After retiring from active duty in 1996, while at the Pentagon, I transitioned to what many retirees become in that stage of their careers, and what is “affectionately” known inside the Washington, D.C. beltway as an SSC (scum-sucking contractor). I’ve supported numerous Air Force and Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) organizations, often ones that I worked with while on active duty. One beautiful Tuesday morning in September I found myself in the Pentagon filling in for one of my co-workers who wanted the day off. The Pentagon is constructed as a series of five pentagons of decreasing size placed one inside the other, like nested boxes, with corridors connecting at the apexes. I was in an OSD office in the inside box, the A ring, working on classified information. It was an interior vault with no windows, TV, or radio, and I was pretty much by myself. Sometime during the morning there was a muffled thump and a slight vibration. The Pentagon has lousy delivery drivers that often crash their golf-cart type vehicles into the walls. Seemingly, the drivers use the walls to stop the carts instead of the brakes so I thought nothing of the disturbance. A short time later a co-worker rushed into the office, alarmed and out of breath, and told me we had to evacuate - a bomb had gone off on the outside of the E-ring (the outer most box) on the other side of the Pentagon, almost directly opposite where I was working. I looked at him somewhat dumbly and said, “You’re kidding.” He responded, “No, we have to evacuate. There were also airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the news is reporting it as a terrorist action.” Working in the vault, I had no idea any of these events had occurred. An apparent terrorist bomb went off outside the building and I had thought it was a golf cart. Not sensing immediate danger, I secured the classified material, picked up my briefcase, and left the room. It was the day that most Americans remember, September 11, 2001.
Outside in the corridor people were milling around with no obvious purpose or direction. Since this was on the opposite side of the Pentagon from where the “bomb” went off, there appeared no real sense of urgency. I met up with a former co-worker and we walked out to the center courtyard to see what was happening. It was chaotic. Smoke was rising over the roof of the Pentagon and groups of people were running either towards or away from the area of the smoke. As we debated whether we should go help, we thought we heard two muffled explosions. A medical team ran past us from the eighth corridor where the medical clinic is located. A Pentagon police officer again directed us to evacuate. The Pentagon is such a large building that you don't just 'evacuate'. Where were we supposed to go and in which direction? We thought about taking the eighth corridor to North Parking, or going up the B-ring ramp through the Concourse and out to South Parking. North Parking was out because trying to make our way from the North to the South Parking lots (where our cars were parked) would have been almost impossible due to the tangle of roads surrounding the Pentagon. So we took the B-ring ramp. Halfway up the ramp a large group of people came running from the courtyard and out the eighth corridor. A moment later, the same group ran back from the eighth corridor and passed us on the ramp. The whole activity reminded me of a Keystone Cops movie. But it also made me wonder what was outside the eighth corridor exit that would make them run back into the building. I remember saying, “If a terrorist bomb were set off outside the building, what’s to say there isn’t another one waiting for a large group of people exiting the building by South Parking?” A dilemma. North or south? We took our chances and left the building through the Concourse to South Parking. Fortunately for us, no bombs were waiting.
Once outside my co-worker and I went our separate ways. Out of curiosity, still not realizing how serious the situation was, I walked across the parking lot to a hill overlooking the side of the Pentagon where the smoke and fire were emanating and the bulk of the firefighting activities were focused. Joining the growing group of bystanders on the hill watching the firefighters, I remember thinking, “The damage doesn’t seem too bad, the Pentagon is a solid building.” That was before the fourth and fifth floors and roof collapsed while I was watching. I believe it was then that I started to comprehend it was much worse than I originally thought. That was when someone told me it was an airplane and not a bomb that caused the damage. I couldn't believe what was happening. Surveying the scene one could scarcely believe that there was anything left of flight 77. It struck me how surreal the whole scene was – the Pentagon with a huge gaping hole in the side where an airplane just crashed, firefighters and equipment swarming the scene, an unseen and untold number of people injured or dying, a similar event occurring in New York City, and I was standing there watching it as if it was the evening news. My thoughts were interrupted when someone said they heard the news reporting another airplane was inbound and that we should probably clear the area. Flight 93 crashed in a farmer’s field in Pennsylvania.
I made my way from the hill to a parking lot on the other side of I-395, near the Pentagon City Mall. There I found some other co-workers who evacuated from their offices that were very near where the airplane hit the building. It would be months before they could go back to the offices to collect their hastily left personal items; things you use every day - cell phones, car keys, purses, briefcases, most of which became unusable due to fire, smoke, water, and mold. Electronic communication had come to a standstill. Cell phones were not working. Fortunately BlackBerry e-mail was and we were able to account for all our employees working in the Pentagon that day. As I was the only one with keys, we decided to take my car. We tried to make our way to our office building in Crystal City but the roads in that direction were jammed worse than the parking lot we just left. We turned back and headed home, picking up a few co-workers who were wandering the streets. I ended up being a taxi, ferrying folks where they needed to go, as best I could in the homeward direction. The main roads were jammed in all directions, so we navigated neighborhood streets and worked our way north toward Falls Church, then west, and finally south to Springfield. As we drove over bridges crossing I-395 and I-66, we found the interstates completely deserted. Odd. If you drive in the Washington, D.C. area, you know that I-395 and I-66 are never without traffic. We later learned the police had blocked access to the major thoroughfares exiting the city. This may be a good idea if you’re trying to catch perpetrators, but it doesn’t work well during an evacuation.
My wife, Stephanie, was working in downtown D.C. near the White House when all this was happening. Everyone in her building had been told to evacuate immediately. Since cell phones weren’t working, she had no idea if I was okay or where I was. All she knew was that I was working in the Pentagon. And she knew that the Pentagon had just been struck by a fully loaded Boeing 757. I can only imagine how worried she was that I was one of the unfortunate souls not to make it out. Rumors were flying that more airplanes were targeting the White House, the Capitol, and even the Smithsonian. While standing on a corner trying to decide where to go, she received a cell phone call from her sister in Phoenix. Apparently, only outbound cell phone traffic was jammed while inbound was, indeed, possible. Stephanie later told me she was so rattled it didn’t occur to her to have her sister call me. Figuring her best course of action was to get out of D.C. as fast as possible, she took the Metro subway to West Falls Church and then caught a cab home. While on the Metro, her call to me finally went through and she knew I was okay. Hundreds of others walked across the bridges to leave the city. Her escape actually went rather smoothly. All told, she was home in 45 minutes, whereas, mine took over eight hours.
After completing my taxi run, I finally arrived home, the shock just beginning to set in. The sheer size of the Pentagon’s footprint and its geometry placed me far away from the “action”. Had the high-jackers overshot their mark and come in a little high, the nose of the plane would have found my vault. I was there. I witnessed the disaster, but have no visible scars to show. I have the upmost respect and admiration for those who gave their all, for those who were directly involved, and condemn to-burn-in-Hell those who committed the act.
Bill Van Horn
9491 South Johnson Court
Littleton, CO 80127
USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!