Editor’s note: The following is a narrative written by St. Elmo native Lyndon Willms, who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force assigned to the Pentagon, about his experience on Sept. 11, 2001, when the military hub in Washington, D.C., was attacked by terrorists.
Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2011, was one of those days those of us in the flying world used to call “clear and a million.” There were clear skies and it just seemed like you could see for a million miles — great flying weather.
That September, I was assigned to the Pentagon, working as a joint strategic planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the J7 Operational Plans and Joint Force Development Directorate. Our offices were on the river side of the Pentagon, along with the offices of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton and the Pentagon press corps. Unlike my previous office in the headquarters of the U.S. Air Force staff, we did not have windows.
That Tuesday started with my participation in a Washington, D.C., tradition — the “slug” line. Washington is surrounded by interstate highways. Travelling to and from work is a challenge. Virginia and Maryland use high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for cars with three or more occupants going into D.C. in the morning and outbound in the afternoon to encourage carpooling.
There are car-pooling lots around the D.C. suburbs where you can park your car and connect with your car pool. You can also park your car and stand in the slug line, where you wait for strangers heading to your destination to pull up to the line and yell out, “Two for the Pentagon!” The first two “slugs” in the slug line would go over to the stranger’s car and get in. Now, the driver and his slugs could use the HOV lane for the trip to the Pentagon, about 35 minutes instead of the hour-plus trip in the non-HOV lanes. Trust me, it works.
That morning, I went to the Horner Road commuter lot near Potomac Mills Mall in Woodbridge, Va. I parked my car and got into the slug line. I caught a ride to the Pentagon. Following slug protocol, I did not say anything until the driver asked me if today (Tuesday) seemed like a Monday. I told him it did.
I spent part of the previous week at a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency conference in the D.C. area reviewing new technology proposals. Work piles up when you are not at your Pentagon desk. The Pentagon rule of thumb of “no good deal goes unpunished” was true because the four days away from my desk meant four days of work stacked on my desk. I had worked my way through about half of the material Monday, but the rest was still waiting for me.
Our division on the Joint Staff was the Joint Vision and Transformation Division responsible for a variety of issues. We were charged to be “out-there” thinkers. My welcome to the division was warm and included being handed a well-worn copy of Robert Heinlien’s “Starship Troopers,” a 1950’s era book on future war. A week later, I gave my informal book review to the division chief. I must have passed because I stayed in the Division.
Our division’s duties included drafting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s section of the Transformation, Innovation and Joint Force Experimentation for the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), preparing our division’s recommendations to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council and myriad document preparation advocating changes to transform the military for future conflicts.
We were scheduled to have a meeting of senior retired officers to review ideas that Tuesday, but decided the Friday before to move it back other week due to external delays.
After arriving at my desk just before our official 7 a.m. start time, I spent from 7 to around 8:45 a.m. preparing for and attending formal and informal staff meetings. I then turned to some of the research books I had checked out from the Pentagon library.
Just after 9 a.m., I started to head to the Pentagon library to return two books. As I walked past our division chief’s empty office, I glanced up at his television tuned to CNN. I saw what I learned later to be the first replay of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center towers in New York.
I yelled, “Get in here!,” to rest of the division staff. The office filled.
Between the pictures on the screen and a short explanation of what I just saw on TV, the other aviators in the office and I voiced the same opinion at the same time, “We’re next.”
We broke up and started our emergency checklists and backing up our data off-site. We knew a decision would be made to either send us to augment one of the Crisis Action Teams forming in the National Military Command Center across the hall, or be evacuated to another site.
I knew my wife and kids were at the dentist office in Quantico, the city near the Marine Base south of D.C. I decided to call our home anyway and left the less-than-cryptic message to “turn on the TV” and a quick “I love you,” and then I was off the phone. I had no idea that my young kids were watching this all unfold on TV sets in the dentist office.
The next 30 minutes were a blur. Without a doubt, we knew we were at war. My office mate, Lt. Col. Reed Grabowski, U.S. Marine Corps, and I kept talking. Frankly, we were angry and really wanting to do something other than back up PowerPoint and Word files. We also discussed our emergency evacuation plan. If the main door was blocked, we had a false wall we would break through with office equipment to get to another exit and out of the building. We went back to work on our computers.
The office shook.
Not much of a shake but enough for us to stop for a moment. A shake was not too uncommon thanks to the ongoing Pentagon renovation, but this seemed different at that moment. Reed and I looked at each other for a moment, then both of us said, “Naa,” and went back to work. A few minutes later, Reed’s wife called to let him know the news channels were reporting a bomb exploding at the Pentagon. I told him to stay in the office, and I would check out the A Ring windows, the windows that looked out over the courtyard.
