As you already know by now, all of us in the front office made it out safely after yesterday's attack. I wanted to relate to yousomething of what we all experienced, from a first-hand perspective.
At 0900, Admirals Guter and Lohr, all the Aides and EAs, and
several AJAGs were in Admiral Guter's office for the weekly a JAG meeting. We were discussing several issues, when word came in that the World Trade Center had been attacked. We turned on the TV in the Admiral's office, and saw live the scene of horror as the second plane smashed into the South Tower. Everyone in the room let out a collective gasp, and stared in momentary disbelief.
After coming to grips with what we were watching, Admiral Guter quickly took control of the meeting. While leaving
the TV on, we moved to the next issue for discussion. Several minutes later, with a warm DC sun shining through the windows of what we all considered was the unassailable fortress of our defense establishment, a deafening explosion sounded. Just as we heard the loud crash, a shock wave ripped through the building, shaking the walls and jarring our bones where we sat.
"We're under attack," and "We've been hit," were the first audible responses after a split second of stunned silence as our minds came to terms with what our bodies had just felt. What we were watching on TV in New York had just happened to us. Sir, you have been in this building. The plane struck the OPPOSITE side from where our spaces are, and still we were battered around with tremendous force. That should give you an indication of the strength of the blast.
Immediately, the word spread through this massive complex to
evacuate. We all left the office, calm mostly because we were still in shock over what was happening. For the most part, the evacuation was orderly. But we heard shouts and screams, voices shouting "Oh my God!" and "Get the hell out! Out! Out!" Panic was spreading through some, many running in all directions through the corridors. One area of the building had lost power, was dark, and black with choking smoke. Word of the fires, and collapsing ceilings and bulkheads were carried throughout.
Balls of flame and swarms of debris shot through rings E, D, and C at the affected area, tearing through bulkheads, people, and even the spirits of those anywhere in the building. Through the mass of bodies, pressing against each other from every direction, I found my Admiral up ahead. We had been separated by the sweeping current of blues, greens, and khakis. Fighting through the press, I reached him. He was calm, and resolved.
As we headed down the ladder well from the 5th deck, he told me to make sure we had everyone out. We had. We finally made it outside, through the river entrance. Crossing the grass yard with thousands of others, we felt the warm sun and saw ahead of us the gleaming white of the Washington Monument across the Potomac. Turning around, I looked upon a war zone. Thousands were still pouring out of the building. From our angle, it seemed half the building was throwing huge clouds of black smoke into
the air, covering much of the sky. After staring at our burning building for a few minutes, it was really setting in that we had been attacked. My mind thought of the trip to Pearl Harbor a few short weeks ago, and our tour of the ARIZONA Memorial. Was this what those sailors had felt on that day-the shock, confusion, surprise, and then horror at the slow realization that they had been attacked suddenly and without warning? I didn't know, but I imagined it must have been somewhat similar. The crowd assembled stared aghast...the shock was fast turning to anger, and a
temporarily impotent desire for vengeance.
Then soldiers and sailors were running past the throng, shouting for doctors, medics, and corpsmen. They had turned the North entrance by the POAC into a morgue, triage, and temporary care facility for the injured. There were many of them.
Shortly after the call for medical help went out, word spread that another plane was detected headed straight for the Pentagon. The ETA was 10 minutes. Just as the World Trade Center was hit twice, so were we to be, it seemed. We were too close to the building. Orders were passed to get even farther away. In a scene from a movie, literally thousands of Navy, Marine, Air Force, and Army officers and enlisted ran from the building grounds, hopping bushes and low walls, jumping down steps two and three at a time. Along the river the hill slopes down away from the Pentagon, and it was there, in that natural trench, that
thousands threw themselves, hitting the dirt and laying
....taking cover from the imminent second attack. Just as some were screaming, "Why do we have no air cover!?" F-16 fighters out of Andrews AFB, their wings visibly packed with missiles, screamed overhead. They flew in circles over the Pentagon and the District, with word, we were told, to shoot down ANY airliner that came into the area, no matter how many were onboard.
I looked up and thought, this indeed was war....Thousands of my fellow citizens were dead in New York, my headquarters was burning and collapsing in smoke and rubble
before my eyes, and jet fighters were flying combat air cover over our capital for the first time in history. I myself saw two people collapse outside from apparent heart attacks as we took cover and awaited the imminent second attack. Thankfully, it never came. Personally, I suspect that that plane that crashed outside of Pittsburgh was headed not for Camp David, as the press had speculated, but for us at the Pentagon.
Sirens from police cars, fire engines, and ambulances screamed everywhere. Helicopters, military and police, filled the sky overhead and deafened our ears. Busses packed with medical personnel brought in from Bethesda and Walter Reed skidded around armed barricades and raced to the center of the carnage. We ran into RADM Craig Quigley, the Pentagon spokesman, and he stuck with us for a while. He was as confused as the rest as to what was happening. Dozens of us surrounded a man who had a portable radio, thirsting for ANY news as to what was going on. A report
came though, later contradicted, that the State Department and the Treasury had also been hit. No one knew what was going to happen next, or when the attacks might end. We were gathered outside the Pentagon, watching it burn, still feeling the shock of the blast, and we felt impotent. No one knew what to do. We could only make sure others were safe, help those who were injured, and rage inwardly, pining for a deadly retribution. We had somehow survived a sneak attack while too many others working very close to us had paid with their lives. We would never bethe same.
Late last night, Admiral Guter called me at home. His message was simple. "Chris, we're going in tomorrow." "Aye, Sir," I said. We sent the message to the rest of our troops. My apartment building is only a few blocks from the Pentagon, and I walk here to work everyday. This morning, at 0545, in the same uniform I had worn when we were attacked, I headed across the street to my office. Parts of the building were still burning, smoke billowing upward in the pre-dawn hour. Police, military and
civilian were everywhere, letting no one near the building
without a Pentagon pass. But DOD workers, military and civilian, were heading in. We were sending a message...."You will not frighten us; you will not stop us, no matter what you do."
Passing through security, I entered the south entrance of the building. Smoke and black soot were everywhere, a cloud chocking me as I passed through. I walked through the NATO corridor, the end of which I could not see through the smoke. But I was not alone. Others were walking in alongside me, faces grim with determination. No one spoke, no one laughed. Only the echo of footsteps on the ash-covered floors could be heard throughout. Passing through SECDEF corridor, the smoke cleared. I could see through the windows into the inner courtyard, jokingly referred
to as "Ground Zero." It was no longer a joke, but had become reality. I stopped in my tracks and stared. Fire engines were in the courtyard. Smoke was still pouring off the roof, and fires still burned on the opposite side. The grassy areas of the courtyard were being turned into makeshift morgues, body bags covering the lawns under the trees laid out in rows like at the national cemetery not far away. They weren't full, but were obviously ready for what the rescue crews would find in our building once the collapsed wreckage was cleared away.
All along the walk to our office, corridors were covered in black ash and cordoned off with yellow police tape. But I am here in our spaces, as is the ENTIRE front office. We smell smoke, we have soot all around, and firemen are yelling at us to leave, but we are here for now. It is amazing that we have power in our part of the building. I want to please Sir, ask you to pass on my thanks for all my friends down there who called my home and left messages for me yesterday. I could not return all the calls, and the phone lines in the area are still jammed and not working properly. Please thank everyone for their concern and
prayers. May God be with those who yesterday and today gave
their lives in this, America's latest war.
Chris Ludmer LT, JAGC, USNR Aide & Flag Lieutenant to the Judge Advocate General