“Admiral, we’ve taken a hit…and we’re on fire”
Tuesday, 11 Sep 2001 0937:25. Reflexively I glanced at my watch at the moment of impact, burning the time into my memory as I passed to my boss who was in Memphis for a promotion board that we had just been struck.
“Sir, looks like we’ve been hit pretty bad – I have to go. Will try to reach you via cell as possible.”
And with that I completed a voice report that I never imagined I would be making from a shore station. Over the years, through ramped up tensions during the Cold war and in the Gulf I always had in the back of my mind the possibility of having to make just such a call. Never under these conditions…
Sept 11th was a day that started generally unremarkably. I had joined the OPNAV staff some five months previously taking the billet as the deputy N51(Strategy & Policy Directorate) for my 1-star submariner boss. In turn, we were part of the Plans, Policy and Operations Division (N3N5), headed by VADM Keating. I’d had Washington duty before, serving my first Joint penance tour in the Pentagon with DIA on the airborne reconnaissance systems desk – as close to an operational job as one could get inside the beltway. Now I was back, getting acclimatized to the job, intrigued by some aspects, patiently suffering others. An early riser, I was usually in by 0400 in the hopes of knocking out pieces of work that required serious concentration and uninterrupted study as well as preparing the day’s agenda for the boss before the 0600 N3N5 daily ops/intel brief. Today was no different, except that he was out TDY and I was overseeing the office and would sit in for him at the brief. Following the brief I’d have a short Branch officer mtg with my three branch chiefs, also O-6’s or O-6 selects and the flag assistant to pass along any action items. Following that I’d head over to the POAC (antiquated fitness facility next to the Pentagon) and try and get a mile swim in to clear my head and prepare for the day’s onslaught.
All through that morning routine, it was fairly normal. Most of the concern (angst) was over the soon to be released ’01 Quadrennial Defense Review and the possible impact it would have on Navy. Rumours of cuts as deep as 4 CVBGs had folks deeply concerned – doubly so as they tried to continue to puzzle out what the new Administration in general and the SecDef and his “transformation cabal” in particular really wanted from the Services. Those thoughts were foremost in my mind as I headed off to the greound floor for the N3N5 daily brief.
Our office had just recently (the week prior) moved from the old part of the Pentagon to the renovated wedge, and the N3N5 daily briefs were just starting to be conducted in the new Navy OPS Center in the basement of the renovated wedge. While it was nice to have new furniture and surroundings, I did miss the view I had from the E-ring out to Arlington Cemetery – now my view was to the backside of the E-ring as our combined N51, N52 and N31 offices were in the D-ring. Looking back on it now, it seemed so mundane, sitting there in the cheap seats that morning, trading a joke w/the N3N5 intel officer about the stiffness of the JO giving the brief. There was something (undefined) that might be brewing in Saudi Arabia and Khobar Towers flashed through my mind, soon to be crowded out by the multitude of other items, significant and trivial that formed the remainder of the brief and subsequent discussion.
With the Admiral gone, I jumped at an opportunity to get to the pool early so I wouldn’t have to worry about sharing a lane with 2 or 3 other swimmers – passed the tasking list to the branch officers and headed to the POAC. I remember looking at the early September sky on the way over, following a jet launching out of National and marveling at how clear it was – none of the trademark DC hazy grayness was present. ‘CAVU to the moon’ I thought, quickly followed by a heartfelt wish to be strapping into a cockpit that morning rather than the prospect of logging in to my computer. What a day to go flying…
It was after the workout I started catching the bits and pieces passed on the radio playing in the background. Snatches of “airliner” “New York” “World Trade Center” could barely be heard above the noise of the locker room. On my way out I stopped to check out the TV in the weight room. On the screen was the first tower and the headline of an airliner striking the WTC. Unbelievable I thought, on a day such as this to hit something like that? No sooner had the thought passed than the second tower was hit.
Crap – this was no accident.
Quickly leaving the POAC I headed back to the Pentagon, a thousand questions racking my mind. Suddenly I stopped and listened, hearing – nothing.
When one grows up on the Great Plains, one acquires a certain sensitivity to what nature is telling you. A sudden stillness, a cessation of the ever present wind usually portended an approaching storm. You would get a feeling of unease – the hair standing up on the back of your neck. All those indicators were upon me now. Encountering one of my AOs (action officers) I told him to stop by the Ops Center, get a quick dump on what they had found out thus far and come see me up in the office. I was going to check in with the boss then head back down myself to get a more detailed round-up.
Back in the office, people were clustered around the few TVs we had working at that point (show me any move where everything worked right off the bat). Seeing some of my banch chiefs I give the 10 sign, indicating I wanted to meet with them in 10 minutes and to find the other branch chief.
0935 and I finally get through to the Admiral – they’ve been apprised of what is going on and he’s going to try and catch the first flight back to DC that day.
0937:25. Leaning against the wall of my ‘cube while talking on the speaker phone, I’m looking out the window when suddenly I see a billowing cloud of smoke, flame and debris hurtling across the roofline towards my window. Simultaneously the building begins to shake, and a rumbling, almost like a train passing nearly beneath us is felt. Having seen my share of plane crashes and leaping to the earlier events of the day, it was clear in my mind what had just happened – we’d been hit, probably with an airliner just like the WTC.
Interrupting my boss I pass that we’ve been hit, the building is on fire and it looks bad. We’re going to evacuate the spaces and I’ll try to reach him via cell later in the day. He rogered and signed off with a ‘good luck.’
Looking about it was clear no one needed prompting to evacuate the space. No smoke yet, but it couldn’t be far and flame not soon afterwards. The N3N5 admin officer is quickly making the rounds and I pitch in to secure the classified material, close and lock the safes and make one last check of the space before we evacuate.
Out in the passageway – panic. I look towards the A-ring and see a mass of people, pushing, shoving, and going – where? The courtyard and possible entrapment? Uh-uh. Two of my branch chiefs and a couple of AOs with them are coming back up the corridor from the A-ring and I tell them to follow me – I knew a short-cut through the construction area that would get us out to South Parking and away from the building. At the intersection with the E-ring we come across VADM Keating who is genuinely concerned.
“Will, take your folks, get them out of the building and to safety”
“Aye sir – are you sure there’s nothing we can do here?”
“No, get them out and stand by – I’ve got a bad feeling about the command center”
The Navy Command Center – home to one of my three branches as there wasn’t enough space in the new offices for them. Glancing down the E-ring the smoke is already thick in the overhead and getting lower.
Out through the construction zone and through the doors to the outside. A crush of humanity – faces at once angry, confused, fearful and focused. Under the thick, acrid cloud of smoke and into the chaos of South Parking we pressed …