Message to my three sons

The first email communicates what I saw inside the Pentagon on 9/11 and was sent to family and friends the day following the attacks on 9/12/2001. The 2nd email was sent primarily to my three sons on the tenth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11/2011.

From: Joe M

Sent: Sunday, September 11, 2011 8:50 PM

Subject: A Decade Further On...

I suppose like most of us, I used to think about what I saw on September 11th a lot but not very much anymore. Other than the usual anniversary remembrances, there are still things that immediately snap me back to that awful day. A crisp, cool morning with low humidity and a perfect, cloudless blue sky will do it. So does the smell of jet fuel which, prior to 9/11, triggered fond memories as it reminded me of my early flying years in the USAF and being on the fight line around jet aircraft - a little boy's dream come true. Now I will forever associate that smell (it took only minutes for the air handling system to pump the smoke and fumes throughout) with walking out of the Pentagon's Corridor Two to the sound of evacuation horns blaring and frantic guards waving people out of the building. Another is driving around the loop that feeds onto Route 27 that passes in front of the Pentagon's west facing side where American Airlines Flight 77 sheared off a light pole that went through the windshield of the world's luckiest taxi driver. So does the sight of an F-16 doing a high-speed, low-level pass (my parents and I would meet those two F-16 pilots that flew overhead the Pentagon when we visited the Langley AFB alert facility in October 2002).

I'm writing this account and resending my original e-mail primarily for my three sons (Daniel, Zachary and Christian) who were quite young at the time (17, 15 and 12 respectively) and living in the Hampton Roads area. I also wanted to capture these thoughts before my memory fades any further - perhaps they will some day share this with their children and grandchildren who will probably respond with "what was e-mail?" The e-mail that follows is what I sent to family and friends from my Pentagon office a bit over 24 hours after the attack. I had been getting a lot of calls asking what I had seen and I figured that documenting it once would be a lot easier than retelling the story dozens of times. In the space of a lifetime, there are very few events that qualify as a "you will always remember where you were when..." Rare indeed are those that you actually see, hear, feel and smell with your own senses. It's strange that now, looking back through the filter of time, the things I remember most vividly about that day are not what I wrote about on

9/12 (I was probably still stunned/numb as most of us were). The memories that stick with me most intensely now are:

- My family members had been calling my Father for several hours to

find out if he had heard from me yet. I finally made contact with my Dad from a payphone at a Seven-Eleven store on Route 1 (cell phones were unusable due to call volume). When he heard the sound of my voice he could not speak due to choking on his tears. I apologized that I had to hang up because a lot of other people were waiting to use the phone. This memory is probably the most deeply seared into my psyche from that day.

- When I was able to get through to my cell phone voice mail, my 12

year old son Christian had left me a message that lasted about 7 seconds along the lines of: "Ah, Dad, this is Boo-Boo (his nickname), I heard that an airplane hit the Pentagon, ah, I hope you're not dead, bye." That's as emotive as it gets for a boy who was almost a teenager. I still have this message on a mini-recorder.

- Being awaken by the call I got at 1:30 AM on 9/12 from a fellow

Colonel who was following the office recall roster to pass the word that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld gave the order that all uniformed personnel would report for duty as usual at the Pentagon. This despite the fact that the roof of the attacked wedge was still burning (and did so until the end of that week) and 189 bodies were buried beneath the ruble. In a lot of ways, the following day was more surreal than 9/11. When we entered the Pentagon, the Guards held our security badge up to our face to ensure it was us where previously we just scanned it to pass thru a turnstile. Guards roamed the corridors with automatic weapons; yellow "DO NOT CROSS" crime scene tape blocked the entrance to the corridor a few feet from the spot where I was standing when the airplane hit. The smell of heavy wet smoke and jet fuel permeated the building and the white porcelain sinks in the restrooms were black with soot.

- I only remember crying twice in the days and weeks after 9/11.

The first was about 3 days after the attacks and I was relating a story I had heard earlier that day about a US Army Colonel who came out of the Pentagon badly wounded and refused treatment -- he told EMS personnel to go inside as there were other people who were in worse shape. A few minutes later he fell over and died. The other occurred in the week leading up to the one month anniversary memorial service at the Pentagon. Soon after the attack I was detailed to work 12 hour shifts on the "Crisis Action Team" in the Air Force

Center . Around 3:00 AM I would go for a walk around the empty

Pentagon corridors to stretch my legs and try to stay awake. In preparation for the memorial service on 10/11/01 the family's assistance committee assembled brief biographies of all 184 victims. Over the space of a week I made it a point to read some of these biographies each night as I took my breaks until I got through all of them. I will always remember reading one of a woman who worked in the Pentagon who had young children. Her kids used to brag to other neighbor kids that their Mom made the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the world. For some reason it really got to me that those little guys would never get one of those P&Js again. I think it put a human face on the tragedy that for me was overwhelming. I was grateful no one was around to see me standing there sobbing in a flight suit.

