What I Saw the Day the Pentagon Came Under Attack
My morning commute consists of a bus ride to the Pentagon Metro station and a train ride to the Archives/Navy Memorial. Once there, I am at the office – Mintz Levin shares the Navy building. Today, which would come to be called 9/11, I walk through the Pentagon turnstile at 9:35 a.m. and walk towards the end of the platform – once I get off the train on the other side, I will be closer to the exit and arrive earlier at the office. Two minutes later, shouts erupt near the entrance. Assuming it's a drunkard, I return to my musings; the train is entering the station and it's time to board.
But as the train's head emerges from its tunnel, everyone flees towards the exit. Confused, I ramble past them but my legs don't seem to want to move. Fear flushes over me. When a crowd runs, you go with them. Move legs! I try to shout. Finally, I’m heading towards the turnstile, the last person at the station, and as I wonder if the shouter had truly been a drunkard, I see guards running towards me. Am I in trouble? Who was the drunkard? What in the world is happening?
I push through the turnstile and leave the station. Once outside, I examine my surroundings. A tall, muscular man stares into the sky, his jaw agape, and moans, "Oh my God." A gigantic billow of black smoke is flooding into the sky. I assume that the Pentagon is on fire and feel relieved; fire trucks will soon appear and life will return to normal.
But as time goes by and no fire trucks are heard, my skin starts to stand on end and feels clammy. This isn't a fire, is it? We are being led in a line past the Pentagon towards the parking lot where we will be on our own and up ahead of me is a yellow-shirted guard. I ask him what's wrong. Please tell me it's a fire. He replies, "The Trade Center has been hit."
A million thoughts flash through my mind in an instant. Looking for an answer, any answer, I can only hit on one, one singular, dreadful, terrible answer that cannot be true. "Do you mean terrorists?" I ask.
When I reach the end of the cordon, an officer is directing traffic and screaming at the top of his lungs. "Run away! Everyone who stays will be killed! You must evacuate! More are coming and the building will collapse!" Having been personally attacked when I was younger, I think about how safety, peace, security are all illusions; nothing is real. This is certainly not real; it's the war of the worlds revisited.
Unsure of where to go, I head towards the only path I can find – under the bridge for I-395 and towards Pentagon City. But I wonder if the bridge will fall on me. If the Pentagon, the most secure building in the world, can crumble, so can a simple bridge – no structure is safe. But there is nowhere else to go. I can't stay and I can't let fear contain me; so I press onward.
After coming out into the light, I head for a hotel across the street and ask for a phone. But already the hotel's phones and all cell phones are out across the city. Traffic on the bridge has come to a dead halt as has traffic for miles around. As cars, buses and taxis fill the street, there is nowhere for any of them to go.
As I leave the hotel and consider where to go next, a woman sitting in a yellow, faded lounge chair tells me that someone has control of our airwaves; the pilots believe they are flying higher than they actually are. Another passerby tells me that the terrorists hit the Trade Center, USA Today, and the Pentagon within the last hour. "That's commerce, media, and security – all gone," she chokes.
I stand in a line waiting for a payphone on the street that seems to be working. Women are taking off their heels, planning to walk miles barefoot to work. A man with crazy, wild hair standing straight up on his head like a bush about to take flight runs up to a woman ahead of me in line shouting, "Oh my god, I thought we'd lost you. I was standing in the office with my arms loaded with papers when a gigantic ball of flames came ripping towards me. I threw everything down, shouted, 'Get the f___ out of here,' and ran for life. I don't even know how I got out. We've found everyone but you and Janet." As they move off together, I realize the line is not moving and head back towards the Pentagon.
At least if I can't go anywhere, I might be able to watch. But as I begin to cross the intersection, soldiers are running towards me. This does not seem like the right time to move forward. Lost and confused, I stand in the intersection and look around. Circles of people are praying in the middle of the street. Cars are like bugs, scattered everywhere in no particular direction. People are crying, shouting, screaming and no one, not even the soldiers, seems to know for sure what has happened. And that's when it begins – the earth shakes under my feet, throwing me around, tossing me like a tree casting off a leaf. Someone across the street shouts, "The boilers are going off." A simple answer is hard to believe, but it keeps me from moving closer to the Pentagon.
Crossing the street, I come to a parked car playing the news. About fifteen of us have gathered to listen intently, trying to discern anything new, needing to hear any words at all about what is happening. The DJ relates, "The Trade Center, both towers, are down." The screams of terror around me increase. "More planes are flying towards the Pentagon. We have reports that USA Today, the Capitol, the FBI, and the White House have all been attacked. Please do not stand too close to parked cars; we don't know if there are bombs under any of them."
