A 20-year perspective
By Susan D. Henson, U.S. Navy, retired
Like countless others, Sept. 11, 2001, changed my life. Working in the Pentagon at the time of the attack, my memory was indelibly imprinted by what happened when a group of people decided to show the world how much they hated Americans. Thousands of people died in the attacks, including nearly 200 at the Pentagon, but my colleagues and I were unharmed. At the time, surviving as we did truly felt like a miracle because the plane that hit the Pentagon stopped just shy of our office. We were 20 feet away from being terrorist casualties. After 20 years of reflection though, I’ve realized that, for me, the true miracle was not walking away unharmed from a terrorist attack. The true miracle was seeing what happened after the attacks.
I was a lieutenant junior grade serving in the U.S. Navy’s Office of Information (CHINFO) on Sept. 11, a clear and gorgeous Tuesday with a Caribbean blue sky specked with big, puffy clouds. When news started coming in about a plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, my colleagues and I watched the initial TV reports in horror. The CHINFO office had a bank of nine TVs, and every station was broadcasting the same imagery, like some kind of morbid modern art exhibit. As we speculated on the cause of the crash, we watched live with the rest of the world in stunned silence and gut-churning shock as a second plane hit. My colleagues and I knew that couldn’t have been a coincidence but didn’t know what it meant or what was to come.
With the news reports on the crashes in New York City playing in the background, I returned to my desk. On the way, I picked up the Sept. 11 edition of the Washington Post to skim headlines from over the weekend, thinking how the day’s news coverage would be of little impact to the Navy. The Pentagon was the world’s largest low-rise office building, and as headquarters for the U.S. military, it felt like one of the safest places in the world to be right then. I placed the paper on my desk and sat down to check email.
Then suddenly the entire office jolted, like a boxer landing a vicious gut punch on an off-guard opponent. The Pentagon had just physically MOVED.
I snapped my head 180 degrees to the window. The normal view of the Pentagon’s “C” ring was completely obliterated by flying concrete and billowing, gray clouds of dust and smoke. “What the hell was that?!?” a coworker yelled as people looked around startled. Someone yelled back, “I don’t know, but I’m getting outta here!”
The new emergency system mechanically announced, “There is an emergency in the building. Please evacuate the building,” followed by a high-pitched, whooping alarm. Since CHINFO had just moved offices to the newly renovated section of the building six months before, we’d participated in several evacuation drills. Now, despite the chaos going on around us, people were following the drill procedures, moving toward the center courtyard outside at a quick, orderly pace with the type of quiet crowd chatter often heard while leaving a theater after a dramatic movie.
Before leaving my desk, I gathered my personal belongings and started for the stairs, where I saw an office friend. A normally upbeat woman with a bubbly personality, she was now ashen gray. I asked if she was OK. Her stammering, stumbling words tumbled out of her mouth. Visibly shaking, she tried her best to tell me that while talking on the phone with her husband as she looked out the window, she’d seen the plane coming straight at us. She saw it as it was happening, and there wasn’t a thing she could do. I tried to calm her down as we got outside to the courtyard, not even stopping to consider we’d just walked away from a terrorist attack.
Triage at “Ground Zero” Cafe
The center courtyard – the designated evacuation place for offices near the center of the building – was a blur of chaotic confusion packed with many people. I immediately reached for my cell phone to notify family and friends I was OK, but the network was jammed with all the calls to loved ones and friends by thousands of people who were at the Pentagon that day – mostly worker bees like me. But also admirals and generals, service secretaries, contractors, vendors, visitors on tour, and people applying for jobs. Most walked out – or were carried out by rescuers. I later learned there were many who were unable to make calls – those who would be in the building until crews could recover their remains. Among those were people I knew.
In those first moments in the courtyard, unable to reach the outside world, we wandered around trying to account for coworkers as a black mass of heavy smoke billowed up and out into that brilliant blue sky. The thick, sickening smell of burning fuel and debris filled the air. Because of my friend, I knew a plane had hit the building, but I did not know the extent of the damage. Amid the confusion, someone ran group-to-group looking for people with CPR qualifications and medical training. I’d just renewed my CPR qualification two months earlier. Not hesitating, I simply shoved my belongings into the hands of a colleague and ran to join the volunteer group setting up a triage area in the courtyard. At the same time, everyone was being told to leave the courtyard as fast as possible, but evacuating the building never crossed my mind – 17 years of Navy training had prepared me for this day.
