September 11, 2001: I was Supposed to Be There

But I wasn’t. As a civilian employee of the Army, I was entitled to subsidy tickets when I took public transportation to and from work. Since the nearest ticket office was out of the denominations I needed, I had planned to whisk over to the Pentagon the morning of September 11, 2001. The counter there always had a full selection. From experience, I knew the hordes of people on their way to work cleared by 9:00 a.m. and planned to leave my office then.

The early morning of September 11 was absolutely gorgeous. The sky was a clear blue punctuated by billowy white clouds slowly drifting overhead. I was actually at the Pentagon around 6:45 AM, when my commuter bus stopped to drop off and pick up passengers. I looked out the window at the familiar stone walls inside which I had worked since 1995 until taking a one-year detail in Crystal City, just a few blocks away, during the summer. Many of us on the bus were well acquainted. We teased each other amiably each day, at least until 6:10 AM, when etiquette demanded silence to allow some to catch 45 minutes of sleep. Going home, we all looked tired and were often stressed, certainly not very talkative. Civilians were interspersed with personnel in Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine uniforms.

After the bus dropped me off at the corner near my office only five minutes later, I walked silently toward my building, reviewing the agenda of what I had to accomplish. I slid my card through the reader at the front door of the building, took the elevator to my cubicle, and noted the lights were out in my supervisor’s office. By 7:30 AM, workers began to trickle into the office, flip on their computers, and exchange a few jokes before getting down to the business of the day.

I learned from our admin assistant that my boss and the other managers would be spending the day at the contractor site. This meant I would have to finish a project by noon without her input. A bad day to take time to go to the Pentagon, I concluded.

Many workers for Defense agencies have somewhere in their careers been assigned to buildings where it was not permissible to bring in portable radios or recording devices. This was the case in my work area. However, I noticed another employee listening to the radio on his computer as I walked past his cubicle on the way to put some papers on my supervisor’s desk.

I placed the files on top of some other papers in a basket, then straightened and turned to leave, glancing out the large picture window to my left. At that moment, I was probably the first person in the building to see smoke pouring out of the Pentagon. I reached instinctively for the phone. It was hard to stop staring at that smoky inferno, the building where dozens of my friends and former co-works were still assigned.

When I heard a commotion in the aisle, I left the office and closed the door. Five or six co-workers were crowded around a computer, listening to the radio. A few minutes later, the overhead speaker system announced we should evacuate the building immediately.

Everybody was calm. Nobody was smiling. We followed our rehearsed exit. Then we waited. The safety monitors for each group were idle. Clearly, there was nothing they could do except tell us to wait. About 10 minutes later, the ground shook. I figured-correctly, as it turned out-this was part of the Pentagon imploding. By now, everyone knew about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York and that another one had struck the Pentagon. Beyond this, we had no information. Almost immediately overwhelmed, cellular providers simply could not provide. Our cell phones were useless.

Within half an hour, we were ordered back into the building. Nobody wanted to go. We all wondered since we worked for a military organization, would our building be next? It was tall enough to be an obvious target. Some employees-both civilian and military-who had driven to work dived for the parking lot to leave before the traffic clogged the area for blocks.

The rest of us went back to our desks. While we could not call on our cell phones, the office phones thankfully worked fine. I took a head count and, attempting to recall others I had seen outside who had apparently left work, called my boss at the contractor site to give her the tally in case anything else happened.

As it turned out, my daughter’s boyfriend, working far from the affected area, called my office several times to find out if I was all right. I was also able to get a message to my husband through his employer.

Around 2:00 PM, I noticed the crew of remaining workers had dwindled. Every time we looked out a window, all we saw was a traffic jam. A Volkswagen Beetle we had seen at a traffic light hours before rested at the same spot, no driver in sight. I suggested food might be a problem if we were there overnight. Two of us decided to keep the lunches we had brought from home in the refrigerator and go to the “underground”, a maze of shops below the street level, to buy something from the deli.

Shortly after we returned, the guards at the building entrances stopped letting anybody into the building, whether they worked there or not. I later found out a friend from the bus had walked from her damaged wing at the Pentagon to my office, only to be turned away even though she had an appropriate badge.

