- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Washington Times, in a special section commemorating the first anniversary of September 11, profiled three men and two women who survived the attack on the Pentagon. They agreed to update their stories for a series, After the Fire, this week marking the fifth anniversary.

Fifth of five parts

DUNCANSVILLE, Pa. — Five years after the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, Daniel C. Pfeilstucker Jr. has more questions than answers about why he survived that day.

But he is certain of one thing: An angel on his shoulder helped him escape from the burning building.

“When I’m alone, I’ll sometimes think that not long before that plane hit I was in that section of the building, just 20 to 30 minutes before that, inside a heating-and-cooling piece of equipment. What would have happened if I had not gotten off that elevator and walked 10 or 15 feet before the plane hit?” Mr. Pfeilstucker says. “What if there were no sprinklers? I would have been trapped.”

Mr. Pfeilstucker, 34, admits he still struggles to come to terms with what happened to him and thousands of others on September 11. He and his wife Jessica, 33, moved out of the D.C. area in 2004 and settled in Duncansville, where they now live with their three children and two dogs.

Since escaping nearly unscathed from the inferno, Mr. Pfeilstucker has been slowly mending the emotional scars. He says it has been a long healing process, one marked with episodes of guilt, therapy and frequent nightmares.

His head still snaps up when he hears a plane fly overhead, and he gets physically ill when he smells anything that resembles jet fuel. For a week after the attacks, he could taste the jet fuel, no matter how many times he brushed his teeth. He could smell the odor in his hair every time he took a shower.

“For a while, I struggled to come to terms with why I survived. I would ask myself, ‘Why was I different than anyone else on that day?’ The only thing I could think of was that I had a purpose. Might have been God saying, ‘I don’t want this little girl to grow up without a father,’” Mr. Pfeilstucker says, referring to his oldest daughter, Tori, who was 18 months old at the time.

Mr. Pfeilstucker says he still has nightmares and they always involve an airplane.

“Sometimes I dodge it, sometimes it’s following me and I walk and it gets closer,” he says of the nightmares that now occur about once a month. “Then there are ones that are lifelike, replaying that day’s events.”

Inside the chaos

On September 11, Mr. Pfeilstucker lived in Frederick, Md., and was a commissioning agent for John J. Kirlin Inc., a Rockville-based mechanical contracting company that worked on the Pentagon renovation project that was nearing completion. Kirlin, among many companies involved in renovating the Pentagon since the early 1990s, was in charge of updating plumbing and heating units.

Mr. Pfeilstucker reported to work just before 6 a.m. At about 9:30 a.m., he and a co-worker got orders to check a hot-water leak in a third-floor office on the western side.

After checking the leak, Mr. Pfeilstucker stepped off an elevator on the second floor in Corridor 4, ladder in hand. Suddenly the walls and the ceiling began to collapse around him. The lights went out.

Within seconds, his left leg buckled. Unable to grab on to anything, he was thrust 70 feet down the corridor and into a tiny telephone closet halfway down the hallway connecting E Ring and A Ring. He was 40 feet away from the airplane’s point of impact.

Mr. Pfeilstucker remembers shutting the closet door and trying to stand up, not understanding what had just happened.

His hard hat and work goggles were blown away. His ladder also had disappeared. He didn’t have a cell phone or pager with him, so his connection to co-workers and family was cut.

He could hear only the wailing of fire alarms and a loud “sucking” noise from the direction of where he had been standing seconds before. The fire sprinklers came on as the temperature shot up. Then he smelled jet fuel and smoke. The putrid odor was seeping into the closet.

He slowly opened the door and, with debris falling around him, crawled about 80 feet toward A Ring until he reached a stairwell. He managed to run downstairs and out of the building despite his injured leg.

Mr. Pfeilstucker now thinks it took him 15 minutes to get out of the building.

He returned to work two weeks later, joining other Kirlin employees in the rebuilding of the Pentagon. A year later, after the western section of the Pentagon was rebuilt, Kirlin reassigned Mr. Pfeilstucker and his co-workers to other projects.

Grief and more grief

Life was already difficult for the Pfeilstuckers before the attacks. Mr. Pfeilstucker’s 20-month-old second cousin, Neal Stager, died in an accident in July 2001.

It got worse after the attacks. Mrs. Pfeilstucker suffered a miscarriage. Then, her aunt and grandfather were diagnosed with cancer.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pfeilstucker was trying to pick up the pieces of a life he knew before September 11, one that he says was carefree.

“There was a point where we thought we weren’t going to make it,” Mrs. Pfeilstucker says.

Mr. Pfeilstucker agrees: “It got to the point where we would pass each other in the hallway and it was almost a hate thing.”

With time, the Pfeilstuckers worked things out on their own. “We’re definitely stronger people and a stronger family now,” Mr. Pfeilstucker says.

In 2004, the Pfeilstuckers sold their house in Frederick and moved to Duncansville, a community of nearly 1,200 residents just south of Altoona. They say they wanted to be closer to their family and raise their children — Tori, now 6, Haley, 3, and Ben, 6 months — where each of them had grown up.

“We had enough of the city life,” Mr. Pfeilstucker says. “When I’m retired, I don’t want to have to worry about my kids having to go into [Washington] and work there.”

Mr. Pfeilstucker left Kirlin shortly thereafter and began working as an estimator for Altoona-based S.P. McCarl and Co. Inc., a mechanical contractor.

‘I survived’

His father, Danny C. Pfeilstucker, 58, of Portage, Pa., says he knows that his son was lucky to get out that day and that he’s proud of how he has been coping ever since.

“The memories are bad,” says the elder Pfeilstucker, a state correctional officer and a Vietnam War veteran. “There’s a difference between going to war and being attacked, and innocent civilians going to work one day and all of a sudden they are being attacked with planes. … Dan’s adapted well, considering what he went through.”

The younger Pfeilstucker says he supports the war in Iraq. His wife’s cousin, Jason Chase, who’s in the Army, did two tours in Iraq.

“If you go in and spread democracy and get rid of all this stuff, you won’t have what we heard on the radio [last month] about the people getting arrested in London for planning to blow up planes,” he says.

Mr. Pfeilstucker says he would like to visit the Pentagon every September 11 and stand in the same spot where he stood when the plane hit that day.

“To think back that I almost got killed in this spot, but I survived. It’s like reopening that chapter in my life for a day and closing it until the following year,” he explains.

Mr. Pfeilstucker keeps reminders of that day in a black 10-gallon Rubbermaid container. He takes it out and peruses its contents once in a while. He still has the hard hat he wore when he worked at the Pentagon and the certificates of appreciation for the rebuilding.

He says that he will tell his children about the attacks when they’re old enough to understand.

For now, Mr. Pfeilstucker says he is moving on with his life, with caution. “I’m definitely more aware of my surroundings, what’s going on in the world,” he says. “I’m not going to be blindsided anymore.”

He also has someone looking after him.

“My second cousin, Neal, was the angel on my shoulder on September 11, and he helped me through it,” he says. “I know he’s looking out for me.”

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