The Pentagon medical clinic staff had quickly set up, so the triage volunteers readily followed the directions of those with formal medical training, regardless of rank. All military formality was tossed aside; all that mattered was working together as a team.
We started off trying to calm those who were injured and in shock, wandering in a fog of incomprehension. Some were missing shoes; some had debris matted in their hair. Some were bleeding from wounds caused by falling rubble or suffered while trying to save colleagues.
Many people had trouble breathing due to the dust, debris and fumes they had inhaled, and we needed clean water fast. Someone pointed out the closest source was the courtyard cafe. We immediately raided it, taking as much as we could carry to clean wounds, eyes and throats. Other people helped dress burns and aided survivors as they stumbled out of the wreckage. It seems odd now that everyone had always called the courtyard cafe “Ground Zero.” Pentagon tour guides often told visitors a story of how the Russians thought we stored nuclear weapons there during the Cold War. In this moment, the name was horribly fitting.
The injured were a cross-section of humanity from late teens to mid-50s. The younger ones were mostly in uniform, mostly Army and Navy uniforms, which later made sense because the plane hit a section of the building that had mainly Navy and Army offices.
One Army senior enlisted man – a master sergeant – was bleeding on the upper right side of his head. He had bits of concrete still embedded in his sparse, gray hair line, and he was covered with white-gray dust. He obviously needed medical attention but refused it. Coughing as he fought to expel the foreign debris in his lungs, he sat down on a bench insisting those more badly hurt were treated first.
Many people were like the master sergeant, covered with dust and debris but also hacking and coughing, some for their lives. They came like stragglers, wandering aimlessly one-by-one out of the wreckage. One female Army sergeant in her early 30s staggered into the triage area, her once crisp uniform skirt and polished heels covered with dust and debris. Her panty hose ripped, her shins were scraped and bleeding. She was coughing and crying hysterically. But she didn’t want medical attention – she wanted help. She had left her boss “in there,” but it was pitch black and she couldn’t find him. He’d been walking right behind her when the plane hit, and afterward she screamed and screamed for him, but he didn’t answer. And the rest of her office, she sobbed, what happened to them all? Like many, she was in shock. We tried to calm them all as best we could.
It seems odd now that everyone had always called the courtyard cafe “Ground Zero.” Pentagon tour guides often told visitors a story of how the Russians thought we stored nuclear weapons there during the Cold War. In this moment, the name was horribly fitting.
I didn’t try to process all of this as it happened. I kept working as part of the team to lend a hand where possible. After a while, fewer victims trickled into the courtyard triage area. And that’s when a gentleman in his 50s wandered out of the rubble. Nothing prepares you for the sight of a new burn victim. He was wearing what was once a very nice, dark two-piece business suit, so covered in dust and debris that the color was obscured. But something else was terribly wrong. His pants and shirt sleeves looked like he’d thrown his suit into a shredder before putting it on. What was stranger was the way he was holding up his hands like a doctor who has just scrubbed for surgery. There was something dangling like streamers from them. I stared for a couple of seconds before realizing that those streamers were what was left of his skin. The medical team rushed over to him. He wasn’t crying or even talking much. He was in such shock that his body didn’t register what must have been the immense pain he was feeling.
During this time, it was comforting to see a few people I knew working triage and rescue. Many others helping that day were familiar faces I’d passed while walking around the Pentagon for two years. Rank, service, status, gender, ethnicity – none of it mattered that day. We worked together to do whatever was needed. We answered calls to assist with evacuating those needing help, looking for survivors, and getting medical attention for the injured. We ran in and out of the building grabbing every fire extinguisher we could find, going farther and farther each time. But the fires were so intense that all the extinguishers we could find still weren’t enough to do any good.
There were no rules; no differences to separate us. We simply, frantically, worked together to help as many people as possible. On that day we were survivors, rescuers and teammates. We were also witnesses to the day unfolding. We had just been attacked, and yet we felt we had jobs to do. And so we did those jobs. We kept at each task with the fervor of sailors struggling to save a battle-damaged ship. We were there because, like everyone responding to the call, we had to do something. Anything. Helping others helped us cope with the horror of that day.
