This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
and we’re on fire” Reflexively I glanced at my watch at the moment of impact 0937:25 “Sir, looks like we’ve been hit pretty bad – I have to go. Will try to reach you via cell as possible.” Eight years ago this morning I completed that voice report – a report I had 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 such a report, but at sea and under wartime 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 boss, Ben Wachendorf. In turn, we were part of the Plans, Policy and Operations Division (N3N5), headed by VADM Keating. Today promised little change from the preceding, save for the fact my boss was in Memphis for a promotion board and I would sit in for him at the usual rounds of morning briefs. All through that morning routine, it was fairly normal. Most of the concern (angst) was over the soon to be released ’01 QDR and the possible impact it would have on Navy. Those thoughts were foremost in my mind as I headed off to the ground 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. Looking back on it now, it seemed so mundane, sitting there in the cheap seats trading a joke w/the N3N5 intel officer. 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. I remember looking at the early September sky on the way over, and marveling at how clear it was – a deep, almost burning blue with none of the trademark DC hazy grayness present. With a heartfelt wish to be strapping into a cockpit that instead of logging on to my computer, I thought -‐ What a day to go flying... It was after the workout that 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 1
stopped to check out the TV in the weight room. On 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. Quickly leaving the POAC I headed back to the Pentagon, a thousand questions racking my mind. I stopped suddenly and listened, hearing – nothing. No traffic, no planes, no birds – just an eerie silence. Back in the office, people were clustered around the few TVs we had working at that point. Seeing some of my branch chiefs I indicated 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. Looking out my window while talking on the speakerphone, I see a billowing cloud of smoke, flame and debris suddenly hurtling across the roofline of the E-‐ring 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. With the N3N5 admin officer we make a sweep 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 was home to N513, 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. “Follow me” 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 we’d never seen them with 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 evacuation plan had designated. 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… A general evacuation is now underway, but 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. As we pass under I-‐395 and head up the hill to the Navy Annex and the Marine Corps OPS Center, 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 had hit, a major part of the building collapsed. 3
It was a quiet group that made its way up the hill – Arlington Cemetery to our right and the burning edifice of the Pentagon behind us. Pausing one last time to look back we headed inside. Joining up there with the N31 remnant, 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. 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. “No, he’s not coming home is he?” “What will I do?” The pain and anguish were clear over the phone. Twenty-‐nine missing. Twenty-‐nine families who would not have a someone coming home that night. Word had it that the Army lost even more folks, and then there was NY. 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-‐nine 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 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. 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 – the sky above us now a hellish grey-‐orange glow. It would be a short turnaround – 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 4
casualty conferences that ID’d our MIAs, changing their status from missing to killed. We did have one survivor (Kevin Schaffer) 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. 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. Some number of years ago I had the honor of making the acquaintance of a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A young seaman then stationed on the battleship Nevada, he related his story, his memories. And as he talked about the aching beauty of that peaceful Sunday morning – I wondered. I wondered how I would feel and react in a similar situation. And I think I now know…and will never forget. Thank you and God bless our departed shipmates, their families and those who still serve and hold the light of Freedom high. May we never forget them.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.