What follows is the text of an email I sent to my family and friends on 9/21/2001, entitled “Where were you on September 11, 2001?” At their request I gave my eyewitness account of the attack on the Pentagon.
We as a nation have just experienced what may be the most horrific event this generation will know. For those who lived through it, this will surely be one of which people will ask, “Where were you on September 11th 2001?” And we will all remember where we were and what we were doing that morning.
As for me, I was there, sitting in my car on the parking deck, less than 80 feet from the Mall entrance to the Pentagon. My wife, a Col. In the Army National Guard Bureau, assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, had her office in the “A” ring with a highly coveted window overlooking the inner courtyard. I was there that morning to assist her in moving boxes since her office was due to be transferred to another building by the end of the week.
At about 8:15 a.m. we said goodbye to our two children, a thirteen year old daughter and seven year old son, whom we home school and left them to work on their assignments. I expected to return within two hours, so I admonished my son to stay focused on his work so that we could get started on math class as soon as I got back.
I had been up very late the previous night making preparations for a family reunion I would host at our Fort Belvoir home on Saturday the 15th. I was still very sleepy and had to slap myself a few rimes to stay awake. I spent the whole drive in, trying to work out how I might squeeze in a nap, given the packed schedule I had for the day.
When we arrived at the Pentagon it took several minutes to get the van cleared through security at the River entrance ramp. According to my temporary pass, we pulled in at 8:41 a.m. and swung the car around to the Mall side parking deck and slipping into one of the scarce visitor’s slots near the entrance. Between her walk to the “A” ring and the usual interruptions she gets, I knew I would have up to 30 minutes before my wife and her assistant, the “Gunny”, would come out with the boxes. That took care of the nap issue!
The morning air was crisp, clear, blue, not a cloud in the sky. A pre-Autumn chill in the air made me keep the windows rolled up and it was easy to settle back and doze. Eventually I spotted the Marine “gunny” from my wife’s office pushing a large cartload of boxes through the doors. I backed out of my parking space and pulled up to the base of the broad entrance steps. Together we emptied the cart. “I’ll be a little while coming back with the second load,” he said. Just then my wife descended the stairs in a hurry and said, “I have to go back to my office for about ten minutes. I have to write a couple of memos. They’ve just hit the World Trade Center in New York and we don’t know if there are other targets.”
Over the years she has been stationed in the Pentagon, I had often complained of the low over flights permitted and that the METRO runs directly beneath the building. I always imagined that when the attack did come, it would be a sudden rush of terrorists up the escalators from the subway. So, I gave the Col. a kiss and said, “I don’t know about other targets, but I would be more worried about THIS building.” As usual she dismissed the idea as ridiculous, “This is just a glorified office building full of bureaucrats; we’re not worth the effort.” She dashed up the stairs and disappeared through the entrance, followed closely by the “gunny”.
As the guards tend to get a little edgy when unofficial vehicles linger at the entrance, I moved the van back to the parking slot and settled back again to wait. A few minutes later I sat bolt upright, my attention suddenly snapped back to the building, instantly aware of the ROAR of engines. I could not see the source but I knew without doubt what was about to happen! I can’t explain how I knew what I could not see but time suddenly slowed to a crawl and I thought, “It’s coming and it’s going to hit.”
The scene seemed to move almost in a series of still pictures, frame by frame, . . . Click! . . . Click! . . . Click! The roar of the engines came to a sickening stop and there was a fraction of a moment when for me there was no sound in all the earth. Then an oddly hushed THUD! Debris sloshed over the roof and rained gently along the parking deck before me, like water from a child’s wading pool, nothing big, all small pieces. Then came the concussion; the ground shook; the building shook; and then the noise came back! I looked up into the beautiful blue of the sky, filling now with an angry, boiling, swelling thing. A black and blinding orange ball of pure hate rose to what seemed like two hundred feet in height and breadth above the Pentagon’s central courtyard. Then came the heat blast, like a concussion, only silent. Through the glass I felt my skin begin to burn and for those few seconds I knew the face of Satan!
From where I sat I was positive it had hit the central courtyard. Judging from the direction it came in, I knew it would have taken the whole “A” ring, passing through my wife’s office on its way to the Offices of the Secretary of Defense. Of course! That would be the logical target! Did Denise hear the roar as I did and look out the window? There would be no time to run. Did she see it? Did she suffer? These were the thoughts as my mind grappled with the conviction that my wife was now dead>
I sprang from my car but realized I would not be allowed in the building. I tried to climb on the parking deck wall as if that might help me see over the roof into the courtyard. I ran mindlessly back to the car and dialed her office and let it ring 30 times, no answer. I thought of our children at home on Fort Belvoir. MY GOD! MY GOD! Are they bombing other military installations? No, no, this was a plane, not a bomb. Should I call the kids? No, they should not be alone when they hear! Have they heard? No, no, the radio is going on and on about New York, old news; they don’t know yet. Thank You God! I need to go to them! I need to stay here!
