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Wednesday September 12 5:26 AM ET

Hijacked U.S. Plane Kills 100 to 800 at Pentagon

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By Charles Aldinger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hijackers slammed a passenger plane into the Pentagon (news - web sites) and may have killed as many as 800 people in an attack that destroyed part of the U.S. military headquarters but interrupted operations only briefly.

Despite the damage, officials said the massive building on the Potomac River would reopen on Wednesday. Firefighters said it would be past daylight before the flames were brought under control, nearly a full day after the attack.

``The Pentagon's functioning,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a briefing held inside the building several hours after the attack on Tuesday morning. ``It'll be in business tomorrow.''

The attack coincided with similar hijackings that toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Arlington County Fire Chief Edward Plaugher, who is coordinating the firefighting operation at the Pentagon, placed the death toll at between 100 and 800 people. He told reporters it would take ``many, many days'' to search for survivors and recover the bodies of the dead.

Six bodies were removed from the building shortly after nightfall, the Washington Post reported.

``The building is still under active fire involvement,'' Plaugher told reporters early on Wednesday as a crescent moon shone over one end of the building and smoke rose from the other.

Rescuers probed as far as they could but ``obviously in the collapsed areas, that will have to take place at a later time, after we have made the building safe,'' Plaugher said.

WORLD'S LARGEST OFFICE BUILDING

More than 20,000 civilian and military personnel work in the Pentagon, the world's largest office building, constructed during the Second World War on the banks of the Potomac, across from Washington D.C.

Officials said it was difficult to say how many people were at work in the section hit by the plane because of recent renovations.

A section of the five-story, five-sided complex, never attacked during the decades of the Cold War, collapsed and burned, sending gray smoke billowing over Washington.

Rumsfeld, who briefly helped with the rescue operation, said later it would be ``beyond comprehension'' that anyone on board the plane could have survived.

 
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He said the total number of casualties, including those who had been working in the building, was not yet clear, but added: ''It will not be few.''

The plane used in the attack was an American Airlines Boeing 757 that took off from Washington's Dulles Airport bound for Los Angeles before it was diverted. It carried 58 passengers, four flight attendants and two pilots.

One passenger aboard the doomed aircraft told her husband by telephone just before the crash that hijackers had taken over the plane brandishing knives and had herded the passengers and crew, including the pilot, to the back of the plane.

U.S. forces worldwide were put on the highest alert -- force protection condition Delta -- meaning extra guards, restrictions on personnel movement and other precautions.

Defense Department officials said no one had so far claimed responsibility for the attacks, even though many U.S. politicians and pundits suspected Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden (news - web sites), who lives in Afghanistan (news - web sites) and is accused of other attacks on American facilities.

'OUR ARMED FORCES ARE READY'

Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to discuss possible U.S. retaliation for the attacks, saying, ``I have no intention of discussing what comes next but make no mistake, our armed forces are ready.''

But a senior Pentagon official told Reuters the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise, which was about to sail home after being replaced in a rotation in the Gulf, had been told to remain in place and await further orders.

Rescue teams assembled on the lawns, highways and parking lots around the Pentagon. At one point one of the firemen planted an American flag on a tall pole in the blackened debris just outside the smoking building, prompting an emotional cheer from the military and rescue officers outside the building.

The regular Pentagon helicopter pad was strewn with debris from the plane and the explosion and was not usable. Helicopters were landing and taking off from a cordoned-off area nearby.

Arlington firefighter Derek Spector, head of the first unit that arrived on the scene, stumbled out of the building two hours after the incident, exhausted and blackened by smoke.

``We got there, and the whole side of the building was in flames. It's terrible in there,'' Spector told Reuters.

Pentagon security officer George Clodfelter, whose uniform was stained with blood, said he pulled a woman and her infant out of a window close to the impact site and they were shaken but unhurt.

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