Pentagon Wall Collapse

Photograph of paper airline boarding pass from September 11, 2001
Grainy photograph of a section of the Pentagon collapsing on Sept 11, 2001

On the morning of Sept 11, 2001, I was at DCA airport where I boarded an American Airlines flight to Chicago for a 9:21 am departure. We backed away from the gate, but the plane then sat on the tarmac for several minutes (I was guessing the pilot would soon announce a mechanical issue). The pilot finally said ‘I have just been informed that all American and United flights have been cancelled. We will pull back to the gate and unload, so that gate personnel can assist you. I am as much in the dark about this as you are.’

Once back in the terminal, the poor gate agents were swamped with people wanting information. I walked over to a row of pay phones to call my wife, but just then an agent at our gate made a brief PA announcement telling us to remain in the gate area. When I got close enough to the desk to hear, I overheard one agent say that ‘a plane hit the World Trade Center’. I recall thinking the mass cancellations seemed to be an extreme reaction to an accident (I was visualizing a small private plane being involved). Then the terminal-wide PA system announced ‘Everyone evacuate the terminal immediately. Do not collect your baggage, just exit the building.’

Fortunately, my trip (to give a Smithsonian public lecture in a suburb outside of Chicago) was a short one, so I only had one carry-on bag and a backpack.

I walked outside toward the Metro station where I saw a black plume covering more than one-third of the northern horizon. Once on the Metro train, the driver announced that everyone would need to unload at the Pentagon City station because of a ‘police emergency’ at the Pentagon station. I will never forget coming up the outside escalator at Pentagon City to see the Pentagon on fire; the plume was now grey rather than the intense black of my first sighting, when I did not know what it was. I knew that I needed to get to the Arlington Cemetery station, but I was unsure how sidewalks were placed around the Pentagon. I soon realized that did not matter because the entire freeway going past the west side of the Pentagon was deserted! I started to walk down the middle of the freeway – a surreal setting.

As I approached the smoking side of the Pentagon, I saw and heard (and felt!) a wall section crash to the ground, exposing flames still burning inside of the building. I was not alone walking on the freeway, and all of us temporarily stopped in our tracks, trying to accept what we were seeing. The wall collapse made me remember that I was carrying a small Canon digital camera.

From the freeway there were few first responders visible, but shortly several officials came running along the freeway. An FBI agent was yelling for us to not touch anything, and to leave the area immediately. I kept walking north and eventually I made my way to the Arlington Cemetery Metro station, where I was finally able to get a train to Shady Grove. Once at Shady Grove, I waited in a six-deep line at a pay phone, and finally I was able to contact my wife, who was very shaken (she had been watching TV coverage, knowing that I was supposed to be on a plane; we did not have cell phones at the time).

Once in our car, she told me that both Twin Towers had collapsed. This was my first indication of the scope of the situation, and my mind had difficulty accepting what I was hearing. At home I sat dumbfounded in front of the TV for the rest of the afternoon, at a loss to comprehend what had happened.

Story Campaign: 
Stories of September 11