On Duty in the Pentagon

ALPA Pilots Remember

By Captain Adam C. Wright, ExpressJet

I cannot begin to tell you how or when I heard the news. What I can tell you is I felt American Airlines Flight 77’s impact on the Pentagon. You see, I was on duty as a first lieutenant in the United States Air Force stationed at the Pentagon. To this day, I remember very specific things, yet I’m vague on other details of the day and days that followed.

For me, September 11, 2001, started as any other beautiful clear fall day in Northern Virginia. I elected to ride my motorcycle to work to enjoy the reduced commute time from my Crystal City apartment (by avoiding the Metro) as well as enjoy the weather. After eating breakfast in the Pentagon’s cafeteria, I engaged in my typical Tuesday morning tasks as the Strategic Systems Branch chief (a part of the Air Force Pentagon Communications Agency). A few minutes before 9 a.m., the master sergeant who worked for me summoned me to see the TV coverage (as I was also a part-time flight instructor at a flight school in the area). I was in charge of an around-the-clock shop, so we had a TV on the floor (so access to a TV was easy). We were watching the TV coverage as United Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. I remember thinking, like so many, that it was a strange replay. That was right up until I realized in the replay that the other tower had smoke from American Airlines Flight 11. I remember watching CNN intently with my troops for the next 35 minutes.

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At 9:37 a.m., while watching CNN’s coverage, our elevated floor (for allowing computer wires and air conditioning to run underneath) shook four distinct times immediately followed by fire alarms sounding. In retrospect, the floor shook each time Flight 77 penetrated a “ring” at the Pentagon. At that exact moment, without understanding the gravity of the situation, my troops and I immediately jumped up and began evacuating. We didn’t have a grasp of the situation going on outside as our office was in a windowless middle of the Pentagon space on the third floor. Once joined the mass exodus in the halls, the urgency of the situation began to sink in along with an intense adrenaline surge (now understanding that something major was occurring).

Due to the fact that the office I worked in supported the secretary of defense, our closest exit was on the east side of the Pentagon, toward the river. As we exited, we could see the smoke cloud beginning to ascend from the west side of the Pentagon. Very shortly after that, as we were trying to make our way to our designated meeting location, several military helicopters began landing on the lawn in front of us, impeding our progress. We eventually made our rendezvous spot on the south side; I recall I was impressed that we met up with our chain of command as fast as we did, as many groups were assembling in the large parking lot. At that point, I shockingly learned that the mission must go on, and we needed to keep our shop running. I had the duty to pick one person who worked for me to accompany me back into the burning building. The technical sergeant and I began making our way back to the east entrance that would yield the shortest distance to our office (the same entrance we exited from).

During the trek back to the east entrance, I began trying to call my family and friends for the first time. However, this was to no avail as all the cellular telephone lines were down. I finally got connected to my mom as we were back on the east side. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear much of anything due to the helicopter noise as more were arriving and some departing. As we stepped to the entrance, we were met by two large gentlemen in black suits with some of the largest shotguns I think I’ve seen (or so they seemed at the time). I recall being very surprised that nonmilitary personnel (who I can only assume were secret service) had already arrived and were guarding the entrances. And even though we were in military uniform, I still felt obligated to approach these gentlemen with my hands out and visible to “request” to gain entry.

Once we were granted entry, we began making our way toward our office. For the first time, I felt uneasy as by this time the hallway had completely filled with a thick grey smoke. Additionally, I was accustomed to seeing a few people in any hallway in the Pentagon, even if it were Christmas Eve. But at this point, the technical sergeant and I were the only two people around. Additionally, two glass fire doors I had never seen closed were now closed. Once we gained entrance to our secure facility, there wasn’t any smoke and things began to calm down for us. We used the landline telephone to attempt to call our friends and family.

After creating a duty roster, I began figuring out how to feed my troops as the Pentagon was mostly shut down (with the exception of rescue efforts). I had to hunt hard to find a pizza place in Alexandria that was still open and making pies. I ran home to change clothes and go pick up a pizza. I learned a valuable lesson that day as to what happens to pizza in a box strapped to the back of a sport bike. By the time I arrived back at the office, alternate food services had been brought in for those shops still in operation. I don’t think the pizza was too appetizing once I got “it” there, but I tried. After returning with the pizza, reality began to set in as the rescue personnel were taking body bags to the center courtyard which had been designated as the morgue (partly due to the fact the media had no access to that area).

I remember how after I got home that night and had showered, I couldn’t get the smell of the smoke out of my nose. I tried everything I could think of, but that smell stuck with me for a couple days. And I can’t recall, but I think I may have thrown away the uniform I wore that day due to the smell. After returning to work on September 12, every vending machine had been vandalized. In reality, the limited amount of food quickly disappeared, and the rescue workers had used their axes and other equipment to “gain access” to the vending machines.

As for the days that followed, I remember that there were daily briefings on evacuation procedures if the fire spread around the roof. On one morning, we were briefed to expect to evacuate by 10 a.m. if they couldn’t get the fire under control. Interestingly, the challenge in getting the fire under control was the fact that the shale stone roof was apparently difficult to break into to spray water.

In the months that followed, even though I knew better, I experienced a sense of guilt that 125 personnel in the Pentagon perished in addition to the 64 on American Airlines Flight 77 (excluding the hijackers), and that’s in addition to the loss of life in New York. I felt guilty that my experiences on September 11, 2001, were rather uneventful compared to some of the tragic and truly heroic stories that occurred that day in the Pentagon and New York. Why was I that lucky? When people find out where I was, they are usually interested in hearing the details and typically find it “cool.” As such, I typically don’t volunteer where I was that day. In fact, this is the most detailed account I’ve given of my day in about eight years.

Needless to say, I have some opinions on the topic of keeping our flight decks secure during flight and adhering to the best-practice procedures.

This article was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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