“Admiral, we’ve taken a hit…and we’re on fire”-Part II

South Parking was a scene of unparalleled confusion – fire trucks from Arlington and other communities were flying into the lot at speed, accompanied by law enforcement vehicles of all sorts. At the same time private vehicles were dodging around people on foot, trying their best to get out. Pentagon security forces, suddenly armed with heavy weapons that had never been seen before, were directing people away from the building and over to a far corner of the lot.

“Move away from the building – there’s another plane coming”

Pushing, prodding — willing the mass of humanity to move along, farther away from the burning building.

Our group stopped at the end of the lane our (pre-9/11) evacuation plan had designated and we started looking for others from the office. I quickly scanned the recall roster I grabbed on the way out of the office. Seeing a few other N51 personnel we signaled them over and did a quick huddle.

“Guys, I need you to get home by the most expeditious means possible – stay by the phone, for what I don’t know yet. Just be ready. I am staying here to see what we can do in terms of reconstitution.”

With that they left and with the N3N5 admin officer and our flag assistant, we began to move again. The police had other ideas though as they continued to herd us back from the building, towards I-395.

A sonic boom. More panic around us – Some screams and muffled cries; “There’s the other plane” “They’re going after the Capitol” “They’ve hit the White House”

Never mind the fact the Capitol was still clearly visible and undamaged. I catch a glint of sunlight on high – looks like an F-16 setting up low CAP over the White House. How many times had I seen that overseas in exercise after exercise – now here, in real life, F-16’s flying low CAP over our nation’s capitol…

“Let’s get on some high ground and see if we can figure out what’s going on”

We climb the embankment up to an eerily quiet and empty I-395, only to be chased off again by the police. The crowd continues to be pushed/herded back into Pentagon City now. It is obvious a general evacuation is underway as one car after another emerges from the many underground parking garages in the area. Caution is thrown to the wind as some come flying out of the garages looking for all the world like Tomahawks shot from an SSN. Once they merge onto the street though, the combination of traffic, wheeled and foot, brings everyone to a halt. Pausing by one vehicle the driver tells us that the WTC towers have fallen and there are attacks going on all over the country. All air traffic has been ordered to land and the Air Force will begin shooting down non-compliers. Too much info (and how much was just plain wrong?) to assimilate just now…

After several attempts I finally join-up via phone with my counterpart from N31 – he ended up in North Parking and was headed up the hill to the Navy Annex and the Marine Corps Ops Center. We agree to meet there and our small band strikes off on foot for the rendezvous.

As we pass under I-395 and head up the hill, we pause near the Citgo station, stunned at the sight before us. There, across the way the smoke had lifted and we saw where the plane hit and the building had collapsed. First responders were arrayed all around the area and fire had spread laterally from the impact site.

There, several windows down from the collapsed portion I see my old office, flames climbing out the window. The thought I’d kept buried in the back of my mind suddenly sprang forward – that there were going to be many casualties and people I’d known and worked side by side with were going to be on that list. Just who and how many I didn’t know, yet.

It was a quiet group that made its way up the hill to the Annex – Arlington Cemetery to our right and the burning edifice of the Pentagon behind us. Pausing one last time to look back we then headed inside and to the Marine Corps Ops Center. Joining up there we divided into two prime areas of responsibility – the N31 folks, who were Current Ops, went about trying to reconstitute their functions from the Navy Ops Center, reaching out to touch the Fleet. Our group, smaller in number, set about assessing the damage to N3N5; more particularly, what was the extent of our losses.

With recall lists in hand we set about calling to conduct the muster. At the other end of the phone lay mixtures of joy and anxiety.

“Yes, he’s here, Thank God”

“Yes, he reached me by phone a few minutes ago and said he was on his way home”

“No, no I haven’t heard anything – have you? What should I do? Is there someone I can call?”

The hours passed and soon the numbers weren’t changing. One last round of calls before contacting the Casualty Assistance Center that was being established at the Navy Yard across town. The receiver grew heavier in my hand with each call dreading what I would have to say…

“No, he’s not coming home is he?” “What will I do?” The pain and anguish were clear over the phone.

