Heroic efforts, horrific memories
Grad student joined Pentagon and Ground Zero rescue efforts
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It was his first time in his own bed since September 11. But Eric Jones -- despite being awake for all but a few of the previous 72 hours -- still couldn't sleep.
The morning of the attacks, he had pulled into the Pentagon parking lot from Interstate 395, seconds after spying smoke. Jones ran in, joined by others, and immediately went to work -- picking up a person, carrying him or her to the lawn, then running back to get someone else.
At the request of those leading the rescue effort, the 26-year-old graduate student stayed on. Flanked by military and rescue personnel, he sifted through the rubble for three days, finding victims and mementoes but after that initial burst, no one who lived through the attack.
The morning of September 14, Jones felt he had done all he could and headed home. As he lay awake in bed, a friend -- who was a firefighter -- called and said he was going to New York.
Jones felt impelled join him, especially if it meant finding survivors -- and in the process, a hint of hope and reason to celebrate -- after three fruitless, frustrating days at the Pentagon. He spent the next five days alongside other rescue workers at Ground Zero.
In the subsequent months, Jones earned praise as a hero, a label that grated on him given his belief that he was just one of hundreds who had pitched in and worked, above all, as a team.
He has carried the Olympic torch, met President Bush, and even earned a "Medal of Valor" from the Defense Department. But a year after September 11, Jones still struggles with flashbacks and the fact that -- except for that first hour at the Pentagon -- he didn't see anyone pulled alive from the rubble.
"I would trade that medal for a good night's sleep any day," Jones said of the Pentagon award.
Eric Jones, left, and Steve DiChiaro were presented with medals of valor by Army Lt. Gen. John Van Alstyne at a Pentagon ceremony on July 15. Jones and DiChiaro were honored for their rescue efforts at the Pentagon on September 11 and the days after.
Putting aside fear to help
On the morning of September 11, Jones listened intently to radio reports on the World Trade Center attacks while driving to the George Washington University's school of public health campus in the nation's capital.
A volunteer firefighter and paramedic, Jones joined the rescue efforts after he spotted smoke over the Pentagon. He came upon a chaotic scene, with people bolting in and out of a building charred and partially crushed by American Airlines Flight 77's impact.
"I think everybody was afraid a little bit, but when you hear people calling out and yelling out for help, you ... put that on the back burner," Jones said of his decision to enter the fray.
He quickly teamed up with other impromptu rescuers, rushing into the defense department headquarters in groups and pulling out the injured, one-by-one.
"Everybody that could walk and could carry somebody else was [helping]," said Jones. "One of the most striking things was just seeing all these people running back in, risking their own lives time and again to save their fellow workers or strangers that they didn't even know."
Jones helped carry, by his estimates, four or five people to safety. But when a Pentagon wall collapsed about a half-hour after the initial impact, he quickly sensed that the rescue effort had just become a recovery operation.
The military leaders at the scene asked him to stick around. So Jones pored through the debris, sneaking a few hours sleep on tents pitched nearby by an Army mortuary affairs unit.
"It didn't really matter if you were a military or a civilian or a firefighter," he said. "Basically anybody who could do that horrible task and not be horribly affected by it, they would ask us to stay."
'Equally terrible' but very different
Two days later, Jones pried through a particularly grisly section of the Pentagon alongside Marine Maj. Dan Pantaleo and Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Braman. The three men looked up on a revelation -- a Marine Corps flag perched in pristine condition in a fourth floor office torn apart in the attack.
"It stood in all sorts of devastation around it," Pantaleo said. "But look at the colors, look at this flag: not a mark on it. It stands in defiance to what happened here."
Jones said finding the flag served as a needed morale boost. But overall, he was struggling with "every emotion that you could think of except, maybe, joy."
Ground Zero, said Jones, was "equally terrible." But the immediacy of the Washington scene left Jones with a greater sense of anger, horror and sadness, one that took months to wear off.
"In New York it was on such a grand scale and the environment was so surreal. Everywhere you looked was completely destroyed and ... unrecognizable -- both offices and people to a large extent," he said.
"[At the Pentagon] it was very apparent that this used to be an office, and this is where people work. From an emotional impact, this was harder -- at least for me."
'Looking forward to the 12th'
In various ceremonies and with the attack anniversary fast approaching, Jones has had ample opportunity to relive September 11. He says he's "looking forward to the 12th" and putting the bad memories behind him. After dropping out last year, he will return to school this fall in hopes of someday becoming a doctor.
Jones has had his bright spots, too, thanks in part to his preferred form of therapy -- talking with family members of victims. He has also relished the chance to befriend his heroes: the rescue workers he worked with in Washington and New York.
"Seeing these men and women, day after day, crawling through this rubble with complete disregard for their own safety in the hope of finding somebody: I think that is a great testament for the core of Americans," he said.
While Jones himself skirts the attention, others describe him as dedicated and heroic.
Pantaleo paid Jones what may be the ultimate compliment from a Marine to a civilian, saying Jones truly understood what it means to be a Marine.
Army Lt. Gen. John Van Alstyne, then-deputy assistant secretary of defense and leader of the military's Pentagon recovery efforts, praised Jones' raw nerve and commitment.
"These two men moved out, overcame their humanness and moved out to help others," said Van Alstyne at the July 15 Pentagon medal ceremony honoring Jones and Steve DeChiaro, another civilian hero who was walking into the building when the plane struck.
"They stayed and stayed -- 72-plus hours -- and they did whatever was asked of them."
CNN Correspondent Candy Crowley contributed to this report.
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