Memories loom about Sept. 11, 5 years after the attack

September 08, 2006

On Sept. 11, I was at work in my newly renovated office in the Pentagon, the Joint Combat Camera Center. This was in the newly renovated wedge, one corridor away from the area hit. We had just moved into the office a couple weeks prior and since cable television wasn't installed yet several of us gathered around the radio listening to what was happening in New York. It didn't seem real. As we huddled 'round the radio we heard an explosion and the building seem to shutter. I remember looking at one of my co-workers and saying, "Oh ----, we've been hit." We stood in disbelief for a few seconds then decided we should see what happened. Seeing smoke and injured people coming up from 4th corridor we knew it was time to get out. I wasn't a hero that day. I made an orderly exit with thousands of others.


Many things about that day will be with me always. The sight and smell of smoke and burning materials, wounded emerging from the smoke and a sea of uniforms flowing from the building, etc. Some of the most moving memories for me involved Marines. First, I moved with a sea of military and civilians headed down one of the ramps to the concourse and the nearest exit out to the South parking lot. In the crush of people I lost my officemates. I could hear the garbled announcements from the intercom system but the roar of thousands of nervous conversations made it impossible to hear. Suddenly a Marine officer jumped up on a chair and bellowed, "Pipe down!" Being the professional military people we were, we followed orders and you could have heard a pin drop.

Second, the majority of pentagon cleaning staff are handicapped persons. A sight that nearly moved me to tears was Marines, often senior officers, with a handicapped person on each arm leading them to safety. They were thinking of others, that's what Marines do right. We call them the 911 of the military. They proved it on 9/11.

I wasn't a hero on a 9/11, I was at work in the Pentagon serving my country with thousands of others. I didn't have time to let the shock of what happen sink in. Within 3 hours our Department of Defense imaging center was up and running in Old Town Alexandria moving images of the damage to internal and external markets worldwide. 9/11 blurred into the days and months to follow during 24-hour operations. During those late nights and early mornings I remember standing outside of my home near Mount Vernon and looking up at clear, starry skies. Missing was the low roar of airliners flying in and out of National Airport. The skies were eerily silent save for the occasional sound and blinking lights of Air Force jets flying combat air patrol. The silence was a little scary, but knowing the Air Force was on duty up there help me sleep at night.

- Tech Sgt. Angela Clemens, U.S. Air Force


My school counselor colleague, Rosemary Smith, and I were hard at work in a windowless room at Northern Middle School in Hagerstown, preparing materials for the first standardized test of the school year.

We had to close off our offices and sequester ourselves in a conference room not to be interrupted while we did those tasks which the state mandated to ensure standardization. To that end we were counting - counting booklets, answer sheets, pencils, test booklets etc., that would hopefully tally at the end of the session.

We had one of the few television sets in the building that could be disconnected from the tape player and with a looped antenna we could get a fuzzy image from the local TV station. Many times speaking to each other would cause us to lose count and so the low volume of the television chatter allowed us to function better.

The regular programming was interrupted by a flash bulletin that at first we did not pay attention to, but then the announcer sounded more urgent and more ominous as the news came across. We at first thought that a plane had accidentally crashed into a tower at the World Trade Center in New York.

We stopped our counting and stood in place as the news rolled on. Finally the first video footage came over the screen that showed the awesome intensity of the crash. We did not say much to each other as words were difficult to form that would even contain our thoughts.

The second plane crash into the second tower was something that we knew was not an accident and that our country was under attack by someone.

Time seemed to go by without our recognition and we watched in horror as the towers crumbled and fell.

We were silent and incredibly still while still standing. The emotion was so high and what we were seeing was so incredible that we did not think of sitting and so we were riveted to where we were.

Rosemary finally broke the silence when she looked at me and spoke. It was low and with strong emotion that she said. "Bill, I think you should pray."

Not, will you pray. Or words about the humanity and the loss or the tragedy. Rosemary said emphatically that I should pray.

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