15 Years

In 2001, I was assigned to the Logistics Directorate (J4) of  United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) in Norfolk, Virginia.  I was the Logistics Readiness Officer.  In that capacity I oversaw the negotiation of the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement between the Department of Defense and the Ministry of Defense for Canada. The last stage for finalizing that agreement was a briefing at the Pentagon and the affixing of signatures of a general officer from both countries. I had arranged for the briefing in July only to have it rescheduled first to a date in August then to the morning of 11 September.   The office at the Pentagon coordinating the meeting settled for a 9:30 start time on that Tuesday morning.  My boss thought this would be a good opportunity to get some other meetings scheduled so I had appointments set up over two days with the intention of returning  to Norfolk on the afternoon of the 12th.  On Monday, 10 September I made the 3 hour drive to Arlington.

I had dinner with my younger brother and his wife in Alexandria on Monday evening.  On Tuesday morning, I took the Yellow Line on the Metro from Crystal City to the Pentagon and joined the thousands of military, government civilians, contractors and visitors that went to that massive building along the Potomac River.  After going through the visitors center to get an unescorted badge, I made my way to the office where I was going to be briefing later that morning.

Just before 9 am, the office started to become focused on events unfolding in New York.  Televisions were turned on and we watched , in horror, the scene in lower Manhattan.  American Airlines 11 had already crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  While the news of the “accident” was reported by the media, the Pentagon was swinging into action.  The Navy Captain who was supposed to take my briefing sent me into the conference room with my Canadian counterparts to go through the last formalities to sign the agreement on the table.  As we were working, news of United Airlines Flight 175 hitting the South Tower in New York came through.

I was battle-rostered to Joint Task Force – Civil Support as part of my duties at  USJFCOM. That Task Force was established to coordinate military support to civil authorities in the event of a consequence management situation caused by either natural or manmade events.  I called down to my office in Norfolk to let them that I was not in position to respond should that Task Force be activated and that if they were going to New York, I would meet them there. My gear was in my garage at home. My first concern was trying to figure out how to get my gear and myself to the Task Force headquarters.

010911-N-6157F-001

010911-N-6157F-001 Arlington, Va. (Sep. 11, 2001) — Wreckage from the hijacked American Airlines FLT 77 sits on the west lawn of the Pentagon minutes after terrorists crashed the aircraft into southwest corner of the building. The Boeing 757 was bound for Los Angeles with 58 passengers and 6 crew. All aboard the aircraft were killed, along with 125 people in the Pentagon. U.S. Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Mark D. Faram. (RELEASED)

We went back into the conference room at about 9:30.  At 9:37 there was a loud shudder in the C Ring of the Pentagon.  That was followed immediately by a muffled explosion as American Airlines Flight 77 hit the western façade of the Pentagon.

There was an odd silence in the larger office space as everyone tried to comprehend what was happening.  I do not remember any alarms sounding or panic spreading. There was an order to exit the building and to muster at a location just outside of the mall entrance along the North side of the building.  Once outside we could see thick smoke coming up from an area on the West side of the building.  A secondary explosion was heard, I later learned that the fuel tank at the helicopter pad cooked off from the heat of the fire.

Knowing that people were going to need help, a large group of military and government civilians reentered the building to look for people trapped or injured in the building.  I do not know where they came from, but litters and backboards seemed to appear out of no where.  In small groups we went back in and started to look for people.  There were walking wounded and people who needed assistance to get to an exit.  Smoke started filling the main hallway in the C Ring  between corridor 6 and corridor 5. You could smell the jet fuel burning and taste the dust and smoke from the structural damage caused as the Boeing 757 penetrated the outside of the E ring and continued through the D and C rings.  I have been told that parts of the aircraft and debris actually made a breach in the B ring.

Not knowing how many people were trapped, we began organizing searches.  As I was not assigned to the building and did not have more than a rudimentary understanding of the layout, I started walking people out who only needed a little assistance.  I found a woman on a stairway having trouble breathing, we carried her out to the North entrance where a make shift triage was being set up to deal with the injured.  After a few more trips, people being carried out had more severe injuries, broken bones and burns.  The smell of the fire and the combination of smoke and dust was becoming overwhelming and the fire was spreading as spilled jet fuel, building materials and office furniture ignited.