There’s another plane inbound …
Amid all this orderly chaos in the courtyard, the booming voice of a Pentagon security officer stopped us all dead in our tracks – there was “another plane inbound,” they didn’t know “what its intentions” were, and we had to “get out now.”
Those words hung heavy in the air as we looked around at each other, wide-eyed and stunned. There we were, this pickup team who’d just unknowingly survived a shocking terrorist attack, faced with the warning of the same danger we’d just unwittingly survived. This is the most scared I have ever been in my life. We didn’t know if or when the next attack would come, or where it would be. We didn’t know which way to go, but we knew we had to get everyone out.
We scrambled to grab whatever we had as stretchers, loaded people on, snatched up what supplies we could, and ran. Despite an overwhelming aversion to going back into the building with the threat of another incoming attack, we had no choice – it was the only way out.
It took 12 of us to carry a woman who couldn’t walk on a large, heavy piece of plywood with wires and nails hanging off of it. We half-walked, half-ran down the corridor trying to keep her calm and on the makeshift stretcher as she sobbed and rocked with shock the entire way, “Don’t make me go back in there; don’t make me go back in there!” Another Navy woman helping carry this patient was in a skirt, and had kicked off her heels to keep up.She preferred to go barefoot than to let go of that board. That’s how we all felt – we weren’t leaving anybody behind. We ran through those eerily dark, empty halls, not knowing if or when that next plane would hit. Yet we got everyone out.
Triage site #2
We set up another triage site on the grass along the Potomac River. Calls for oxygen, dressings, needles — we needed so much but didn’t have nearly enough. While we tried to answer every call for help, the need was massive.
At one point someone called out for volunteers to go back and search for survivors. I raised my hand but put it back down when I saw the big guys who raised theirs, too. As the group ran back toward the building, I stayed at the triage site wondering for a moment if that had been right decision, yet there was so much to do where I was.
We took down a list of those injured. We dug out flat rocks and branches to stick under the wheels of the emergency equipment to keep it from rolling downhill. My hair, neatly put up that morning, fell down when I lost the barrette. The knees of my uniform pants were stained with grass and dirt. I didn’t think about it. I just kept going. I tried to answer questions from worried co-workers and scared parents. Did such-and-such get out? Do you know where a working phone is? Where are we supposed to go? Do you know where they took the children from the daycare center?
We were told to stay under the cover of the trees – just in case. It truly felt like we were in the middle of a war zone. But as scared as we were, we had a mission to accomplish – help others; save lives. And so we worked on. Eventually someone yelled over the chaos if anyone knew the way to the closest hospital; I yelled back, “YES!” I lived less than three miles from the Pentagon and had passed Arlington Hospital several times. As I jumped in the passenger seat of a man’s older Subaru, I saw a doctor in the back trying to keep a woman in an Army uniform alive, barely able to gasp for air. The doctor yelled, “GO, GO!” and the driver floored it, driving like a maniac in a faded silver station wagon with the hatchback bobbing and a makeshift plywood stretcher hanging off the tailgate.
The fight for one stranger’s life
As we sped off, I realized that this woman struggling to live, a stranger whose face I couldn’t even see, was relying on my memory of the quickest way to a hospital I’d only ever noticed in passing but had never been to. I suddenly felt the full weight of this one life on my shoulders.
At first, the road was free of vehicle traffic because of police roadblocks, although those didn’t keep people from standing in the middle of highways, staring at the destruction at the Pentagon, mouths gaping in disbelief at what they were seeing. We veered around them, horn blaring. It didn’t occur to us to look back as we passed the burning wreckage. This life-saving mission was our singular focus.
Once we passed all the roadblocks, traffic completely crammed the streets. Columbia Pike was like a huge shopping mall during the height of the holiday rush, but much less orderly. Our driver blasted the horn as I hung the upper half of my body outside the passenger window, waving my arms frantically and screaming for people to move. We made fitful progress through the traffic. The entire way, the doctor kept alternately pleading with the woman to hold on, then demanding from me how much farther we had to go. Just a few more blocks until the next turn. …
Dodging in and out of snarled and oncoming traffic, we desperately fought to save one life. I realized our success with navigating through what would normally be unremarkable, horrible D.C. gridlock would make all the difference to that one woman. I realized how precious life is. How short it can be. How it can end so unexpectedly, and how seemingly small daily decisions could end up making such a monumental difference. We fought on.