“I don’t know yet – we’re checking with local hospitals were the wounded have been evacuated. The instant I hear something I’ll call you. I also understand folks are still trying to get out of the city and get home and are being held up in traffic jams. The best we can do right now is pray; here’s my cell phone number – call me anytime with any questions or concerns…”

Twenty-seven (later to be corrected to twenty-nine) missing. Twenty-seven families who would not have a husband or wife, father or mother, sister, brother, daughter or son coming home. Word had it that the Army lost even more folks, and how many up in New York? There was also a rumor of an airliner that had either crashed or been shot down – we didn’t know yet. I hadn’t seen any TV since prior to the strike on the Pentagon (and wouldn’t until the following day). Right now though, Twenty-seven MIA. Between a fifth and a quarter of a typical VAW squadron. With heavy heart and pounding head I picked up the phone to call the Casualty Assistance Center to pass along the information. As I do I ask about the CACO’s (Casualty Assistance Call Officer) who will be assigned. As a list of junior officers, many of them stash Ensigns were read off, I offered the services of our officers. We had enough remaining from N51, N52 and some from N31 that were more senior and could accompany the notification teams. Everyone, not just uniformed personnel would have a team assigned – government and contractor civilian, retired as well as Reserve and active duty. They all would have a team assigned. I started making the calls and to a man, there was no hesitation. As time passed, these initial assignments stretched out to weeks and months afterwards, but they provided our families with continuity and an experienced POC to steer them through the challenges that lay ahead long after the official CACOs had been reassigned. (ed: To this group – Sean, Don, Dutch, Hozer, Tim, John, Jeff, Kevin, Darryl, Chris, Steve, and all the rest, I am eternally indebted…)

By now, it was well after midnight and the events of the day had finally caught up in physical and emotional form. Heading back down the hill to South Parking to pick up my car for the long drive home we passed the triage area set up under the 110 overpass, passed the fire trucks and ambulances still working the fire (which had continued to spread and was now in the attic). It would be a short turnaround – quick nap, shower and back in the Annex @ 0400. My boss had finally made it into town, driving all the way back from Memphis with his foot still in the cast from foot surgery the previous week. He concurred and underscored that whatever any of our families needed, we would pitch in to help and we did. The tone he and VADM Keating set was such that I can’t think of two other warriors I would have wanted in those positions – the losses deeply affected them, yet we also had a war to get on with and they were our leaders.

(ed. I was standing just outside the open door as this call was being made - witness to a historic moment being made that I fervently wished was different...)

I was tasked as the overall N3N5 Casualty Coordinator (in addition to being the N51 Deputy and now, the N513 Branch Head) and twice daily worked through the casualty conferences that ID’d our MIAs, changing their status from missing to killed. We did have one survivor who was in the burn unit in Washington Hospital with burns over 40% of his body. It was dicey there for a while and one day we thought we’d lost him, but he pulled through and is today working in DHS. On top of this we had a multi-front war to plan and fight, one that was familiar and yet again, altogether different than those we had previously fought as well as the challenge of getting ourselves back into the Pentagon.

The days passed – about a week later we were allowed to re-enter our spaces to retrieve vital material that had not been compromised by water or the now ever present mold. Donning protective suits and masks we entered the building and were transported to a scene beyond belief. Everywhere there was mold – either black spotty mold that was ½ ways up the wall or long, rope-like strands hanging from the ceiling. The overpowering stench of wet smoke filled our nostrils (to this day just the whiff of wood smoke pulls me back to those corridors). Power was out and with no air circulation our time was limited – only what we could carry and that which had been enclosed in drawers or file cabinets was allowed to be taken out. Coming out of the building we had to pass through decontamination. Again, one was struck by the sights and smells – who would have thought…

By the end of the month the funerals had begun. From small, family only services to a Naval Academy chapel filled to the rafters – some at Arlington and others back in their home states; we buried our shipmates. Catholic, Protestant, Hebrew, Buddhist…a deep, painful slice of America was being buried. Each had a story to tell – whether they were a former ship’s CO, retired P-3 aviator, a second generation Vietnamese immigrant, a sailor from Chicago, a husband on his first shore tour with his bride – all represented this great nation.

In this weekend’s posts I hope to relay some of those stories and lives. For now, please keep their families and our troops serving overseas in your prayers.
-SJS


4 Comments

  1. Your narrative is one of the most moving things I have ever read.
    God bless you all.

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