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Remembering 9/11: What Would You Do When Faced With Mass Death?

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at September 11, 2021

September 11, 2001, started as just another day in the Pentagon bureaucracy. And then suddenly it wasn’t. With 26,000 other people, I evacuated the building and flooded into one of the two massive parking lots. Like those 26,000 other people, I tried to make a phone call. Here’s my story of that day.

That morning my staff and I were discussing some military acquisition program and its various problems. We sketched out costs and alternatives around my conference table in 2B256. At about 0900, our office manager came in to say that a plane had struck one of the twin towers in New York. Being in the national security business, we all knew about the incident in World War II when a U.S. B-25 bomber struck the Empire State building in bad weather. At about 0930, she came in and said that a plane had hit the other tower. We looked at each other and concluded that this was not a coincidence.

However, we were not as smart as we might have been. About 10 minutes later (at 0937 to be exact), we felt the building shudder. At first, we thought that a truck might have hit one of the supports under our office. It has happened before. However, looking out the window at an interior motorway, we saw black smoke billowing towards us and people running.

At the same time, we could hear voices rising in the passageway outside. The voices weren’t panicked, but there were way too many for a normal day. And they were agitated. I told the staff to lock up their classified arterials and evacuate. At this point, Bill Gates and Windows 95 nearly got me killed.

Windows 95 took some time to shut down after you gave it the command. If you overrode the shutdown procedure, the computer would give you an error message the next time you logged on. Having been trained to avoid this error message. I waited for about 30 seconds for Windows 95 to shut down correctly. Then I pulled the classified package out of the computer and put it in the safe. If I had been thinking more clearly, I would have just pulled the classified package and suffered the error message later.

There was no panic as people moved along the corridor and outside the building. In South parking, one of the Pentagon’s two massive parking lots, tens of thousands of people milled about. No one knew what happened. I tried to call my wife, but the phone system collapsed from so many people trying to call at a single location. Someone said that a plane had struck the building. I was thinking something small, a Cessna, and walked around to that side of the building to take a look. The exterior was smoking, and there was a large hole, but nothing of a plane visible. Shortly after, I heard an internal structural collapse. Then the police moved us along.

Now Pentagon parking was declared a crime scene, and we were unable to get our cars out. Metro had shut down, so I walked up to a hill overlooking the Pentagon and watched it burn for the next three hours (and got thoroughly sunburned in the process). A journalist asked what I thought. My response was that Ho Chi Minh couldn’t kill me (I served a tour in Vietnam), Saddam Hussein couldn’t kill me (I had done a tour in Iraq), no terrorist was going to kill me.

Eventually, the phone system came back up, and I was able to get a message to a friend who disseminated the good news to my family. I was okay. My wife was with a friend of the family, glued to the TV. Our two sons were in high school together and had gone to each other’s classroom to sit together until they heard about dad. In this, they were like many students in the area waiting to hear about a parent. Many friends and family checked in.

Not all families had such good news. The tragedy of the day was that no one knew who had been killed in the Pentagon. There was no master list until several days later. Many families in Washington sat at the dinner table on September 11, waiting for someone who never arrived. To the nation outside of New York and Washington, 9/11 was a major national event. In Washington, it was the local news.

Our immediate office was lucky. One of our members had gone to a meeting in the Army spaces at the point of impact. Fortunately, he had stopped to talk to someone along the way and was not at the designated room when the plane hit. If he had been early for his meeting, he might have been the 185th name on the Pentagon Memorial.

One of our colleagues in another office was not as lucky. By tragic coincidence, he was on the plane itself, headed for a conference on the West Coast. Rest in peace, Brian Jack.

So, what would you do if faced with mass death and a world turned upside-down? You would do what I and all those people in South parking did on 9/11. You would reach out to someone to say that you loved them. It might be a spouse, a child, a parent, a lover, a friend. But in those moments of trauma, we would want that connection because, ultimately, those relationships define our lives.

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