'I was there': Air Force major remembers terror at the Pentagon
This submission from stripes.com/whyyoufight is from Air Force Maj. Jeffery Bridges. It has been edited for print.
When discussing 9/11, the most common question among Americans is, “Where were you?” My answer is, “I was there.”
I was at the Pentagon, Room 5E229. Those familiar with the Pentagon will know that equates to Room 229 on the fifth and top floor and outer ring of five, just two corridors away from the impact point of American Airlines Flight 77 at 9:37 a.m. on that sunny and surreal September morning.
I was barely six weeks into my new assignment at OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) when I found myself on day two of a weeklong USAF orientation course. I had arrived late for the 0830 start time because of beltway traffic and almost blew off that morning’s session because of my embarrassment of being late and not able to negotiate/plan properly for DC’s challenging traffic and commute.
I had contemplated just “exploring” the Pentagon until I could slip in unnoticed during a break at 0930. I decided to eat humble pie and entered the briefing room late with a chagrined look on my face, and sat in the back stewing over how much I resented this new assignment and the challenges of working/living in DC — feeling sorry for myself — cranky due to lack of sleep (barking dogs) and morning caffeine.
All that changed when the someone burst in the room just after 0900 yelling for us to turn off the PowerPoint briefing and turn on CNN. From there, everything went into slow motion. Like the rest of our fellow Americans, the two dozen of us newbies sat in shock as we saw the news reports of the two airliners hitting both World Trade Center towers.
Our briefing moderator told us that we would be dismissing at lunch, and that only mission essential personnel would be remaining at the Pentagon. About 10 minutes after he said that, at 0937, we heard three massive and successive explosions that shook the building. You could feel the vibration in your chest. Later we would learn that the three explosions were from the American Airlines Boeing 757 penetrating the E, D and C rings of the Pentagon, killing all 64 passengers and crew and 125 personnel working in the Pentagon.
I had heard of the phrase “fight or flight” but didn’t truly understand it until 0937 as my heart was about to beat of my chest and my mind was racing to find a reasonable explanation of what we had just heard and felt with the three explosions. Surprisingly, everyone was very calm, but visibly shaken and spooked as we quietly and cautiously opened the inner and outer doors of our briefing room to the chaos and smoke of the E ring.
People were running from the direction of the impact site toward those of us running toward the nearest stairwell exit. This was the first time in my life that I saw fear and panic in people’s faces, in their eyes.
The stairwell was jammed with people, surprisingly not pushing but very anxious to get out to the second floor exit, where folks would sprint from the building out of the smoke to relative safety. First responders were having to dodge people running throughout the parking lot in dark black smoke. Everyone kept yelling to get away from the building out of fear of more explosions.
It wasn’t until an hour later as a refugee at the Pentagon City Mall food court, which became a “safe haven” for thousands in the area, that we would learn the explosions at the Pentagon were responsible for 184 innocent lives being lost to cold-blooded killers using a civilian aircraft as a weapon. By this time, both towers had collapsed and the faces of fear and panic had turned to shock, disbelief and numbness.
The gracious vendors at the food court had turned their businesses into free call centers for those who could get through to loved ones. I was able to get through to friends who in turn called my family with news that I was OK. I eventually made my way outside and to a coworker’s condo rooftop for a view of the tragedy and chaos on our nation’s capital. The Pentagon was still on fire and multiple helicopters were ferrying the injured to facilities throughout the Capital region. Traffic in all directions was at a standstill, and thousands of people were outside for fear of being in a targeted building. The constant sound of sirens was deafening. The infamous 14th Street Bridge was without vehicles, replaced by hoards of people crossing between the District and Arlington.
The adjacent Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was eerily deserted and heavily guarded, with planes, baggage and support equipment in disarray as it had hastily been shut down and evacuated. A defining moment came with the sound of aircraft flying low and aggressive overhead, this time F-16s from the DC Air National Guard out of Andrews. It was a beautiful, yet sobering sight. We kept saying to ourselves, ‘This can’t be happening to us (America).’
Alan Jackson recorded a song called “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” When I listen to that song, I remember that I was not at a good place before 0937 on 9/11. I was focused on me and my perceived miserable circumstances of being assigned to the Pentagon and living in DC with all of its challenges. Upon making my way home to west Alexandria, I saw the first American flag flying at half mast and I lost it, Flooded with emotion, I tried to come to terms with what happened ... what was happening ... what will happen.
Like all Americans, I will forever be impacted by that day. I often reflect back on the loss of life and suffering that resulted from that day to remind myself how fortunate I am today, when I want to start whining about insignificant things in life -- traffic jams, annoying dogs barking, lack of caffeine, etc.
The events of that day have helped to focus on what really matters in life ... what has lasting and eternal value.