns, schedule delays and poor quality that it was threatened with cancellation. And it has captured attention across the country.

Nearly everything has been re-crafted with a future attack in mind — and a desire to make it look as if the clock has been set back.

The focus on restoring the Pentagon's glory is revealed in the name of the reconstruction effort: "The Phoenix Project," after the mythical bird that was burned and then rose from its own ashes.

The feat is comparable to the original construction, back in 1941. That is to say, the work was exceedingly fast and efficient.

The Pentagon was authorized by Congress and approved by the president in the summer of 1941 as war raged in Europe and Asia without, as yet, involving the United States. In what would become a chilling coincidence, construction commenced on Sept. 11, 1941. Work proceeded at a leisurely pace until the following Dec. 7.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, teams worked around the clock, often exceeding the capacity of more than 200 architects and engineers to produce construction documents. The first employees moved in as concrete was still being poured in spring 1942. The entire building, all 6.5 million square feet of it, was finished in 16 months.

Practicality was the driving force behind the original design. The arrangement of five concentric pentagons, separated by light wells and connected to one another and a central court via 10 radial corridors, proved ideal for a horizontal office building of such unprecedented size.

Those light wells, for instance, put most workers no more than 20 feet from a source of natural light — exceeding even the most rigorous of today's workplace standards. And though there are 17-1/2 miles of corridors in the building, its shape was made for shortcuts.

A massive renovation of the entire Pentagon and its grounds was begun nearly a decade ago. Ironically, the terrorists guided their airplane-weapon into Wedge 1, the only segment where the renovation work had been almost completed. This, too, puts the rebuilding effort in perspective: Workers did over again, in less than a year, what had just taken them three years to do before.

On Sept. 11, the immense renovation project was put to a test of fire. And, despite the searing images of destruction that day, it passed the test rather well. There was tragic loss of life — 125 Pentagon workers were killed along with 64 people aboard Flight 77, but lives were saved, too — nearly 2,500 souls working nearby survived. The death toll surely would have been much higher but for the new security systems designed into the renovated Wedge 1.

Chief among the improvements was the "hardening" of concrete and brick walls with additional structural steel. (During the original construction there had been tremendous pressure to save steel for armaments.) Blast-resistant windows, weighing 1,600 pounds each, were fabricated to replace the old single-pane, double-hung sash fixtures. A superstrength polymer mesh was used to reinforce walls and prevent pieces from flying off like deadly shrapnel. A sprinkler system was installed.

These are the types of improvements to be expected in a job that's costing a fortune — reconstruction of damaged areas alone priced out at more than $700 million — and taking more than 15 years.

These components performed up to expectations. But important failures did occur. The public-address system proved faulty. Water pressure was severely affected. The system of automatic "smoke walls" deployed as planned, helping curtail the flow of smoke in hallways — but people were confused by them and couldn't find the waist-high handles to retract the barriers. Exit signs were illegible in the dark smoke.

Behind the refurbished stone, the same type of fluorescent lights rest in the same-style acoustical ceiling tiles in the outer offices of the Pentagon's E Ring, illuminating the same plush red carpet and dark-stained desks as those in the Joint Staff offices across the building.

But there are some differences. The exit signs, for instance, are no longer at eye level. With a glow-in-the-dark life of four hours, they now sit only 6 inches off the floor, where hundreds of workers dropped to avoid the lung-searing black smoke from the diesel fuel of the jetliner that crashed into the first floor, sending a fireball through the cubicle farms above. Survivors who found the higher exit signs virtually useless suggested the change.

"The jet fuel left a black smoke that was coming down as you moved forward," said Lt. Col. Franklin Childress, a public-affairs officer who interviewed many survivors. "People were yelling, 'Get down! Get down!' "

To accompany the new exit signs, there are additional exits. Each piece of limestone on the building's facade has been replaced or cleaned — except one, with "September 11, 2001" etched into the charred stone.

This time, building to withstand a terrorist assault was "standard operating procedure," said Jean Barnak, the Pentagon's deputy project manager for the renovation. Many of the subtle innovations in the refurbished area, such as the lowered exit signs, will likely be included as other parts of the building are renovated, she said.

Security has always been a concern at this immense military installation, of course, but until a few years ago the building remained remarkably accessible. You used to be able to get on an escalator in the Pentagon Metro station and land in the Concourse, the second-floor shopping center for the some 25,000 employees who use the building daily. A visitor could sign up there for a tour and, afterward, pick up a souvenir in one of the stores.

Today, only groups with prior clearance are taken on tours. And that escalator has been closed off. Redesigning the Metro interchange was, in fact, a high priority, and the job, started several years ago, is almost done — today buses get no closer than 300 feet to the building. A remote delivery facility, built under the north-facing terrace, greatly enhances security by keeping trucks at a distance.

Outside, tractors and concrete rollers rush to smooth the ground where a memorial ceremony will be held tomorrow. Nearby, workers are clearing the site for a permanent memorial.

The project is not due to be finished until spring, but the construction has marked a refreshing change for anyone who has waited for contractors to complete a job. With some workers voluntarily spending Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays on the site, some portions of the renovation have been as much as a month ahead of schedule.

"There was such a common cause here. Everyone did what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it — or even earlier," said Jean Barnak, the Pentagon's deputy project manager, as a worker rolled paint on the window sill behind her. "I would have workers come over and say how proud they were to have worked on the project. They'd come over and thank you for being allowed to work on it."

Information in this article, originally published September 10, was corrected September 11. Due to incorrect information provided by the Los Angeles Times, a previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the stench of the exploding diesel from full jet-fuel tanks. Jet engines use a kerosene-type fuel, not diesel fuel


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