Sunday, September 11, 2011

It was a regular Tuesday morning

It was a regular Tuesday morning. Nothing exciting, just a regular Tuesday morning. The sun was shining and summer was almost over. I woke up about 0600 and did PT, just as I did every morning before I went to work. It was a nice morning, the humidity of summer had passed and I took my time and ran a little longer than usual. And because of that I was just a bit late and missed my normal train. But Metro trains run every 10 minutes so no worries. At one stop someone got on the Metro and started talking about a plane flying into a building in New York. I only half listened, there was always some crazy person talking nonsense on the train.

The Pentagon was being renovated. It’s a huge building; actually five nested pentagon-shaped buildings of five stories each with more than 17 miles of corridors. It was built during World War II, a solid concrete building, but now was more than 50 years old and in bad need of upgrading. The renovation was planned to work one ‘pie slice’ of the building at a time. My unit was located on the ground floor in the first ‘pie slice’. We had been temporarily relocated to nearby office buildings during the renovation, but now that our area was completed, we were in the process of moving back into the Pentagon.

On Tuesday morning I needed to take some paperwork the Pentagon and bring back some office supplies, but because I was running late, I figured I’d stop at our temp office and get a few things done and then go over to the Pentagon later, maybe for lunch. I got off the Metro at Pentagon City, the last stop just prior to the Pentagon, and went up to the office. As I walked in the office I joked to my Colonel that I had heard some crazy talk about New York and planes and he said no, it’s true and we went in the conference room to see the story on the news. We cracked goofy jokes. What wacko would fly into a building? With all the sky over New York City, how did they actually fly into a building? The details on the news hadn’t said anything about a hijacking or that it was a commercial jet. We just figured it was a small plane, no major damage, no big deal. But as we watched the live broadcast, we saw the second plane as it crashed World Trade Center. The conference room had filled with my coworkers and we all just stood there in shock. It didn’t look real. It couldn’t be real. I half expected to see Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis come on saying that we had just seen a preview of their next movie.

But this was a work day, just like every other work day. And altho shocked by happenings in New York, we had duties and responsibilities and we went back to our desk areas and continued our normal routine. And then we heard/felt a deep bang. Not so much a crash, but a deep sound like a electric transformer blowing and someone got a phone call that the Pentagon was on fire. Still not relating this to New York events, we figured that there was some goof-up in the Pentagon renovation work and something minor – like an electric transformer exploding. Oh, those goofy construction workers. What’ll they do next?

And then we got a phone call and we were ordered to evacuate the building. What? Why? It made no sense. No fire alarms were ringing; the fire was about a block away over at the Pentagon. We still had not heard about the plane crashing into the Pentagon. We were still assuming that it was a construction-related incident. We were preparing for a big meeting and the Colonel and I and a few others were preparing a briefing. This ‘fire drill’ would soon be over and I’d go to the Pentagon and get those office supplies. And again someone from the Commanding General’s office called to confirm everyone needed to evacuate ... and said a plane had crashed into the Pentagon......

I knew my mom would hear the news and worry. I tried to call her at work, but she hadn’t arrived yet. I left a message to tell her I was ok and I’d try to call later. But that was the last phone call I was able to make for several days.

And then we were told there was another hijacked airplane headed our way. We didn’t know if it was going to hit the Pentagon or Washington DC., but no one was taking chances. The Colonel told the remaining people in the office to go home. (This was the plane that later crashed in Pennsylvania.)

I couldn’t believe it. Not here. This was Washington DC. This was the heart of the United States government. Something was happening in New York, but not here. The Pentagon? Nothing would ever happen at/to the Pentagon. Who would dare strike the headquarters of the United States military? But there was the smoke. And the smell of burning. And panic on the faces of people running. I saw ugly black clouds of smoke billowing up from the building. And people running -- lots of people -- running away from the Pentagon and from Washington.

I was not able to get to the Pentagon until three days later. The area of the fire was blocked off, but the smell was everywhere. I know several Soldiers who were heroes that day and helped guide people out of the building and others who provided medical care to the injured. I also know several people who perished in the fire. The body of my friend Lieutenant Colonel David Scales was found at his desk. He had just sent an email to his wife—the same as he did every day. It was an ordinary day... and then it wasn’t.

Sometimes I feel guilty. Like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can’t look at pictures of the Pentagon without recognizing that my office was just a few windows to the right of the point of impact. I try not to think too much about it. Before September 11th I would stand at the window and look out to Arlington Cemetery and the rows and rows of tombstones of Soldiers who gave up their lives in defense of our country. But now -- if I let myself think about it -- I know that if I had been on time that morning, if I had gone straight to the Pentagon instead of to the temporary offices, I would have been at my desk when the jet impacted the building. Some days I feel guilty because I wasn’t where I should have been -- I feel guilty that I survived only because I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.