I called Denise’s sister at the Department of Education. “I want you to go get the kids. Get them off the installation!” “I CAN’T,” she screamed. “I have to get my sister!” I begged her to go to our children. “YOY go get the kids,” She screamed. “I’m going to get my sister.” I tried to calm myself. “You don’t understand,” I pleaded. “There’s no getting in and there is no getting out.” “I don’t care, I WILL GET MY SISTER OUT OF THERE!”
I was no use. Her primal instincts had kicked in. There would be no reasoning with this woman. I could not bring myself to say out loud to her, the certainty I felt in my heart that her sister was dead. Finally I just had to let her go.
Try to call Aunt Jean. She could get to the fort in 20 minutes if the roads weren’t jammed yet! “We are sorry but all circuits are busy. Please try your call again later.” Ten agonizing minutes went by as I struggled to get word out to someone who could help. Sirens all over now, yet no crowds pouring from the doors; only a few stragglers, coughing, brushing off plaster dust, trying to breathe. Was it so devastating? Are there more dead than alive?
Maybe she made it! Maybe so! Is it possible? I grabbed a lady in a gray suit. She was dazed and doubled over, trying to catch her breath. “Did it hit the courtyard, did it hit the courtyard”, I yelled as I shook her. “I don’t know. What was it,” she asked. I told her it was a plane. “Oh God! If it hit the courtyard then they are all gone!” “Did you know someone in there,” she asked. “Yes, yes I did,” I said. “My wife’s office was on the courtyard side.” The woman gave me a sorrowful look and walked off.
Back in the car again, trying to get a line out, trying to adjust to my new status as a war widower with two children to raise. I rest my forehead on the steering wheel and pray: “God be with me. I need you with me now.” I look up through the windshield across the parking deck. There is someone over there; a little black lady, searching, looking for someone. She is wearing the green suit. She turns in my direction . . . and I look into the face of an angel. God, Oh God, it’s her, unhurt, looking for me!
We ran for each other and embraced, just like in the movies. I can’t describe the joy and relief that rained down me, gently like the debris on the parking deck. “Where were you when it hit,” I cried. I think I must have been the first to ask that question . . . “Where were you when . . ?”
Where was she? She was in her office, after all, preparing her memos and worrying about her oldest son who lives in Manhattan. She was distracted by a noise and glanced out her window in time to see Flight 77, on its final approach, drop below the horizon of the roofline of the newly renovated wedge directly across the courtyard from her. There was no time to run, no time to warn, just time to watch in stunned horror as a second later it hit. The fireball mushroomed before her as her thoughts now turned to her friends on the Army Staff side who had just moved into the new section. Some of them were fellow Army Guard. Collecting herself she moved quickly to the hall to alert unbelieving ears to evacuate the building.
. . . And my children at home? They received a call from their Aunt Carrie about the “accident” at the World Trade Center, with a sly inquiry about the whereabouts of their mother. They turned on the television just in time to watch the second plane hit Tower 2 and wonder at the fate of their brother in Manhattan. Soon the New York coverage was interrupted with “Breaking News from the Pentagon.” The bone-chilling scream that escaped my daughter’s lips as she collapsed to the floor brought a neighbor running from the house next door. She knew her parents were dead.
We were not dead, of course, and on her way through the building to find me, Denise managed to slip a call out on her cell phone to tell the children she was safe and looking for me.
From the Mall parking deck we were evacuated down the grassy slope, past the heliport, to Washington Boulevard where police were hastily stringing tape around the site. All of us glanced back, like Lot’s wife, to the inferno raging near the heliport. Fire and smoke, joy and relief, guilt and grief all swirled together as we watched the hungry flames. I felt guilt and grief, knowing Denise was alive because others were dead and dying, while simultaneously I was feeling the joy. It is done. I can’t change it. She is alive and they are dead. Ad now I stand in the middle of the highway and touch her and know that it is done.
A shout suddenly rises from the police line. “RUN! RUN! ANOTHER PLANE HAS BEEN HIJACKED AND IS ON ITS WAY TO THE PENTAGON!”
I struggle with our bags and we begin to run. Hundreds of us run, not crazed, but running for our lives down Washington Boulevard toward Rosslyn; the USA Today twin towers loom before; the Washington Monument, brilliant and tall in the sunlight, to our right across the Potomac.
People break between Denise and I, running. I see only bits of her as the distance grows; now a calf, now a shoe, now a shoulder, like the little bits of debris back on the parking deck. Focus on the pieces, I tell myself. Don’t let her slip away again! My stomach drops. I hear her shout, “TIMMY!” She always calls me “Timothy” or “Tim,” never “Timmy,” unless in a panic. I shout back through the crush, “I’m here!” I drop back a few paces; find an opening and dash through, dropping in behind her. “I’m here, here!” She reaches back. I grab her hand and I feel her skin again. My joy returns. If we are to die in the nest moments we at least have fair warning and we will be together.
