I arrived at the Pentagon at 6:50 am on Sep 11, 2001, and departed for Ronald Reagan Airport at 8:00 for my flight to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida to give a talk.
I was at my gate lobby talking with a fellow Pentagon employee I had known in Germany in the late 70s and hadn't seen in a long time. Behind him about twenty feet away was a TV hanging from the ceiling. I remember seeing what I learned later was a plane hitting the Trade Tower in NYC at 8:46 am. At the moment, the images meant nothing to me or to the other twenty to thirty people waiting to board the aircraft. People continued reading or chatting with their friends.
There was a delay in boarding, but we were finally allowed to get on the plane and settle in. After an unusually long time just sitting, the pilot came on the intercom and said, "There is something going on," and to remain in our seats. Five minutes later, the intercom clicked again and he said that we should all get off of the plane AND exit the airport. That was it. No mention of the two planes hitting the Towers at 8:46 and 9:03. We were all looking at one another as we gathered up our belongings and walked out, but still didn't know what was going on.
Exiting the walkway from the plane and into the airport, I could see great billows of dark smoke passing outside the window that faced the airfield and the plane we just left. It must have been a few minutes after the plane hit the Pentagon at 9:37. There was no smoke inside the airport, but we began to murmur to one another and I soon heard that a bomb had gone off at the Pentagon. Still no news about what had happened in New York.
Once outside and on the metro's elevated landing, a loudspeaker announced that trains were not running to the Pentagon. Period. At the same time, I could see hundreds of people streaming out of the airport's lower level and running and walking away from the Pentagon, 1.6 miles northwest of the airport. While waiting for any train to arrive, thick smoke would periodically envelope the landing, but quickly blow away. When the blueline train arrived, it took me back to my home station where I had started my trip four hours earlier. A few people on the packed train had portable radios and would occasionally announce to everyone what was going on. The pieces were falling into place, but I still had no idea of the scope of the attack.
I took a cab home and called the people in Florida to tell them my flight was cancelled. I was asked if I could catch another flight. I replied that nothing is flying except birds. He didn't know of the attacks two hours after the fact and was shocked when I told him the little I knew.
My Pentagon office at that time was on the A ring, the ring closest to the center of the building. The plane hit the E ring that borders the outside of the building. My office was on a straight line from where the plane hit but it had only penetrated the E ring, D ring and C ring where it stopped. My co-worker said they felt a big whoosh of air from the impact and the electric power went out. We had practiced evacuating the building and, I assume, that made for a more orderly exit.
I was called and told to stay home until further notice. Three days later, I was called again and told to report to a new office as ours was unusable. When I got off the metro at the Pentagon station, there were dozens of armed military police who herded us to the escalator. When I got to the A ring where I could see the five-acre open courtyard, I saw dozens of black body bags lined up on the grass. This was real.
We were escorted by armed guards to our former office to pick up computer disks and anything else we needed to continue our work. The office was dark, but our escorts had flashlights. When their lights were clicked on, it was shocking. Everything was covered with 1/4 inch of black oily soot that smelled. Since we were stirring up the stuff by walking around, handkerchiefs, tissues, or paper towels were soon used as masks.
Back in our new office, the hard work really began and didn't let up. Twenty years later, I still pray for those who died and were injured in the Pentagon as well as for their families. It was a tragic day.