WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, Army Staff Sgt. Mark Williams witnessed a combat zone for the first time in his 11 years of service. He never imagined it would be inside the Pentagon. One of the first recovery personnel to enter the crippled headquarters building after a hijacked Boeing 757 smashed into it, the urban search-and-rescue specialist found a gruesome sight. "If anyone has ever burned a pot roast, they'll know what the victims looked like," Williams, 30, said Thursday after another 12-hour shift of searching for 190 bodies — those of 126 missing Pentagon personnel and the 64 aboard the doomed jetliner.
The fireball occurred when the jetliner's full fuel tank exploded on impact and roared down corridors so fast that "90% didn't know what happened to them," he said.
Many were sitting at their desks or behind partitions. One woman was found frozen in a sitting position, her arms posed as if reading a document.
Several bodies were found huddled in groups near televisions. Pentagon workers were apparently watching the carnage taking place at the World Trade Center when the hellish scene on TV became reality for them, too.
When Williams discovered the scorched bodies of several airline passengers, they were still strapped into their seats. The stench of charred flesh overwhelmed him.
"It was the worst thing you can imagine," said Williams, whose squad from Fort Belvoir, Va., entered the building, less than four hours after the terrorist attack. "I wanted to cry from the minute I walked in. But I have soldiers under me and I had to put my feelings aside."
The Pentagon said Thursday that an "initial, preliminary" count found 126 military and civilian personnel were missing, in addition to the 64 aboard the hijacked jetliner, American Airlines Flight 77, which was en route from Washington to Los Angeles.
The missing include:
Army. 74 soldiers, civilians and contractors, about half of them women. An Army official said about 20 of the missing were assigned to the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, which took an almost direct hit from the jetliner. Its director, Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, 53, was the only general or admiral unaccounted for in the attack.
Navy. 42 sailors and civilians. They worked for a command center that tracks ship movements, a space information warfare office, the naval warfare staff and the deputy chief of naval operations for plans, policy and operations.
Others. 10 defense agency employees, among them, according to a Pentagon official, seven from the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The Air Force and Marines reported no missing personnel.
As of Thursday morning, search teams had recovered 70 bodies. The remains were being carried by helicopter to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to be identified.
William's seven-man squad from the Military District of Washington's combat engineer company at Fort Belvoir was there to work alongside nearly 250 civil search-and-rescue crews from Maryland, Virginia and Tennessee to find survivors in the rubble. After the first few hours, there were none.
"You always hope to find survivors," said Sgt. Aaron Oakes, 22. "But when you see it, then reality sets in."
Their recovery effort paused for about an hour near dawn Thursday when teams were evacuated following a bomb threat. The threat turned out to be unfounded and work resumed as Pentagon employees streamed in for the first nearly normal day of work since the attack.
Williams and his soldiers emerged from the cordoned-off recovery area to talk to a USA TODAY reporter. Wearing black cotton jumpsuits, soot-covered boots and helmets with flashlights, the men looked tired but wanted to share what they had seen.
Williams said they first entered the building at 1 p.m. ET Tuesday. At first, they could stay only 20 minutes at a time in the 120-degree heat amid smoldering metal debris too hot to touch. Eventually, working under halogen lights, they managed to shore up the unstable structure with wooden beams. They did not want to share the deadly fate of hundreds of rescuers in New York buried when the World Trade Center collapsed Tuesday.
Using handsaws to cut through concrete-and-metal debris, they moved methodically from room to room to make sure no area was missed. Within minutes, they came upon three victims.
Members of Congress who toured the site Thursday said rescue officials reported that much of the fuselage of the hijacked airplane remains intact in the ruins.
By the time the sun rose Thursday, the "senseless murdering" of Tuesday's unprecedented attack and the grim work of recovering its victims had "taken a great toll on me emotionally," Williams said. It was one thing to recover the remains of enemies in shelled-out buildings in Bosnia, where he had served as a peacekeeper. But this was different.
"There is somebody in there who I knew," Williams said quietly. The victim was the husband of one of Williams' co-workers, a senior enlisted soldier who worked right near the point of impact and is almost certainly among the dead.
Yet, as he looked up into the black chasm torn into the symbol of the mightiest military on earth, Williams saw a sign of hope.
On a second floor, right next to where the jet sheared off a section of the building, was an undisturbed stool. And on it was a thick, open book. Fellow searchers who had gotten a close look said it was a Bible. It was not burned. Nor was anything around it or on the two floors above it.
"I'm not as religious as some, but that would have me thinking," the soldier said. "I just can't explain it."