Stepping gently away from the car, I realize that the Pentagon City Mall is open. My stomach growls; I haven't eaten yet today. Thoughts flood my brain. What time is it? I don't have any money; how can I get food? How am I going to get home? Does anyone outside this block know that the world has ended? I need to call work and let them know I'm stuck in some kind of science fiction calamity.
It would be more than a year before any of the events of that day felt real. My mail would come wrapped in plastic pouches with notices of having been checked for anthrax, our office building would be evacuated due to anthrax threats and evacuation kits would be handed out to all staff members, there were notes left on apartment doors warning of suspicious-looking people who might inhabit the area, and people whose skin happened to be tan would be noticed crying on the subway or evacuating due to death threats they had received.The one and only thing I wanted back then was to hear President Bush speak. While I am from a liberal family, I knew that if President Bush had survived, so would our nation. As I prepare to vote in November, that is what I consider. Who will protect me? Who will keep us safe at night? Who will ensure that our nation is not just strong, but brave? When soldiers flee in terror, who will stand firm at the front of the line and face our enemies, hands on shoulders, chin in the air, prepared to surrender to no one?
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Elizabeth Anne Crowe - 10/2/2008
That was very sweet and well-spoken, Maarja. Thank you.
Maarja Krusten - 9/23/2008
Hi, Ms. Crowe,
Thanks for the clarification. I appreciate the fact that your article was an "as it was happening" account. That's one reason it was so interesting. Of course, there was no way to know which rumors were true and which were not. I was already at work when the attack occurred and stayed in my building in DC until mid or late afternoon. So I was able to follow some of the reporting and keep track of things better than you would have been able to do. I posted my explanatory note about the USA Today building mostly for non-Washingtonians.
I went back and looked at what the Washington Post reported on Sept. 12, 2001 about travel the previous day. It supports what you describe above. The Post's reporters noted that
"Travel yesterday was especially tangled between 11 a.m. and noon, as commuters streamed from offices and cars poured out of parking garages.
. . . . Northbound lanes of Interstate 395 reopened shortly before 4 p.m. yesterday and are expected to remain open, said Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. The George Washington Memorial Parkway reopened at 6:30 p.m. Parts of Washington Boulevard and Route 110 near the Pentagon remained closed last night, as did Columbia Pike at Glebe Road.
Northern Virginia bike paths along the Potomac were full of men and women in business suits, lugging briefcases, said Phil du Chateau, who found plenty of company on his usual bike commute home to East Falls Church from the State Department."
As for Metro, the reporters wrote that
"From a command center in their downtown headquarters yesterday morning, Metro's top managers and transit police debated whether to close the subway system.
"'If we had any information that we were threatened, we would have closed down the system,' Metro Transit Police Chief Barry McDevitt said. 'But we also realized that when there is panic, people rely on us to get home.'
Metro closed its Pentagon and National Airport stations and stopped running Yellow Line trains over the Potomac River, fearing the rail bridge was an easy target for an attack."
The Post's reporters added, "Caught short-staffed by the extra rush hour, Metro sent managers to run trains, General Manager Richard A. White said."
I remember hearing that the buses were rerouted to Pentagon City. And I remember how eerie it felt, a couple of days after 9/11, to be on a train riding through the Pentagon station.
I'm guessing you were riding the Yellow Line.
Don't be discouraged about the fact that few readers posted below your article. Although this is the History News Network, many readers seem to look for something other than discussions about history or what happened in Washington. My sense is that reminiscences or articles which don't give posters an opportunity to posture and/or bluster don't tend to draw much reaction. (That's not to say you don't occasionally run into a thoughtful or insightful poster.)
At any rate, as a federal historian and a long time resident of the Washington metropolitan area, I did find your piece interesting to read.
Elizabeth Anne Crowe - 9/22/2008
As the author of this article, I wanted to make some clarifications.
You are correct, thank God, that the other buildings I mentioned, the FBI, USA Today, etc., were not attacked. But not being able to use a phone, I couldn't find out what was true and what wasn't until I got home that day. There were a lot of false reports going around, but until I got home and watched the news, I didn't have enough information to separate fact from fear.