At this point it was too dangerous to go back in the building.  The Arlington Fire Department would not let anyone back in who did not have an oxygen tank. As I was trying to make sense of all I was looking at, an announcement was made that a second hijacked air liner  was heading towards the Pentagon. There was an evacuation alarm sounded and everyone was ordered away from the building.  The mass of people around the outside of the building began to move  towards Arlington National Cemetery to the north, the Potomac River to the east and Pentagon City Mall to the south. Some emergency personnel and vehicles fell back to a “safe” distance. Many ignored the order, staying to try to get to people trapped inside.  Huge billows of black and grey smoke poured out of the gaping hole in the west side of the building.  The sound of sirens, helicopters and shouts of first responders filled the air.  Along the grassy section to the north of the building medical personnel worked frantically to triage the injured.  Helicopters buzzed around, stopping to pick up their charges. It was surreal looking over the frantic scene with the tranquil hills of Arlington National Cemetery just beyond the chaos. The only aircraft I saw in the air  were Air Force F-16s.  When they flew over, the panic subsided.  We had angels on our shoulders. The plane we thought was coming our way had gone down in Pennsylvania as passengers on United Flight 93 fought back.

Phone service was out.  I had no way of contacting anyone to tell them I was OK or to find out where I should report.  Because I had dinner the night before with my brother, my family was aware of my location that morning.  I know that they were talking by phone and through Instant Messenger trying to get news.  I walked back to my hotel in Crystal City to a packed lobby of people who had come from Ronald Reagan National Airport trying to book a room.  All flights in the United States were grounded. As I walked into the lobby, the sound was deafening.  I did not realize that my uniform was dusty and smelled like smoke.  As I crossed the lobby, the concierge came up to me and asked me if I was injured.  I reassured her I was fine and that I needed to make a couple of calls and check out when the highway reopened.  I let people know I was OK and my office directed me to proceed back to Norfolk, check in with my family, get into a clean uniform and get back to the office.  I left Crystal City just after 4 pm.

The drive home was like no other trip back from DC.  There were almost no vehicles on the road as far south as Richmond. I saw some National Guard vehicles and some large cranes heading north. It was like some strange dystopian world I was driving through.  When I arrived at home I was relieved to see my family.  My sons were visibly upset with all the reports they had heard that day.  My youngest, just two months shy of his 8th birthday, frisked me for bandages just to make sure I wasn’t concealing anything from him. My uniform went into the garbage can outside.  I saved my collar devices, I wore an oak leaf that had belonged to my father and I was not going to part with that. I also realized that I still had the visitor badge from the Pentagon with me. I went back to work that night a little after 9 pm and reported what I had seen to my Director in the Joint Operations Center. It had been a little over 12 hours since the attacks had begun.

Through all of the chaos that day, I learned that the National Command Center at the Pentagon never ceased operating.  On 12 September, the Pentagon was open for business, even though recovery efforts continued in the damaged west section of the building.  Military, Government Civilians, and  Contractors reported for work the next day.  We were hit, we were never down.

On the morning of 11 September I was planning my day and looking forward to catching an episode of “Band Of Brothers” on HBO that evening at my hotel.  At 9:37 am, everything went off the rails.  Twelve hours later I was in the Joint Operations Center at JFCOM.  There was work to be done.  A little over 16 months later I was in Bahrain, waiting for the beginning of combat operations. My life turned on a dime.  I made some decisions that day on what was working and not working in my life.  I have since made a lot of changes, hopefully for the better.

I worry that America is forgetting what happened 15 years ago.  To many it seems a distant memory. Unlike the aftermath of Pearl Harbor in 1941, there was no national mobilization.  Only about 1% of the population has served in the military and fewer Americans can say that they have friends or loved ones in the services.  For the most part, I think it is leaving the national consciousness as people are becoming more concerned with the things that divide us, especially in this toxic political season in which we find ourselves.  I can’t believe we have gotten to the point where we need to remind people what happened on this day.

I still wake up sometimes with the very real memory of the smell of  burning  jet fuel.