- The silence of no plane traffic going into and out of National

Airport . Equally eerie was the distinctive sound of jet fighters orbiting over the city at night.

- Attending the one month anniversary memorial service on 10/11/01

(on another sunny, crisp morning) and watching the names of the victims scroll on the jumbotrons and being struck by the seeming randomness of who died.

- What I saw and heard that day is insignificant compared to what

others at the Pentagon saw who were closer to the attack and the horror that New Yorkers witnessed with their own eyes such as more than 200 people jumping from the Twin Towers rather than die in the inferno. It's difficult not to think of the incredible bravery of the first responders who walked up the stairs of the WTC knowing that it was probably a one-way trip. Most of us don't think of it often but that same bravery is exhibited every day by our military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan - you can see proof of it in the nearly daily funerals at Arlington and in the wards of Walter Reed and VA rehab facilities throughout the US .

It was not possible to know that day that we had just witnessed the opening shots of a war that continues to this day, with an enemy that has no borders, and will probably smolder for the rest of our lives. So, for my three sons, here is the e-mail I sent out on September 12th, 2001. By the way, I had no idea how accurate my next to last sentence in this e-mail would turn out to be.



> From: Joe M

> Subject: Close Call

> Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2001 16:23:00 -0400


> Dear Family and Friends:


> Sorry I haven't been able to return many of your phone calls because as you can imagine, the phone system here in D.C. (especially my cell phone) has been sporadic at best. Just wanted to send a quick e-mail to let you know I'm fine and what I saw.


> It's now Day 2 here at the Pentagon (yes I'm back to work at ground zero) and the whole place reeks of smoke and there is soot everywhere. Yesterday was a day I'll never forget. I had just returned to my office from the Pentagon barber shop and my colleaugues were in our conference room watching CNN coverage of the plane crashes into the World Trade Center. As soon as we realized that it could only be a terrorist attack, I said out loud "why aren't they coming to get us here in the Pentagon." Little did we know the the American Airlines 757 was already on its way. After watching replay after replay of the crash, I said I was going downstairs to Starbucks to get some coffee. I was was in the A-Ring about 10 feet from the door that leads out to the center courtyard and a very loud explosion stopped me in my tracks -- to me it sounded like a very heavy metal door being slammed shut. I put my shoulders up around my ears (like you do when a loud noise startles you) and then I just stood there for a few seconds and looked around while waiting to see what happened next. It was eerily quiet and very few people in the corridor (I guess because everyone was upstairs watching the activities in NYC). Just as I started walking again a uniformed guard came running down the corridor screaming at the top of his lungs: "get the f__k out of here, the building is under attack!!" So I ran as fast as I could back up the stairs towards my office and a mass of humanity met me head-on from the other direction as they were evacuating - many were yelling at me to go back the other way. When I got back to my office I grabbed my cell phone and Palm Pilot computer and bolted out into the corridor and by this time you could really smell the burning jet fuel. For some reason it did not cross my mind that we were hit by a plane - I thought someone set off a bomb made out of kerosene. As soon as we were outside, the black smoke engulfed us until we were about a hundred feet from the building. We didn't know we were hit by an airplane until we had all gathered near the Interstate overpass and a cop told us what happened. At that point we were told to keep moving away from the Pentagon because they didn't know if another plane was on its way to finish the job. As we made our way south towards Crystal City, several reporters tried to interview us but we just kept walking. We encountered a few terrified tourists who were in tears asking us the quickest way to get away from the tall buildings. My co-workers and I had to walk about three miles south on Route 1 because the subway had shut down and traffic was absolutely gridlocked. After we got about three miles away on foot, two good Samaratans in a car offered us a lift to the garage where our cars were parked (I live about 8 miles from the Pentagon).


> This morning I went to the A-Ring (inner-most ring) and looked across the courtyard at the still burning roof and the whole courtyard is filled with emergency equipment, and the parking lots are set-up with tents from the Red Cross to take care of rescue workers and to receive the remains that are recovered (in case you've never been to the Pentagon, the courtyard is a large grassy and tree covered area in the very center of the building - it covers about 5 acres). The wreckage appears to have stopped about 100-150 yards from where I was standing which is why it was so loud and why I could feel the concussion. A co-worker of mine was standing in the courtyard smoking a cigarette when he heard the aircraft approach but he could not see it. He heard the power on the engines come up to full power and then the impact. He said bits of debris were falling into the courtyard and the fireball shot up well above the top floor (there are 5 floors) of the Pentagon. Had the aircraft cleared the top floor and landed in the court yard, this place would have been an inferno and many, many more folks would not be here today.

> Needless to say, most of us who work here in the Pentagon feel very fortunate. After 25 years in the USAF, I have survived a mid-air collision in the F-4, a nasty car crash in Prague, Czech Republic, and now this: I would imagine my guardian angel has already asked for a transfer to another client.

I hope you'll all say a prayer for the families of the dead and the wounded survivors. The world is a very different place than it was yesterday. Take care and God Bless.


> Joe

Story Campaign: 
Stories of September 11