As soon as I got into the B Ring hallway, I could tell activity had picked up since earlier in the morning. I walked to one of the spoke-like halls in the Pentagon, known as Corridor 8, turned left and walked the short distance to the windows at the stairwell. I could see the smoke boiling from the impact area on the other side of the Pentagon. There was debris in the Pentagon’s center courtyard, a courtyard called “Ground Zero” based on the long standing belief that Soviet-era planners would use the courtyard to target their nuclear warheads. I could also see people evacuating from the other side of the Pentagon.
I went back and reported to the others in the office what I had seen. We went back to work. I decided I would attempt another call to home. I dialed our home phone. I looked at the time output on the phone. I knew the time on the phone was fast by five-plus minutes but good enough for me at the moment.
As soon as the answering machine beeped, I started talking.
“It’s 9:51 (a.m.). I am OK, but I think I will need a ride home sometime, so I will let you know. Love you, bye.”
It was a short message, but to the point. As our office gathered around the TV, a runner from the general’s office came in to tell us to evacuate the building. We were a bit confused because we thought we would be going in to augment the Crisis Action Team forming in the National Military Command Center (NMCC) across the hall. We broke up and headed back to our desks.
Reed and I both talked about not leaving, but staying to help out. I grabbed my POAC (Pentagon Athletic Center) gym bag containing a radio with headset and popped in my notebook planner. Reed and I slowly walked out with others from our directorate.
We walked past a large bathroom on the left side of Corridor 8 on our way out. We both stopped, doubled back and turned into the bathroom. Two informal rules from my survival school experience were: first, never pass up a water source, and second, never pass up a chance to use the bathroom. The place was crowded. Reed and I started talking about heading back to the office to see if anyone needed help. Frankly, we felt like we were abandoning the ship and it did not feel right.
The others in the bathroom were having the same debate. They, like us, were angry. We knew this was a terrorist attack, and standing our ground seemed like the better option. We came back to the fact that we were under orders to leave the building. We decided we had to obey.
I looked around the bathroom and said to Reed, “If we die here, we die here.” He looked around. We both started laughing because he, too, understood we could die in a Pentagon bathroom. We would be the punch line of some Pentagon joke years down the road. We left the bathroom, turned left and headed for the Corridor 8 exit on the river side of the Pentagon.
Once outside, we could smell the fire’s acrid smoke. Some of the noises on the other side of the building sounded like gas tank’s exploding. We kept walking.
We came across some of the wounded who had walked to a point and then sat down on the grass near the POAC. As we approached the wounded to ask if they needed help, medical personnel with yellow safety vest came up and started tending to the wounded. It was everyone’s training at work.
We met up with others from our directorate, including the Marine Corps two-star general who was our immediate boss. We completed our head count to see who was missing. We were missing our Army intern. One of the civilian staff members then spoke up and said the intern had gone to Pentagon City across Interstate 95 for an office errand. All accounted for.
In a few minutes, word spread to get away from the Pentagon because there was at least one more airplane coming toward D.C. The general announced we would get a call in the evening about the plan of action for the next day, and then he ordered us to find our way home.
I hooked up with a Navy captain who was also a flyer. We looked at the approach paths planes could take for an attack and quickly decided to walk along on the east side of an embankment of a road near the Pentagon and made our way south to Crystal City. We met up with others from our offices and talked about the best way to head toward our respective homes.
Several of us lived in Woodbridge and decided to form up as a group. Others did the same for their destinations. It was 28 miles to my car in the commuter lot, so we started walking.
I pulled out my radio and headset and tuned to a local talk station. The reports were nonstop. We heard an approaching jet, so we all turned to look. It was an F-16 flying fast and low, breaking all the normal altitude and air speed rules. Well, the rules had changed earlier in the morning, so no one would complain. I turned up my radio and continued to listen to the local stations.
We were headed south, past hotels, in the general direction of Reagan National Airport. I kept telling my group what I was hearing being reported. We then noticed people coming out of the area of the hotels with their luggage. We were not sure if they checked out, were waiting to check in or if they had just left the tall building near potential targets. Several people stopped us to ask if it was true that the Pentagon was hit. One of our group just pointed back to the south and said, “That’s it burning over there.”
A few minutes later, one of the radio broadcasters started talking about confirming some new information. He then made a comment that made me stop in my tracks. He said radio staff had just seen one of the World Trade Center towers appear to collapse in a TV news report. I looked at our small group and said, “One of the towers collapsed in New York.”
A person passing by stopped and asked me to repeat what I just heard. I repeated it. He did not believe me, so I handed my headset to him and let him listen. He shook his head after a few moments, swore and turned away.
Others asked me to repeat the report. I did and got the same reaction.
We kept walking and started running into people who were told to evacuate Reagan National Airport. They appeared not to understand that most of D.C. was heading away from the city, while they were trekking back toward the Crystal City area, most likely thinking about getting rooms in the nearby hotels. Some stopped to ask what was going on. We learned to slow down but not stop to prevent long conversations. By this time, we had learned of the second tower collapse and heard more rumors about attacks inside the city.