I had two overwhelming instincts throughout all of this. The first was to find the safest place to be in case our building, too, was hit. The second was a persistent urge to leave and go to the Pentagon to help. However, I rationally knew I would be in the way over there.

While we waited, we had little information about what was going on except a couple of announcements over the public address system, and we did not linger at the computers for information. We were too busy planning how to get out of the building. We found out all public transportation around the Pentagon – which is technically in Arlington, VA – and for much of the Washington, DC area had shut down. We had no idea how to get home, since the roads were not passable.

Eventually, around 4:00 PM, a contractor working in a cubicle near mine looked out and noted a break in the traffic. Her plan was simple enough: the two of us would get into her car in the garage and pick up her husband in Rosslyn, VA. The three of us would then drive to the large metro station in Vienna, VA near their home, where she would drop me off. I was able to notify my husband from the office phone that this was the plan. I had to guesstimate when I would arrive to tell him when to come and get me. While it would have normally taken about 15 minutes by car to reach her husband, it took us well over an hour as we zigzagged past one-way streets and roadblocks with flashing lights.

By the time my husband reached me around 7:00 PM, I was exhausted and sobbing. I still did not know the extent of what had occurred or why. And I developed this feeling of overwhelming guilt as I listened to the radio in the car as we drove home. Judging from where the plane had hit, many of my former colleagues had to have been in the area.

When we reached home, I paced the floors of our small townhouse for hours. Internal Pentagon communications left a lot to be desired. The security manager from the agency where I had been employed in the Pentagon called around 8:30 PM to find out if I was all right. He still had me on his roster of current employees.

The next day was liberal leave. All Federal workers in the affected areas were free to take vacation or sick leave. I chose to drive to work-the bus did not operate the rest of the week-because I felt I had a better chance to find out the fate of the folks I knew.

I will never forget passing through heavy, heavy smoke near my office building. At that point, fires were still burning. Nor will I forget the sight, out the passenger window in my car, of the hole, that horrific gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon on the route home.

The aftermath of September 11 made an impact I could never have foreseen on my life and the lives of my former colleagues. Eleven of them, including a former intern with whom I had joked easily for months, were killed. She was one of the last to be identified. The ranks of the Army budget folks, with whom I had interacted on a daily basis for years, were decimated.

Several of my acquaintances were married to military officers and elected to resign. Other workers returned to the Pentagon to work as their sections were re-opened, only to leave the same day and never go back. I noticed the absence of a few faces on the bus. Others returned to work and are still there.

As for me, I kept the promise I made my husband on September 11: I never returned to the Pentagon for any reason. A few months later, I transferred to a civilian agency nearby, so I commuted using the same bus since 1995, which continued to stop at the Pentagon to pick up and discharge passengers on its way to Crystal City. I took an early retirement at the end of 2004.

I learned how fragile life is as I read the obituaries of my former co-workers in the WASHINGTON POST and waited for others to be identified, a year later. I began to do what I loved to do and was trained to do; I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Fortunately, I got paid for it. I also completed my M.A. in writing in 2002.

I did not get religion as the result of 9/11. I already had it. The most difficult part of my religion to deal with in light of that awful day was the belief that God knows when each of us will die.

My life is much slower now. While I am still in contact with several of the folks from the Pentagon, one of whom is a friend, it’s usually via email or phone. None of us ever felt vulnerable from the airways above the building. Most of us believed if anything dangerous ever happened, it would be the work of a disgruntled employee after a bad performance appraisal.

As the months wore on and certain wedges of the Pentagon were rebuilt, the attention of all of us who had recently worked there gradually shifted to the tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York.

Likewise, our own identities shifted. My family received dozens of calls that first week from relatives, acquaintances, and friend of friends all over the country who had thought I still worked at the Pentagon on September 11 and wondered if I had survived. When I graduated with my M.A., the commencement speaker briefly described the obstacles each graduate had overcome in writing his or her novel. He pegged mine as my experiences on September 11, 2001. By the first anniversary of this tragedy, however, I no longer thought of myself as a “9/11 person”. My concession to the experience, beyond my fond memories of those who had died, was to take a day of vacation each year on 9/11 in their memory.

Above all, I am grateful and I was not in that building. So very grateful.

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