Last year on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I wrote an essay describing my experiences during and after the attack at the Pentagon, where I was working on that terrible day. This year, the eleventh anniversary, didn’t garner as much media attention. This is both good and bad. Good in that we are moving away from the horror. We have survived and hopefully have learned things about ourselves as a nation and as individuals. Bad because it should be recognized every year for the great shocking horrible tragedy that it was. The ‘Today” show, which I have always disliked anyway, chose to ignore the moment of silence obsereved by all the other major networks and continue broadcasting their interview with the Kardashian’s mother about her boob job. No joke.
This morning we learned of an attack on our Libyan Embassy where our ambassador and others were murdered by an angry mob. They were angry about a YouTube video that insulted their religion. There are photos on the internet of citizens taking pictures of the unconscious (or already dead) ambassador with their cellphones. When will we humans start to be more… human?
This year 9/11 fell on a Tuesday, the same weekday as the attack. I’m posting my essay that was printed in the Oregonian last year here.
Remembering 9/11: Inside the Pentagon
Published: Saturday, September 10, 2011, 12:04 PM
By Linda Paul
On 9/11 I was at my desk in the Pentagon, where I was the operations manager for a computer support team in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. A co-worker told me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Before I could get The New York Times online, she came back and said there was a second plane. The first shock was realizing that it was done on purpose.
My computer users started calling because they couldn’t get on the Internet. I told them there was just too much traffic.
“But this is the Pentagon!” one man complained.
When the plane struck us, there was a single loud “boom,” more like a solid but muffled thud and the office shuddered, identical to the shudder of an earthquake. Our partitions squeaked a little. Our noisy office was deadly silent for a few seconds. It’s a testament to the Pentagon, the largest office building in the world and a genuine fortress, that more people weren’t killed that day. Shuffling toward the exits with thousands of others, I noticed how subdued we were. No shouting or panic, just a quiet mob leaving the building. Outside, I looked back to see the giant black cloud of smoke hovering over the building. I thought, “They’re killing us with our own damn airplanes.” I may have said this aloud.
I walked around the building toward the crash site. Already there were fire trucks and rescuers running toward the gash. I saw black smoke pouring from the wall, flames and debris. A security guard was waving people away, shouting, “Go home! Go home!” One of my first thoughts was that this is what religion does for us. A former Sunday morning mass attendee, I have been unable to go back to church since, except on a couple of rare occasions involving my aunts and Christmas.
I usually rode the Metro to work, but on that day, I drove. When I reached my car I saw that the parking lot attendant had thrown open his gates allowing us to exit for free. Although I lived only four miles from the Pentagon, it took an hour to get home. By this time, all the planes had been ordered out of the sky and fighter jets had scrambled overhead in Washington. D.C. As I sat in traffic, a plane zoomed so close over me that I gripped my steering wheel with both hands and screamed aloud, alone in my car, as the plane shrieked by. That was the only time I “lost it,” and it was the only time I felt the fear I had been suppressing all morning.
That evening, my boss (many rungs up the ladder from me), Donald Rumsfeld, went on the air and said that the Department of Defense was still open for business. I took that as an order to be at work in the morning. When I awoke the next day, I smelled a fire. The heavy, musty smell of smoke hung in the air for miles around, and lasted for weeks.
My team and I were back at work at 7 the next morning, setting up computers in a nearby building for the engineers and analysts we supported. Our Pentagon office was now part of a crime scene and had been secured with yellow tape. My greatest accomplishment during the next week was to persuade the Army MPs to allow us inside the yellow tape to retrieve some important objects from our office. One of our young guys put on a hazmat suit and, like Bruce Willis in “Armageddon,” lumbered down the toxic hallway into the unknown. We stood at the end of the corridor, shouting encouragement. He came back with garbage bags containing laptops, my Rolodex, our backup tapes and CDs, and someone’s slippers.
During the following days I frequently saw people walking along who would suddenly recognize an acquaintance passing by. Cries of “Hey, man!” “Hey, girl!” “Good to see you. Where you at?” were everywhere. We really were glad to see each other. We didn’t know who was gone. Those weeks after the attack were full of hugs and handshakes.
We were allowed back into our offices after about three weeks. We needed portable air purifiers for months afterward.
Counting the five hijackers, 189 people died in the attack on the Pentagon. We had a memorial display of all the Pentagon victims with a photo and biography of each person. I read each one, more than once. A few of them have stuck in my mind all these years.
A young analyst from our department, Bryan Jack, was on Flight 77 that day. We were grieving for him as we worked our way through the next few weeks, putting ourselves in his shoes, forced by knowing him to consider the genuine terror he must have felt. I take the word “terrorist” literally now. Predictions of catastrophe don’t frighten me.
LTG Timothy Maude had been the commander of 1st Personnel Command in Heidelberg, Germany, where I worked for a while. I received emails from some of my former co-workers there, military and civilian, who had fond memories of him and wanted to send their good thoughts of him out into the ether. The general and his staff had been moved just days earlier into the offices struck by the hijacked plane.
Max Beilke was a retired Army master sergeant who was the last U.S. Army person to leave Vietnam. Nearly 70, he had been in the Pentagon that day working on veterans issues. Amelia Fields was working her second day of her new job in the Pentagon. Sept. 11 was her birthday. When I read her memorial, I thought about how excited I had been when I started my job in the Pentagon.
I lived two miles from Ronald Reagan National Airport, which did not reopen until October 2001. I welcomed the peace and quiet, but I had to watch any plane in the sky until I was satisfied that it was just flying by. On my morning bus ride it was not unusual to see all the commuters stare in unison at a dot in the sky until it disappeared, or to see all heads turn to the sound of a siren approaching. Here in Northwest Portland I don’t see that many planes. But when I’m driving along Skyline or Kaiser Road, or out in the back roads between Forest Grove and Hillsboro, I might see a plane in the sky — I still have to keep an eye on it, to make sure it’s just flying by.
This is a great column, Linda; really makes you feel what it must have been like that day…
Thanks! Sorry I recycled . but the blog is new. lp
Linda, that was a really good personal account of what you experienced that day and I can not begin to imagine the horror of it all and in the years afterward as well. What you said about the Kardashian boob job – incredible! what’s the matter with these people!
Your post has really touched me.
Thanks Vicky. I’ve not posted for a couple of weeks, I had some minor surgery that knocked me down, but I’m feeling all better now. Thanks for your comments. lp