9/11: The First Act of Defiance against the Enemies of Freedom: A Sailor’s Experience at the Pentagon

FBI agents, fire fighters, rescue workers and engineers work at the Pentagon crash site on Sept. 14, 2001, where a hijacked American Airlines flight slammed into the building on Sept. 11. The terrorist attack caused extensive damage to the west face of the building and followed similar attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill. (Released)

FBI agents, fire fighters, rescue workers and engineers work at the Pentagon crash site on Sept. 14, 2001, where a hijacked American Airlines flight slammed into the building on Sept. 11. The terrorist attack caused extensive damage to the west face of the building and followed similar attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill. (Released)

By Gordon Calhoun, Naval History and Heritage Command

There are two important qualities that a Sailor learns when he or she makes the transition from civilian to a member of the U.S. Navy. The first is the willingness to put one’s life on the line in defense of the United States, its citizens, and his or her shipmates. The second is that willingness to defend may be called upon anytime and anywhere during a Sailor’s career, whether on a ship or shore duty. For Operations Specialist First Class Roberto Paz, both of these factors came together on Sept. 11, 2001.

Then-OS2 Paz was on duty at the Pentagon. During an oral interview about that day with Timothy Frank, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command, Paz recalled, “Basically we came in to work that day and it was a half day for our department due to we were having a command picnic. Just sitting in the office… It was a regular normal day.”[1]

However, someone then rushed in and informed Paz and others in his office the World Trade Center in New York City had just been hit by a commercial aircraft.

It was at that moment that the events of the day struck even closer.

“All of a sudden we heard the whole building shake – the windows rattle and all the sudden we started hearing screaming and black smoke coming in and filling up the hallways.”[2]

American Airlines Flight 77, hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists, had slammed into the Pentagon.[3] Paz was only one hundred yards from the point of impact.

Without hesitation, Paz and other petty officers “armed up” and began doing search and rescue into the area of the building that would eventually collapse. They went in and “started searching — room by room — seeing if anyone was in there.”

The broken floor had already begun to collapse. “Instead of walking on a level floor, you took a step down,” Paz said. “We then came out of there and went around to the other side and found two individuals who were in a room. They thought they would be fine because they had a window open. We had them escorted out. We told them the safest way to get out. There was another individual there who had told me he got blown across the hallway. He was kind of out of it. He was talking about one individual being in the room. I went down to the room to see if he was in there [but] he was not in there. Then, I escorted him out of the building to the ambulance and went back into the building.” [4]

Paz said four of them continued to go down floor-by-floor conducting search and rescue. “We went all the way down to where the comm (communications) center was where the plane had hit. We couldn’t get in there. There was about six inches of water on the ground and electrical wires hanging down. The ceiling debris had blocked a door from us being able to open it up so we were never able to get in.”

Paz and his buddies left the building after nearly an hour of search and rescue.

“It felt a whole lot longer for the four of us,” he said. “When we got out we then set up security around the building.”

It was while walking the perimeter that Paz saw that a section of the building had fallen.

“Then we started rendering first aid to people who had been injured and assisting with other police departments and services there. We saved about 20 people that day. Ten people I know lost their lives that day.”[5]

Paz believed the firefighting and damage control training skills he learned aboard USS Mitscher (DDG-57) were the primary reasons he was able to perform as well as he did under the circumstances.

On December 17, 2001 in a ceremony held at the Pentagon, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England awarded OS1 Paz and his three shipmates the Navy Marine Corps Medal, the highest medal a Sailor can receive during peacetime. Secretary England at the ceremony remarked the actions by Paz and others were the “first acts of defiance against the enemies of freedom.”[6]

Petty Officer Paz continued to serve in the Navy after receiving his medal. He served as a navigator for a landing craft (air cushion) during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the disaster relief efforts to victims of Hurricane Katrina, and Odyssey Dawn.

Editors Note: Gordon Calhoun was a historian at the Great Lakes Naval Museum, an official U.S. Navy Museum located at Naval Station Great Lakes, he is now a staff member at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s headquarters in Washington D.C. Go to www.history.navy.mil/glnm for more information on programs and operating hours.

A combined graphic images of USS New York (LPD 21), USS Somerset (LPD 25) and USS Arlington (LPD 24) all named in honor of the events of September 11, 2001. (Graphic Image by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Clifford L. H. Davis, Naval History and Heritage Command)

A combined graphic images of USS New York (LPD 21), USS Somerset (LPD 25) and USS Arlington (LPD 24) all named in honor of the events of September 11, 2001. (Graphic Image by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Clifford L. H. Davis, Naval History and Heritage Command 150911-N-FJ200-001)

 

[1] Operations Specialist First Class Robert Paz, USN, interviewed by Tim Frank, February 10, 2014, transcript, Naval History and Heritage Command, History and Archives Division.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alfred Goldberg. Pentagon 9/11 (Washington, D.C.: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2007), 16.

[4] Interview with Operations Specialist Paz by Tim Frank, February 10, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Secretary Gordon S. England. Pentagon Personnel Awards Ceremony (Washington, D.C.: C-SPAN, 2001). Accessed on the Internet at http://www.c-span.org/video/?167886-1/pentagon-personnel-awards-ceremony on August 22, 2014.