September 11, 2001
Terrorist Attack on the Pentagon
As I begin to attend memorial services for friends and co-workers, the September 11th terrorist attack on the Pentagon becomes more personal and painful. The realization that I was standing near individuals who failed to make it out of the building makes me question why I survived and they did not. To assist in psychologically adjusting to the incident, it was suggested to those of us that were in harm's way during the attack that we write down our thoughts and memories. With that in mind, I will try to recall the day and my perceptions.
At approximately 9:30 AM, I left my office to meet with two individuals who were located in the newly renovated section of the Pentagon (between 4th and 5th corridor off the E-Ring). I had just concluded my meeting when 4-5 unbelievably loud crashing noises, unlike any I have ever heard before, occurred. It was apparent to those of us in the office that something very serious was wrong, but in my mind, I remember thinking that several bombs had gone off somewhere in the Pentagon (but not in the area where I was standing). I knew that it had to be in close proximity because of the vibration and noise level.
Within a few seconds after the deafening noise, our entire work area was engulfed in flames. It moved through the office with a swiftness that left destruction in its path. Computers went dead, lights blew, glass shattered, furniture and file cabinets fell, and the ceiling tiles began to melt and rain like hot cinder balls. I am still unable to comprehend how we were left standing when so much around us was destroyed.
I was unfamiliar with the floor plan for the renovated area, but knew that there were only a few doors leading from the open bay areas into the hallways. About 10 feet from where I was standing was the door leading to the E-Ring. My first impulse was to run to this door to escape the fire and black smoke. As I approached the door, I could see an orange glow under the doorframe, and knew that exiting through this door would mean walking into a fire-filled corridor. It was at this moment that LTC Rob Grunewald shouted to all of us that we had to drop to the floor; otherwise we were going to be overcome by smoke.
Visibility was about one foot at this time so we formed a human chain along the floor, holding onto the crawling foot of the person ahead of us. There was comfort in knowing that I was not alone. We were working together to escape the area. Someone kept shouting for us to keep moving and stay together. The hot metal pieces from the ceiling were falling on us, but everyone ignored them and kept moving. At one point I lost my grip on the heel of the guy ahead of me, and felt very much alone and frightened. I had no idea where I was and knew how important it was to stay together.
Knowing that I absolutely had to stay with the group to survive, I crawled as fast as I could and was calmed when I bumped into COL Phil McNair. Then God answered our prayers. The sprinkling system came on and the water extinguished the fire, and gave some relief to our lungs.
We crawled in our heel-to-hand chain for about 60-70 feet. The intent was to get us to the door that leads to the 4th corridor around the B and C-Ring. I don't know how far back I was in the chain but I remember the dishearten feeling I had when I heard someone yell back to us that the door wouldn't open. By this time, my lungs were burning and I was having difficulty breathing. The black smoke was getting very dense and moving closer to the floor. It was at this time that I realized that I might not be able to get out of the building. My thoughts turned to my family (especially my youngest daughter, Brooke) whom I knew would have a difficult time dealing with my death.
Just at this time, someone shouted that we had to try to make it to the back wall and break a window. I heard the voices of a couple men planning the strategy. I abandoned my all four crawl and got down on my stomach. The floor was wet and the air was better close to the carpet. I heard the noise of breaking glass and learned later that SPC Mike Petrovich had picked up a printer and thrown it in through the window that was partially blown from the force of the fireball. The window over-looked a service road between the B and C Rings.
I was handed a wet sweater and told to inhale the moisture. One by one, we were instructed to stand up quickly, avoid breathing the smoke, and step up on the windowsill, which was about 3-4 feet from the floor. I never thought about the fact that we were on the second floor and the drop could result in further injuries. At this point in time my primary concern was to escape the smoke. Mike and COL Phil McNair grabbed my wrists and dangled me from the window and let me drop. I don't know how they did it, but four to five men on the service road caught me by the legs and waist and my feet never touched the ground until they put me down.
I thank God for sparing my life and giving me a way out of the building. I thank God and Rob Grunewald for his commanding voice that led us to the interior of the office. He kept us together and made us all aware that we needed to keep calm, work together, and move rapidly to get out of the building. I thank God for Mike and Phil who helped saved my life. Not only was the smoke getting closer to the floor, but also within a few minutes of our escape out the window, the office in which we were trapped, collapsed.
Once I was out of the building, a young Air Force officer rushed me to the Center Courtyard of the Pentagon where the injured were being treated. I was then taken to the Pentagon Clinic where my cuts and burns were treated and I was put on oxygen. I was in the Pentagon Clinic for only about 10 minutes before the word came to evacuate immediately because there was fear that another plane was going to hit the Pentagon. A nurse pushed my wheelchair all the way to the exit on Corridor 8th and then recruited a rugged man to push me across the street where a makeshift triage was set up.
A chaplain came by to sit with me and pray. He held my hand until the Van came to transport several of my office colleagues and me to the Urgent Care Center. When I arrived they asked if there was a family member they could contact for me. Kent was playing golf and was not reachable by phone, I didn't have Stephanie's number in Ft. Worth, and I knew that Brooke was in class all day on Tuesdays so I suggested that they phone my dad and mom in New York. I knew that my children and relatives would call dad if they couldn't reach Kent.
I didn't realize until I was evacuated from the Pentagon that an aircraft had struck the Pentagon at the base of the fourth corridor...the newly renovated wing of the Pentagon...the area where I had my meeting. I also didn't know until two days later that the entire fourth corridor end of the E-wing had collapsed shortly after we had jumped from the second floor window. All the time I was trying to escape from the building, I never once thought about the building collapsing.
I would not want to repeat this experience again, but if I had to, I would want to be with military folks such as those I work with at the Pentagon. Their leadership skills and the teamwork effort they organized got us out of the building. The medical team was also superb.
On a very personal note, please note that my injuries are mostly small areas of first and second degree burns on the legs, arm, and hand. Unfortunately, I have developed bronchitis, which can happen when lungs are irritated by smoke. However, I have received wonderful treatment by the doctors and specialists at the Dewitt Hospital at Ft. Belvoir and placed on steroids, antibiotics, inhalers, cough medicine, etc. I am getting healthier every day.
Also I have been touched by the many prayers, hugs, and flowers that I have received from my Army family, my classmates from the National War College, Kent's Naval Academy classmates and golf buddies, colleagues from the Defense Manpower Data Center (my former employer), my Evermay neighbors, and my own wonderful family (who went through their own personal agony until a women from the Urgent Care Clinic contacted them to tell them that I was a "Pentagon Survivor").
Dr. Betty Maxfield
Chief, Demographics Office
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This page created:
27 October 2001
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