The Pentagon may be the headquarters of the vast U.S. defense establishment and a universal symbol of American military power, but the five-sided structure outside Washington at heart is really just a giant office building filled with thousands of military and civilian employees attending endless meetings and PowerPoint briefings.
Traffic in the nation’s capital was gridlocked on Sept. 11, 2001, as then-Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills made her way to the Pentagon, where she worked as a congressional liaison in the Army’s personnel department, known as G-1. She had to forgo morning prayers with her daughters because she had a meeting and the commute looked especially fierce.
The meeting began promptly at 9 a.m., so she and the others in the conference room were completely unaware of the hijacked jetliners that had struck the World Trade Center in New York and American Airlines Flight 77, which had been diverted shortly after takeoff and was heading their way.
“I had glanced at my watch. It was 9:20, and I had not spoken yet,” she said. “As soon as it was my turn to speak, there was the loudest explosion that I had ever heard.”
Col. Mark Lewis was trying to set up a meeting that morning with Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, but was told he had a tight schedule.
“I was on the way back when the explosion happened,” he recalled Wednesday at the Pentagon, where he now works as the acting assistant Army secretary for manpower and reserve affairs. “The building jolted and quickly filled with smoke.”
Roy Wallace, now a retired colonel and the Army’s deputy personnel chief, had just left Lt. Gen. Maude’s office and was returning to his desk when the plane smashed into a section of the building. Gen. Maude was the highest-ranking U.S. military officer among the 125 Department of Defense service members and employees killed that day.
Mr. Wallace remembered assisting an injured Army officer who sustained serious burns in the fire because of his polyester uniform. “If you take a match to polyester, it turns into a molten blob,” he said.
Gerry Kitzhaber, working for the Army’s operations section, or G-3, arrived early at the Pentagon that morning so he could get some time at the gym. He heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center while he was working on a project for the Army’s training section.
He was supposed to go out to dinner with his wife that evening because Sept. 11 is his birthday. Then she called.
“She asked me if I was OK there — was I safe at the Pentagon,” Lt. Col. Kitzhaber, now retired, recalled. “I said, ‘Sure. Nothing happens here.’”
Flight 77 hit the building moments after he hung up the telephone.
‘We lost so many’
Col. Wills was thrown across the conference room by the force of the explosion. The room became dark as the power was cut. She began crawling toward the closest door, but it was already hot to the touch from the raging fire on the other side. With other victims in tow, she moved through one of the warrens of cubicles inside the Pentagon until they came to a window.
They managed to force it open and began lowering people to safety.
“We lost so many that day. It was a terrible day,” said Col. Wills.
Back in the air
Bradley Bowman was a company commander of an Army helicopter unit at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The unit’s normal assignment was flying VIPs across the mid-Atlantic to southern Virginia. That morning, he was at the pistol range at Fort A.P. Hill, an Army garrison about 80 miles south of Washington, when he learned about the first jetliner that struck one of the twin towers. He thought it was a tragic accident.
“When we got the news about the second, we realized it was an attack,” said Mr. Bowman, now with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. “We flew back as quickly as we could to Fort Belvoir.”
The Black Hawk helicopter company spent the day ferrying VIPs out of Washington to secure sites in the region. “We all suspected or feared that another attack was coming,” Mr. Bowman said.
He was later told to retrieve then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz from his secure location and fly him to the Pentagon. His Black Hawk was among a handful of aircraft flying throughout the country at that time.
“I’ll never forget how empty the streets were,” he said. “We flew down the Potomac, and there was a cloud of smoke over it.”
As night fell, the Pentagon was bathed in the flashing lights of dozens of police cars, firetrucks and ambulances. The Pentagon looked like a giant cake with a piece missing, Mr. Bowman recalled.
“It was an image I’ll never forget,” he said.
The Pentagon’s helicopter landing pad was the point of impact for the jetliner, so Mr. Bowman landed in a grassy area in the middle of a traffic cloverleaf. Mr. Wolfowitz, he recalled, gave him a thumbs-up and made his way to the Pentagon.
An investigation later revealed that Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon‘s west-facing wall at more than 530 miles per hour. The jetliner flew so low that it clipped several light poles before striking just below the second-floor area. It traveled more than 300 feet in less than a second. It engulfed the area in a giant fireball and destroyed much of a newly renovated portion of the Pentagon.
Flight 77 was flown primarily into Wedge 1, where the first phase of a massive renovation effort was underway to bring the Pentagon into compliance with modern building codes. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, some of the upgrades helped save lives.
“Despite the tremendous impact of the plane and the ensuing fire that was fed by the plane’s fuel, the renovated area did not collapse for twenty minutes. That gave many Pentagon employees, some of whom were directly above the area of impact, adequate time to escape,” according to the report.
The Pentagon was making security changes in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City and Khobar Towers bombings.
Mr. Kitzhaber was among a group of Pentagon employees who made their way out of the building to the center courtyard area after the explosion. The evacuation was orderly, and nobody appeared to be panicking. He spotted a piece of the jetliner’s fuselage on the ground. It was about the size of a turkey platter, he recalled.
“We knew then at that point that we had been hit by an airplane,” he said.
He eventually made it to the nearby Pentagon City Mall. That was where he spotted a pair of U.S. Air Force F-16s that had arrived to guard against any further attacks from the air.
“I knew I didn’t have to worry about any more airplanes falling out of the sky,” Mr. Kitzhaber said.