Five Miles from the Pentagon: Memories of 9/11

Five Miles from the Pentagon: Memories of 9/11

written by: Dr. Judith Pearson
by: Dr. Judith Pearson

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on September 11, 2001. I was working as a writer/project manager for a small federal contractor in Alexandria, Virginia, just five miles from the Pentagon. I managed a five million dollar contract for the US Air Force Office of Small and Disadvantaged Businesses, focused on outreach to small, woman-owned and minority-owned businesses, encouraging them to bid on Air Force contracts, helping the Air Force meet its contracting quotas establishing by the Small Business Administration. When my day ended at five o'clock, I headed over to nearby Springfield, Virginia, where I saw clients in my solo psychotherapy

practice, working from 6 until 9 pm, before heading home for the day. On the morning of 9/11, the weather in the Washington, D.C. suburbs was sunny and clear. I walked to the conference room for an 8:30 managers' meeting. The meeting began, as usual, with the project managers reporting on their deliverables, expenses, and project milestones. Then our New York rep came in on the conference line. He said, "Quick! Turn on the television! One of the World Trade Towers has just been hit by a plane!" We turned on the television in the conference room. We watched the smoke billowing from the first Trade Tower. I could not grasp the magnitude of the event that was unfolding before our eyes. Just then, the second Trade Tower was hit. We saw it happening in real-time. It was mind-boggling.

As we watched, horrified, a newscaster broke in to say that the Pentagon had been hit by another plane. The thought that was on everyone's mind: "First New York, now the Pentagon. How many more?" Our meeting broke up immediately, while the project managers scrambled to call their federal counterparts at various government agencies in and around Washington, D.C. I called my federal supervisor at the Pentagon for instructions. She said the Pentagon was being evacuated - all federal employees and contractors should take emergency leave for the remainder of the day.

I told my staff of four people to take the day off. Only the corporate accountant and I remained in our building. I saw the remainder of the day as an opportunity to catch up on work, without interruptions from my staff or my federal supervisor. The two of us kept the television on throughout the day as we continued watching the coverage, learning of the plane crash in Pennsylvania. Later that morning, John, my fiancé (now my husband of 12 years), called. At the time, he was working for another federal contractor. He was also a Commander in the Navy Reserve. As an Intelligence Officer, he was the reserve officer in charge of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff Intelligence Center Pentagon. He had also done extensive research on the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Ironically, on the morning of 9/11, he was briefing representatives from the History Channel about his research on the destruction of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

On the phone, John asked if I knew what had happened. I said "yes" and that I'd been watching the television news. He then said, "Darling, this means war." I was stunned. I remembered the Viet Nam war - the daily news coverage, the body counts, the way our veterans were treated, the protests, and the way Nixon's handling of that war divided the nation. My heart sank. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't accept it. Another war? Again, in my lifetime?

I cancelled my evening appointments and went home. I continued watching the coverage of the day's events on television. When I saw the footage of people jumping out of the windows of the World Trade Towers, I felt sick to my stomach. I went to bed.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I remember many things. I remember the rush of patriotism and unity, now lost, that enthralled the citizenry. US flags were on display everywhere, many displayed improperly. I immediately published an online article about flag protocol.

I saw a client who worked at the Pentagon. She told me about the chaos and confusion as Pentagon employees evacuated the building while the corridors filled with smoke and the horrid smell of burning jet fuel. Once outside, they were not allowed to go to their cars. Security guards, fearing a fuel tank explosion, exhorted everyone to simply run as far away as they could, as fast as they could. She had nightmares for weeks as she remembered the terror and reeled at the deaths of her coworkers. John learned that his friend and mentor, a highly-decorated retired Navy Rear Admiral, a Viet Nam veteran and his wife, were aboard the flight that crashed into the Pentagon. John also lost shipmates in the Pentagon's Navy Intelligence Center.

Only weeks before 9/11, John and I had both been in the Pentagon for a briefing. Looking out over the central courtyard, I said, "You know, if the US is ever attacked, this courtyard will be ground zero." At the time, I had no idea how prophetic those words would become. The Pentagon smoldered for weeks. The cloud of dark grey smoke could be seen for miles.

The following month, John was at the Pentagon again, having just returned from a stint at sea with the USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group. It was a Saturday morning, as he walked across the Pentagon North Parking Lot, where fire fighters from all over the region were still dousing the embers of the West Side. Looking at the fire trucks, he saw one from Waldorf Maryland. It was built by Mack Trucks. John's late father had worked at Mack Trucks, building transmissions. John had also worked at Mack on the assembly line, while in college. He asked the fire crew when the truck was built. They told him it was built in 1956. He asked if the truck had its original transmission. The fire fighters said yes. John asked if he could look under the truck. They said yes. Finding the truck's transmission, he saw his father's maker's stamp on its housing. He felt deeply moved, knowing that his father's work would now play a small part in his personal story of 9/11.

Years later, John and I went to New York. We visited the Trade Towers Memorial Park and relived the sadness about the loss of so many lives, reflecting on how the event changed our nation. Every tragedy has repercussion far beyond the news headlines. Every tragedy rivets our attention on the moments before, during, and after, in ways we can never forget. These are my remembrances of 9/11.

written by: Dr. Judith Pearson

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