I appreciate your reference to the Metro article. However, I need to point out that it refers to downtown, which in DC is DC proper and not the area around the Pentagon. None of the Metro operators left the Pentagon either; but at least at the Pentagon station, the trains were not operating for a couple of hours. I don't know if you live or work around DC, but it's not uncommon at all to have to wait for significant periods of time at the Metro station. I was impressed by all of the Metro workers, the operators and security, as none of them abandoned their post and some of them actually ran into the building as we were all running out of it.
When I came out of the Pentagon City Mall, around 1:00 or so, the train was working but was not going into the District. I could only catch it to go home to Alexandria. In fact, for several months thereafter, the Pentagon Metro station was closed to civilians and we were rerouted, in conjunction with the bus operators, to the Pentagon City Metro station.
The buses were not moving around the Pentagon because the bridge going into DC was closed for a while. Because the bridge was closed and because there is so much traffic there to begin with even when traffic is flowing smoothly, there was quite a logjam around where I was.
Bill McWilliams - 9/20/2008
Many people are wondering when, if ever, the government will provide credible evidence in support of its version of what happened on that day.
Maarja Krusten - 9/16/2008
I should add that obviously there was no attack on the Gannett/USA Today towers on 9/11. Many rumors circulated immediately after highjackers flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the side of the Pentagon building on the morning of 9/11. I remained at work in my building in Washington for much of the day on 9/11. I remember reading in breaking news reports posted on the Internet some early reports and/or rumors of a fire at the State Department, which turned out not to be accurate. There also were questions surrounding an airplane that was unaccounted for. That appeared to be Flight 93, which ended up crashing in Pennsylvania after some passengers heroically rushed the cockpit in an attempt to get to the hijackers). There also was speculation as to which buildings in the DC area might be targets of future attacks that day. A contemporaneous article in Slate posted shortly after noon on 9/11 catches some of this, see
As the DOD HO book shows, the Pentagon itself was evacuated a second time (rescuers were searching for victims at the time, medical personnel were attending to the injured at triage centers, one in the central courtyard, one outside the building) at one point because of a false alarm that a second hijacked flight was headed towards it.
By the time I caught Metro home in the late afternoon of 9/11, it was running much as normal.
Maarja Krusten - 9/16/2008
This essay offers Ms. Crowe’s personal views on events and the forthcoming election. With the caveat that as a federal employee, I take no position on what she writes, a few contextual items.
The reference to USA Today being under attack appears to refer to speculation regarding what were the two silver tower buildings out of which, as of 2001, the Gannett Corporation’s USA Today publication operated in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. USA Today moved out of the buildings some time in 2002. (Ref.: http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/1999/08/16/focus5.html )
The Pentagon also is located in Arlington County, Virginia. To see an image of the two silver towers in Rosslyn (which as of 2008 are occupied by a number of other tenants, including a local television station) and the Pentagon, see the second image at
Washington’s subway system, Metrorail, continued to operate after the attacks on 9/11. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority noted in a press release last week that
“Metro employees safely moved hundreds of thousands of federal workers and other commuters from the downtown core and provided buses to deploy police and serve as shelters for rescue workers.
Despite the confusion and false reports of bomb threats, Metro leaders made the decision to keep the system open to help get area residents home. Not one Metrorail train operator or Metrobus operator walked off the job that day. Time and time again, train operators continued to go back into the tunnels to pick up customers and bring them to safety. Bus operators stayed behind the wheel, even in snarled traffic, resolved to get their riders home no matter how long it took.”
For more, see
For an excellent account by Defense Department historians of 9/11, see Alfred Goldberg et al., _Pentagon 9/11_ which was published last year. See
The book is the result of a joint effort by government historians, with the Historical Office of the Office of Secretary of Defense taking the lead. (A former deputy historian in OSD HO was a mentor of mine when I first became a federal historian at another agency.) The book recounts many instances of heroism in which military and civilian personnel did not flee the premises but stayed in the building or attempted to get back into the building after leaving to try to rescue colleagues. Such efforts made the difference for some who survived the initial impact but were trapped by debris or injured, as such decisions not to leave them behind on the part of their fellow federal employees, made in the moments after the attack before first responders had a chance to arrive, enabled them to survive.
Steve Vogel of the Washington Post noted of the book, “More than 1,300 interviews were gathered for the project, conducted by members of the historical offices of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as well as Army and Navy reservists who were called to active duty to assist with the project. The book includes previously unpublished photographs of the wreckage, aircraft parts and rescue efforts.”
I have read the book and recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about what happened at the Pentagon and the surrounding areas in Arlington as well as the approach and methods used by federal historians in gathering and presenting information..
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