After half a mile the pace slows. We begin taking turns making calls on Denise’s cell phone. She calls Manhattan; circuits busy. I call an aunt in Baltimore who was recovering from recent heart surgery. I don’t want her to worry. I get through: “This is Sister Mary Lucy. Please leave your name and number and I will return your call shortly.” I leave a hurried message. Denise calls New York again; still no line. She begins to take inventory of people, recognizing this one and that one. “Did so and so get out? . . . Have you seen the guys from . . . ?”
I begin to notice things in the road; a gear here, a bolt there, a piece of creamy plastic something, a spiked silver metal disk I recognize as a hubcap blasted from its rim; nothing big, nothing big, all small gentle pieces. No one leans over to touch or pick up. It is a crime scene and all respect that. We hear a rumor that the State Department was hit with a car bomb. We don’t know what happened to the other incoming plane. People speculate it has been shot down.
On the bridge now, walking toward the Lincoln Memorial, I have time to start thinking silly thoughts, a healthy sign. The Washington Monument still stands. I think, “How beautiful the view is from the bridge; Arlington National and the smoldering Pentagon on the right, the Memorial and the Capitol on the left and the glassy river running calmly in between. How can anything be calm?” People walking from Washington, some running, adjusting uniforms pulled on in haste — young reservists running to the Pentagon to see how they could help, not waiting for the call. God bless them! I suddenly remember my mother-in-law, Lucinda and Richard, her son, who lie together in a grave across the boulevard from the attack site, in the back section of Arlington National Cemetery. In my mind I see Lucinda reaching up from her grave, like the statue of “The Awakening” in Potomac Park, to grab that plane and pull it down. “Oh no you DON’T,” she would say. “Not my baby! Not today!” Then she slipped gently back to her rest and the guilt returned for the other “babies” who died. Still, I thanked Lucinda for giving her daughter to me twice.
We approach the Memorial. Park Police on horseback direct us away. The city is obviously closed, no buses, no subway, for it runs under the Pentagon. Nothing to do but walk back to the Pentagon; try to get across to Pentagon City, somehow, and try to get home from there. On the bridge again, we manage to get the kids on the phone. “Daddy?” “Yes, Baby Doll.” “I really thought you and Mommy were dead.” She sobbed. I paused, my heart breaking. “I know, Baby, I know what you felt.”
Another miracle, we get through to my sister-in-law. Thank God. If we can somehow get to her she can drive us home to the children. Bad news, we are on opposite sides of the Pentagon. We tell her to go on to get the kids. We’ll figure another way home. More bad news, “What do you mean you don’t have a car?” It seems Carrie was true to her word. She did make it to the Pentagon. She even managed, beyond all odds, to get her car into South Parking where she ditched it and made her way toward the building, only to be dragged kicking and clawing from the South Entrance doors. She was now, like us, trapped on foot!
I try Aunt Jean again — no circuits. I try my sister in Columbia, Maryland and get through. She reminds me that our nephew lives near the Fort, in Lorton, Va. I reached him and within twenty minutes he was on his way to the kids.
We approach the Pentagon again, still on Washington Boulevard, on foot, as close as we are permitted to get. After desperate hours of trying to get through to New York, we finally discover that my stepson was at home in his Manhattan apartment when the towers fell — sixty blocks away!
The three of us shared our joy over an open cell phone line; Michael in Manhattan, gazing ten floors below at the street jammed with people fleeing lower Manhattan, and us, standing on the highway watching the Pentagon burn. And I think of an old nursery rhyme we used to sing as kids, except under my breath I sing new words: “Guilt, guilt go away. Come again another day!”
You may wonder how we did make it home that night. After trekking a couple of miles around the northern perimeter to the south side of the complex, we got on the only operating bus in sight. My sister-in-law, Carrie, who happened to be aboard and had spotted her sister in the crowd a block away, was forcefully holding it in place for us. She hollered and waved as she physically blocked the doors open. “That’s My Sister! That’s My Sister!”
The next morning, my wife and thousands of others rose before dawn. They quietly pulled on their uniforms, white, blue, kaki and green. Traveling by foot or by thumb, begging, borrowing and sharing rides, they arrived ON TIME at their desks and put in an honest day’s work getting the nation’s business done, while down the halls of their “glorified office building” still burned bright with flames.
Family members began to call. “Are you still going to hold the family reunion on Saturday,” they asked. “YOU BET I AM,” I replied. “If we have to plan our lives around evil things, then we must submit ourselves completely to the power of evil. I am not in a submissive mood.”
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
Several weeks after the attack, the remains of one of the victims were laid to rest after positive DNA identification. Her name was Sandra Foster, “The Duchess” to her husband and stepsons. She was the “baby” of one of our friends with whom we attended church for over two decades. For over twenty years Sandra worked as an civilian employee in the budget office of the Army Staff, which had, just days before the 11th, moved into their newly renovated suite.
Sandra was incinerated when the fuselage of the plane passed through her office. My children and I attended her services and burial. By special order of the President, she was buried in the back section of Arlington National Cemetery, which overlooks the attack site at the Pentagon. She lies 50 yards beyond my mother-in-law’s gave.