The 9/11 Pentagon Attack
Watching in real time
September 11, 2001 started for me like any other day. I had been retired from the Army for over four years and was working with Northrop Grumman, one of the major defense contractors and one widely known for its forward thinking and innovative efforts. My office was in one of the two silver towers dominating the Rosslyn area of Arlington, Virginia, about a mile north of the Pentagon.
I rose early as always, and headed to work from my home in Fairfax, Virginia, planning to exercise at the Pentagon Officers’ Athletic Center, known simply as the POAC to those assigned to the Pentagon. The POAC was a somewhat crude facility haphazardly housed in an old Pentagon storage area on the east side of the building. But it was quite adequate, had good workout equipment, was inexpensive, had a small grill that served breakfast, and offered a daily venue for seeing old colleagues. Accordingly, like many military retirees in the DC area, I had kept my membership there.
As I drove past the Pentagon’s west face, I decided to skip the workout. We were hosting a couple of senior officers in our office that morning to get their perspectives of the recently concluded conflict in the Balkans, and I decided to continue to the office and ensure all was ready for the visit. I took the exit for Highway 110, looped past the edge of the Pentagon’s North Parking lot, and headed to Rosslyn.
My 24th floor office in the silver tower that was closer to the Potomac River had a magnificent view of the Georgetown area of DC and looked straight down the Mall to the US capitol — basically a northeastern orientation. My view did not offer direct observation of the Pentagon, but that famous building was clearly visible from the other side of the building.
About 8:45 a.m., I got a phone call from the executive assistant of one of the senior officers coming to the Balkans discussion. It was a pleasant discussion as both the senior officer and his assistant were old colleagues and friends from my Pentagon days. The call was simply to verify the time of the meeting and where our guest could park. After exchanging that information, I hung up the phone and returned to working on a report I was preparing about the potential of unmanned aircraft.
A bit over twenty minutes later the executive assistant called back to tell me his boss would not be coming to the meeting. Surprised, as we had just confirmed the meeting minutes earlier, I innocently asked why — what had come up?
“Turn on your TV and look,” was the quick reply. “A plane just crashed into a World Trade Center tower in New York.” But before I could grab the remote for my TV, the assistant added in an excited voice, “Oh, my god! Another plane just hit the other tower. This is obviously a coordinated attack. I have to go.” With that he hung up the phone.
I walked to my office’s small conference room and turned on the large TV mounted on one wall. It immediately showed both Trade Center towers burning. I was quickly joined by my three other colleagues in the office. Like everyone in the United States, we watched in disbelief and horror. I had a friend who had once worked in one of the towers and he had told me that on an average day nearly 50,000 people were in them –not counting the tourists. I wondered how many were in the buildings and trying frantically to evacuate, and I thought there could be many thousands who might perish. At that moment, however, I never imagined that the towers would collapse.
About 9:30 a.m., my brother-in-law, who was supposed to drive up for a visit later in the day, called. I returned to my office to speak with him, and he told me he was cancelling the trip. We spoke for a few minutes and during the call I heard a dull thud, one so soft I didn’t really pay it much attention. Shortly afterwards I began hearing police and fire sirens echoing in the streets of Rosslyn. I commented that something must be going on in DC. My brother-in-law responded, “I just heard that the Pentagon has been hit!”
I hung up the phone and quickly ran to a connecting door giving access to the south side of the main office space, a place offering a clear view of the Pentagon. Black smoke was billowing from the west side of the building, the one I had driven past earlier, and the roof was burning. Since the building’s heliport was at that spot, I wanted to think that a helicopter had crashed, but quickly dismissed that thought as such a coincidence given the events in New York was far too great.
I was immediately concerned. Being as intimately familiar with the Pentagon as anyone, I knew that several friends had offices on that side of the building including three West Point classmates and several civilian employees who had once worked for me. As it would turn out, most were out of the building that morning, one would suffer relatively slight injuries from a concussion, but six others would be lost.
I returned to my office and was soon joined by our senior office manager whose office was one floor below. The flight path into Reagan airport went right by our building and the planes were clearly visible from my office as the pilots navigated the curve of the Potomac River as they lined up with the runway. The manager and I spoke for a moment as we watched a plane fly by. We suddenly realized that our building, and its sister structure next door, could rightfully be called the “Twin Towers of Washington,” and we were literally adjacent to the flight path into Reagan airport.
We decided to instruct all our people to evacuate the building and suggested the same to the building manager. Rather quickly the elevators were packed as people headed to the underground garage. The office manager and I went to each office instructing people to leave; those that had not already done so quickly gathered their things and headed out. Satisfied that our offices were empty, the manager and I then did the same.
I drove my car to I-66, a main artery into Washington from the northern suburbs of Fairfax County and beyond out to Leesburg. The road was packed beyond anything I had ever seen as traffic slowly crawled west to the beltway. I listened to the radio accounts of what was happening and remained concerned that thousands of people in New York would be killed or badly injured even if they survived the collapses. I tried to drive to a Fairfax hospital to give blood as I was certain there would soon be a call for donations, but the two I visited were not yet accepting any.
Cell phones were not universally common at the time, although I had one with me from the office. However, the circuits were fully jammed, and I was unable to place a call to my house. I was sure my family was concerned, so unable to donate blood or communicate I headed home. Once there the family and I watched the continuing coverage while fielding several calls from family and friends verifying that I had not been in the Pentagon.
As I recall, we stayed home the following day and returned to our offices the day after, which was a Thursday. I took a different route to work as the road past the Pentagon was blocked with fire and rescue equipment. Even though the Pentagon was still burning, thousands of Pentagon employees — both military and civilian — returned to work that day, going to their offices if they could be reached, salvaging what they could, and checking to ensure that classified material was not blowing away in the hot updrafts. As one senior general, a Vietnam veteran, would later recall, “It was the most courageous and selfless thing I ever saw. People coming to work and the building was still on fire.”
As stated, I lost six former Pentagon colleagues that day. One had started in my office a decade earlier as a young intern. She was smart, bright, energetic, and had quickly moved up the government service ranks; but on September 11th she was simply walking the hallway heading to a meeting, in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had married in the years since I had first met her, and recently become a young mother.
Another close friend, perhaps more tragically — if tragedy has a meaningful scale, was actually on the plane, American Airlines Flight 77. He had a doctorate in operations research and had worked many years analyzing budget issues. He was headed to an economics conference in California when the hijacking occurred and perished in the crash along with the fifty-eight others on the flight.
As one might imagine, I have been incensed over the years hearing conspiracy theorists, such as Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green, state that there is no evidence a plane hit the Pentagon. Of course there is — and plenty of it. The pieces of the aircraft could be seen being gathered on the northern edge of the Pentagon’s North Parking lot for months after the attack. When the fire was extinguished and the roads opened, I drove by that growing collection of debris for the remainder of 2001 and well in to 2002. That little factual inconvenience alone is sufficient for me to discredit those advancing foolish, fact-free conspiracies.
I generally left work rather late, and the fire in the roof of the Pentagon was visible for several more days, smoldering as various first responder teams tried to extinguish it. The damage and the losses were only six percent of those in New York where the absence of the towers on the Manhattan skyline was stark evidence that something horrible had happened. Being a city where no structure exceeds the height of the capitol building, the damage at the five-story Pentagon was not as overtly obvious. And given that the old building was being extensively renovated at the time of the attack, the repair to its western face was completed in a year, and now contains a memorial plaza to the 184 people killed in the attack, a number including those on Flight 77.
It could have all been much worse, but it was certainly bad enough as it was.