We continued past the airport and finally arrived at Braddock Road Metro Station. It was the first metro station where we saw activity and trains heading south. We were able to get on the train and get to the Springfield stop. Once there, we tried to get on various buses heading to our respective commuter lots.
I showed up at the Horner Road bus. The driver said I could not ride because he was out of seats. I hopped on board anyway, walked to the back of the bus, and sat down on the floor. “I’m good to go,” I yelled from the back. The driver shook his head at me, shut the entry door and headed for the southbound HOV lane.
Once on I-95 South, the bus was able to pick through the traffic to the Horner Road lot. Once out of the lot, I headed to a nearby Wendy’s to get a drink. I got back into my van and started heading home.
My children attended a private school. Lucky for me, it was on my route home. I decided to stop in to let my kids know I was OK and would see them at home. I parked, and went into the main entrance. The foyer had two wing-back chairs. One of our church members, who worked on the side of the Pentagon attack, sat uninjured in one of the chairs and out of sorts. I would learn later she was driving to work when the plane passed in front of her and hit near her office.
The secretary manning the welcome desk started to speak to me when my youngest son came around the corner enroute the bathroom. He ran to me and gave me a big hug. The secretary told me my wife thought the school would be a safe place for the kids while she tried to find out what had happened to me. Because there were so many parents of students who worked in the Pentagon, and the school staff did not know who was alive and who was dead, they had instructed our children not to say a word about the attacks. My son was too upset to sit in his class and not answer the other students’ questions about what was going on. The bathroom trip was a ruse to get away from class for a few moments.
I was able to peek in to our other children’s classes and wave to them to let them know I was OK. I drove the last half-mile home. It was 1:30 p.m. I found my wife in the family room watching the ongoing broadcasts. She received my two messages and was able to get e-mails out to family to let them know I was OK.
That night, we sat as a family to watch the news. I had already received a call stating our offices would be open the next morning. After the president’s speech, we tried to get into the normal night-time routine. Our youngest daughter was no more than three feet from me most of the night and spent the night with us.
The next morning, I got up early and hit the slug line at Horner Road. An Air Force officer headed for Crystal City stopped and picked up two of us. She said she would get us as close as she could before dropping us off. She asked us to recount to her what we experienced in the building because she was off the day before. She dropped us off about a mile from the Pentagon.
After walking up to the Pentagon’s entrance, it took an hour to get through security. I headed around the detours to get back to my office. The building was still smoldering from the small fires burning in places difficult for firefighters to extinguish.
Once in my office, I could not help but notice the fine ash in the area, the smell of smoke in the office and a hint of haze near the ceiling. The smoke was coming back down near our air conditioning intake, and we just had to deal with the air.
We held a mini-debriefing of what we had experienced trying to get home. Each was interesting, from just a quick drive home to others who were stuck in traffic for hours. We discussed new insights on evacuating the offices and building. We kicked around ideas of how to keep in contact if the phones would go down again, like they did across the D.C. area the day before.
We received dust masks about 10 a.m. They turned gray quickly. Several of us were starting to get headaches. A few hours later, a fireman was allowed into our spaces. He was holding a device to measure air quality. He looked up from the meter and told us the carbon monoxide levels were too high for us to stay in the area. He said we had to leave immediately. That was when it hit me, we had headaches from CO poisoning. Our general was quick to send us home.
Once home, I went to bed for a few hours before heading off to church for services. We were fortunate that none of our church members were injured in the attacks. Those who were scheduled to be on that side of the building were away from their desks when the attack took place. I would learn later others were not so lucky. Commander Pat Dunn, U.S. Navy, one of the people I would see around the Pentagon, died in the Navy’s Ops Center. Scott Powell, a civilian worker for BTG, also died. Others, whose faces I could recognize later from sharing the same gym time in the POAC, were also gone.
I would spend the next six months working as a Crisis Action Team executive officer in the NMCC. We would become the conduit for information and orders flowing from the Pentagon to the White House and back out to commanders in the field. Some nights, when the grind of endless hours of work would grate on me, I would walk outside and look over the river to the monuments and Capital; or some nights, to the yellow construction tape marking where the building repairs were taking place.
Those few moments would get me back into the right mental frame, and I could get back to work.
I took away many lessons from that September Tuesday. One of them really sticks. I was stationed in Hawaii in the late 1980s. Every Dec. 7, the survivors of Pearl Harbor could be found everywhere. On one of those Pearl Harbor days, I asked one of the veterans what message he believed America learned on that day. He told me it was a warning to America that a surprise attack could happen at any time. Little did I know, over 10 years later, that his warning would become fact.
Now, I carry the warning that we must be vigilant and must be prepared for the next surprise attack.
After retiring from the U.S. Air Force, Lyndon Willms went to law school and now practices in Marion and Carbondale.