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A Sept. 11 Pentagon survivor 20 years later

Aug. 30, 2021 | By Susan Henson
Sept. 11, 2001, is one of those specific moments in time when everyone in the entire generation recalls exactly where they were, much like previous generations knowing where they were for the first reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor or when President John Kennedy was shot.

For people with personal connections to these moments, the memories even 20 years later can be visceral, incredibly emotional, and even physical. That’s how it is for me.

I was a fresh lieutenant junior grade serving in the Pentagon on Sept. 11; it started as a gorgeous, clear day with a Caribbean blue sky specked with big, puffy clouds. As a team member of the U.S. Navy’s Office of Information (known as CHINFO), my colleagues and I watched the initial TV reports in horror. Our office had a bank of TVs, and every station was broadcasting the same imagery, like some kind of morbid modern art exhibit. We speculated what could have happened to make the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York, then watched in stunned silence as the second plane hit during the live broadcast. That couldn’t have been a coincidence.

On the way back to my desk, I picked up a national newspaper to skim headlines from over the weekend, thinking how it would be a slow news day for the Navy. I placed the paper on my desk and sat down to check email. Suddenly the entire office jolted like a boxer landing a crushing gut punch on an off-guard opponent. The world’s largest office building had just physically MOVED. I snapped my head 180 degrees to the window and saw a haze of swirling gray where a view of Pentagon “C” ring offices should have been. The alarms began to blare, telling us to evacuate the building.

It was mass, orderly chaos. No one really knew what was going on, what to do, or where to go. We followed the directions of the Pentagon security force for anyone without medical training to evacuate, and many people left the building. Those of us who stayed followed the directions of the medical team and first responders. We answered calls to assist with controlling fires, evacuating those needing help, looking for survivors, and getting medical attention for the injured. There were no rules; no differences to separate us by gender, service, rank or otherwise. We simply, frantically worked together to help as many people as possible. On that day we were survivors, rescuers and teammates. We had just been attacked, and yet we had a job to do. So that’s what we did.

We found out later the plane had torn through the “C” ring wall opposite the CHINFO office space, and we’d been 20 feet away from potentially being terrorist casualties. The reinforced walls and windows in that newly renovated section likely helped save lives among those of us in that part of the Pentagon.

When we were allowed to go back in the building to retrieve belongings, four co-workers and I waited about an hour for our turn to be escorted into office spaces that just 10 days before had been the newest, brightest section of the Pentagon. We pulled on white protective suits, plastic gloves and masks, and carried flashlights and boxes, which we were instructed to not put down anywhere inside due to the health risk. It was dark, dirty and wet. Even through the masks, the sour stench was awful. 

The newspaper from Sept. 11 lay untouched on my desk, but now with a coat of black sooty grime and mold.  It seemed odd to still be in the same spot, detailing news from what seemed an innocent lifetime ago. Before leaving, I steeled myself to look out the window. I’d stood there on many mental breaks looking up at the sky and across the small driveway to the offices across from ours. The last time I’d looked out that window was just after the plane hit. Now I saw the blast-proof glass windows were shattered. Burn marks scorched the recently renovated walls. A huge hole gaped in the steel-reinforced first-floor wall where the plane had broken through.

These are among the clear, emotion-filled memories of Sept. 11 I’ve carried for the past 20 years. People who survive such trauma during military service tend to carry these things for the rest of their lives. Some choose to keep these memories stored away for good; others choose to unpack those memories to share their piece of the Navy story.

Personal stories recorded as oral histories and physical artifacts are among the items in the U.S. Navy’s artifact collection managed by Naval History and Heritage Command.  A message of support written on a bedsheet displayed by the German destroyer FGS Lutjens after the 9/11 attacks, a laptop and glass window fragments are now pieces in a collection that represents what happened Sept. 11, 2001. But before they were artifacts, they were just a typical bedsheet, work computer and window. They became relics because they happened to be in a particular place in time when history happened.

We make decisions every day, and we never know what decisions will bring us to a moment in history that changes the world, be it Pearl Harbor, USS Cole, Sept. 11, 2001, or a future moment. NHHC’s collections seek to preserve the U.S. Navy’s nearly 250-year history to capture these moments in time. These artifacts tell stories to remember the fallen, educate today’s Sailors -- and also serve as a lesson for future Sailors that their choice to serve may one day bring them to a similar crisis moment in history.

People see history as something that happens in the past to someone else, and it usually is. Until that day when history happens to you.