Once we turned onto the road the hospital was on, traffic changed from typical grotesque gridlock to the madness reserved for especially foul Beltway pileups. It was four lanes at a complete standstill with raised sidewalks and no shoulders. We kept honking, screaming and waving, fighting for every single foot of progress as our patient fought for every single breath. I was so scared she’d die and felt if she did, it would be my fault.
So I jumped out of the car and started running down the middle of the two north-bound gridlocked lanes. I went left and right, screaming and banging on cars, startling each driver by the sight of a frantic, disheveled woman in a dirty khaki uniform. Some people saw me coming and moved. Others seemed to be sitting in their cars in a state of shock, probably listening to the news. I screamed, banged, and ran; screamed, banged, and ran, and kept at it until I could go no further. My adrenaline was spent, and I had no strength left. I collapsed on my knees in the grass median to catch my breath and gather my will, silently cursing my lack of stamina while watching our makeshift ambulance inch fitfully by.
After a minute or two of my own gasping, a nurse in a small car stopped and yelled out to ask if I wanted a ride to the hospital. I found my strength. I jumped up, ran around the front of her car and dove in through the open passenger window. And the fight started again. I screamed and waved, and she honked and swerved as we fought to reach the hospital.
On the way we passed an ambulance crew stopped in the middle of the road who looked to be administering oxygen to the woman from the Subaru. In that moment, hope glimmered that she might live. But there were still other pressing tasks on which to focus – like getting this nurse to the emergency room so she could do her job.
Arlington Hospital, at last
We drove like screaming lunatics until we came to a screeching halt in the hospital parking garage in the first open spot. The nurse took off to the emergency room, leaving me to plod out of the garage alone, attempting to gather my wits. As I walked toward the hospital, I realized I had nothing else to do. I also had no phone, no money, not even an ID card. No way to call home. I didn’t know how long it had been since we were hit, but it had probably been long enough for my family to know.
I saw a reporter hanging around the emergency room entrance. He and I were the only people not running around with a life-saving mission. I walked over and asked if he had 35 cents so I could call someone to tell them I was OK. Without a word, he pulled out a handful of change and offered it. Profoundly grateful for his generosity and also that he didn’t ask any questions, I picked out the coins, then walked on shaky legs into the emergency room. After assuring staff members who rushed over to me that I was fine, I went to a pay phone and called a friend’s house to leave a message. Cell phones still weren’t working and she had gone to work that day, but her pager would beep when she got a message at home. My message was, “I’m OK. I’m at Arlington Hospital because I helped evacuate someone here, but I’m not hurt. Please call my parents and tell them.” Within an hour, my friends in Washington and family in Alabama knew I was alive. It never occurred to me to take more pocket change or call my parents collect.
I tried to get a ride back to the Pentagon, but the hospital staff asked me to stay and help. They wanted a person in uniform – no matter how dirty – to act as a liaison between the patients they expected, their service branch, and any family members. I stayed at the hospital the rest of the day helping where I could, but mostly others helped me. A cafeteria worker with a heavy Hispanic accent insisted she buy me something to eat and drink. A medical salesman insisted on giving me cab fare so I could get home. The taxi driver went out of his way to help me track down my purse with house keys – at no charge. I gave him the cab fare and told him to pay it forward. They were strangers, but somehow Washington’s brusque attitude softened that day as people did things they’d have never thought that morning they’d do.
And that was basically my day.
View from the “B” ring
I went back to the Pentagon just once in the days after the attack. We were given permission to enter the damaged section of the building to retrieve a few personal items from our offices. Four co-workers and I waited about an hour for our turn to be escorted into office spaces that just 10 days before had been the newest, brightest section of the Pentagon. We carefully donned protective clothing, plastic gloves and masks. We carried flashlights and boxes, which we were instructed to not put down anywhere once we entered the building. Inside, it was dark, dirty and wet. The sour stench was an awful mixture of fuel, mildew and rot. It permeated even through our masks and almost felt like breathing in weak acid.
