September 11th -- Never Forget (Part 2)

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jefferey Bridges
  • 17th Air Force/AFAFRICA
When discussing 9/11, the most common question among Americans is "Where were you?"

My answer, most often in silence, is "I was there."

I was at the Pentagon, September 11, 2001-- Room 5e229 to be specific. 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.

The morning was sunny and surreal. I was barely six weeks into my new assignment at the Office of the Secretary of Defense when I found myself on day two of a weeklong orientation course. It's ironic because I had arrived late for the 8:30 a.m. start time due to unforeseen beltway traffic. I almost blew off that morning's session due to my embarrassment of being late and not being able to plan properly for DC's challenging traffic and commute.

I had contemplated just 'exploring' around the Pentagon until I could slip in unnoticed during a break at 9:30 a.m. I decided to eat humble pie and I entered the briefing room late with a chagrin look on my face and sat in the back stewing over how much I resented this new assignment and the challenges of working and living in DC. I was feeling sorry for myself and was cranky due to the lack of sleep (barking dogs) and morning caffeine.

All of that changed when somebody burst into the room just after 9 a.m. yelling for us to turn off the powerpoint and turn on CNN.

From that point, everything seemed to move in slow motion. Like the rest of our fellow Americans, the two dozen of us newbie's 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 9:37 a.m., we heard three massive and successive explosions that shook the building. You could feel the vibration in your chest.

We would later 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, crew and 125 personnel working in the Pentagon.

I had heard the phrase "fight or flight" but didn't truly understand it until 9:37 a.m. as my heart was about to beat out of my chest and my mind was racing to find a reasonable explanation of what we had just heard and felt with three explosions. Surprisingly, everyone was very calm, but still 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 towards those of us running towards the nearest stairwell exit. This was the first time in my life I saw fear and panic in people's faces. I could see it in their eyes. The stairwell was jammed with people -- and while there was no pushing, everyone was very anxious to get on to the second floor exit where people would sprint from the building out of the smoke to relative safety.

First responders were dodging 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 that took 189 innocent lives was because of cold-blooded killers using 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 then called my family with the news I was okay.

I eventually made my way outside 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 Reagan 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-16's from the DC Air National Guard out of 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 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 mass 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., it shouldn't have to, but the events of that day have helped to focus on what really matters in life...what has lasting and eternal value.