The newspaper from Sept. 11 lay unmoved on my desk, though now covered with black sooty grime and mold. It was exactly where I’d left it, detailing news from what seemed like an innocent lifetime ago. Before leaving, I steeled myself to look out the window. I’d stood there on many mental breaks looking up at the sky and across the small driveway to the offices on the other side. The last time I’d looked out that window was just after the plane hit. Now I stared speechless at that ring. Blast-proof glass windows were shattered. Burn marks scorched the recently renovated walls. A huge hole gaped in the steel-reinforced first-floor wall where the plane had broken through. It was then I saw how close we’d been to becoming victims of the profound hate someone had for the United States, democracy and those who believe in these ideals.
A miracle in the making
For a long time after the attack, I felt I should have helped more. I kept second-guessing myself about split-second choices I’d made throughout that day. I carried a mountain of grief and guilt. After many years of reflection, I’ve realized playing “what if” is wasted energy. Time has provided me a profound perspective on how I now see myself after walking away unharmed – I lived through being at the center of one of the sites attacked, but I no longer see myself as a terror attack survivor. I see myself as a witness. I witnessed history. I witnessed stunning hate. I also witnessed profound compassion and immense, intense love shared between friends and strangers alike.
In the three weeks I was in Washington, D.C., after the attack, the city came back to life in stages. More than 4,000 displaced Pentagon workers found ourselves working and re-creating offices wherever we could find a place. Some of us were at a building called the Navy Annex, then located close to where the U.S. Air Force Memorial now stands. We went on with business as best we could, all the while acutely aware that just down the hill, past the media camps and the yellow police tape, was the massive concrete building we’d worked in that now looked as if it had been cracked open by a fiery ax and left burning to show us how vulnerable we really were.
Sept. 11 was the worst, most traumatic day of my life, yet I’ve chosen to focus on how it changed my life for the better. It shifted my priorities and definitions of many things — heroes, sacrifice, courage. It made me realize I was stronger than I thought, but not in all the ways I thought were important. Relationships and love became of the utmost importance. I found an inner courage and strength when I needed it most to do the unexpected with compassion and love for other human beings. I then witnessed others sharing their compassion and love with me.
Firefighters, police officers and other first responders put their lives in danger to help others. Teams sifted through the rubble to find remains of those lost to give their loved ones closure. Young men and women chose to join the armed forces to stand for the freedom and democracy that had been attacked that day. These and countless other acts show that the most intense hate will never, ever kill compassion, kindness and love as long as people embrace and act on these beliefs. Love wins every single time.
I am so very thankful to have been part of a team that made a difference to one woman, an Army officer and mother of two, whom – I found out a year later through a news article – survived. Many played a part in saving lives that day through split-second decisions. People on Flight 93 who fought the terrorists and chose to die in a Pennsylvania field rather than allow the deaths of more innocent people. Those first responders in New York, some who gave their lives to save others in the Twin Towers. Such immense compassion and love in action.
We were strangers, civilians and military, but on Sept. 11 and the days that followed, we were all teammates. Anyone who’s been in a terrorist attack knows you don’t survive it alone. You combine your strengths and get through it together. As one team, we are an unstoppable force capable of accomplishing anything, even overcoming suicidal terrorists to ensure the ideal of American freedom lives on.
The trauma of that day has been a hard journey for me to work through. My senses still clearly recall what that day felt, looked, smelled, sounded and even tasted like. To this day, I usually avoid anything to do with Sept. 11 and still get uncomfortable talking with people about where they were when the attacks happened. And I still sometimes jump at unexpected jolts and noises. But now I have the experience forged through years of contemplating, grieving and letting go to forgive, accept and find peace with how I lived that day.
After 20 years of reflection, I now have this unshakable belief – Sept. 11 was a moment of horrible, senseless and tragic loss, yet that day of overwhelming hate still brought people around the world together, if only for a little while. What was once my story of surviving a terrorist attack has become a story of witnessing what’s possible when we are united in compassion, kindness and love. For me, the miracle wasn’t walking away unharmed from a terrorist attack. The miracle was seeing what happened afterward.