I’ve always been very hesitant to write about this, and I think this is finally the right time. It’s taken me nearly two months to write this post because every time I sit down to write it, I lose sense of my words. So here goes. This is the story of how I survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
Those of you who know me personally or have read my previous posts may have picked up on the fact that I’m an Army brat. In September of 2001 I was living in Fort Irwin, California. My mom was working as a wildlife biologist for a local archaeology curation. In this position she traveled occasionally for conferences, and upon returning from one in Washington DC, she told my dad how much she loved it and wanted to take us for a family vacation.
My parents pulling me out of school was not a rare event, especially during the years we lived in Europe. I probably missed way too much school as a child, always taking off on long weekend trips to Venice or Prague with my family. Sure enough, my mom found out she was going to another conference in DC, so she and my dad made arrangements to pull me out of school for a week. It was the week of September 9th through the 15th, 2001.
Our intention was for the trip to be a father/daughter bonding time while my mom was doing conference-y stuff. We planned on doing the tourist thing by visiting all (well as many as we possibly could) of the Smithsonian museums, and all the memorials and national monuments in town.
One of my dad’s good Army friends from a former duty station lived in DC at the time. We got in contact with him and he offered to give us a tour of his new workplace, the Pentagon. I wasn’t too excited (what 10 year old girl would be excited?), but I knew my dad was, so I got over it because I knew it was happening. It wasn’t like I realistically had a say in it anyways.
The next morning we woke up much earlier than we had all week. It was a Tuesday. People were all on their way work as we took the yellow line to the Pentagon station. My dad’s friend met us at the entrance, where we were to receive our visitor’s passes. I remember the lady working at the visitor center being very friendly. She had a big, joyous smile and told me how beautiful my eyes were. We headed into the Pentagon to receive our own little private tour. We ran into a few former colleagues of my dad’s, stopping to talk for a few minutes here and there.
The tour was uneventful for me, until we came upon a crowd of people standing around a doorway. There was a table holding the door open, and on the table was a little television playing the news. We stood there in disbelief as we all watched the footage twin towers falling. I knew what I was seeing was wrong and terrifying, but I had no real grasp on what this meant. I was 10 years old, and I was just confused.
A man emerged from the room, pulled the table and television inside, and shut the door. We turned and continued on down the corridor as normal. I don’t know how much longer we walked, but it didn’t seem like long at all.
Then it happened.
It was like the building shuddered very violently. I have no words to explain the noise I heard and the way I felt the building move. The doors along the hallway began to slam open, and people were running out of their offices and flooding into the halls. There were so frantic people all trying to get out as fast as they could. My dad tried his best to keep me calm in the midst of all the panic. He put his hands on my shoulders and guided me through the crowds. We walked, letting all others run panickingly past us to the nearest exit in sight. It seemed like forever before we could get outside. We walked away from the building quite a bit before we were able to take in the sheer amount of smoke that was surrounding the Pentagon.
And I’ll never forget how it looked.
The city was a mess. We desperately tried calling my mom from every phone we came across (cell phones weren’t really a thing yet, so we didn’t have them), but every phone line was busy and couldn’t connect. All the metro stations were closed and the lines weren’t running. The cars on the streets were all at a standstill. We walked for what seemed like hours trying to find our way back to our hotel. Since traffic was so horrible, some people had just given up on any hope of leaving the city. Cars were pulled over on the sidewalks, with their windows rolled down blasting news from their radios. We stood around a white flower van parked haphazardly on the sidewalk, doors all open, radio turned to max volume, and listened to the broadcasts that confirmed our fears. The Pentagon had been hit in an act of terrorism.
We got back to our hotel and sat at the bar downstairs to watch the news. We waited for my mom to come back and tried to wrap our minds around everything that had just happened.
Even 15 years later it doesn’t feel real. It was just such a bizarre experience for me, and I was so young. Definitely too young to really understand just how much of an impact this would have on my life, my the lives of my parents, and every American.
My dad tried his best to make sure that we proceeded with our vacation and did not let this ruin our trip. The rest of the week we had the Smithsonian museums to ourselves. We explored a desolate city, and spent most of the days feeling like we were the only people in the world.
I didn’t go back to DC until I was 24. This time with Matt when we were engaged. I was thankful to be there with him and to try to build new, positive memories. Being able to see it in a different energy and time, I really fell in love with the city. But I didn’t make it to the Pentagon’s 9/11 Memorial that time for a combination of reasons.
In April of 2017 I found myself back in DC once again. 15 and a half years after my first encounter with the city, I decided to prioritize a visit to the memorial.
We took the metro to the Pentagon station, and it immediately brought back so many memories.
There’s an audio tour available, but it’s accessed via your cell phone. You can call a phone number that’s posted on their welcome sign and it will give you a very informative guided walk. The tour was very insightful, and I’m so glad we did it. It brought so much meaning into the architectural details of the memorial.
Visiting the Pentagon was an emotional experience for me, but it was much easier than I had imagined it would be. It certainly brought back some unwelcome memories, but I was glad for the opportunity to confront these feelings of fear and sadness head on.
The benches in the memorial correspond with a person who perished in the attack on the Pentagon. They start from the youngest person at the front of the memorial, to the oldest in the back. The first bench is Dana Falkenberg’s bench. She was born in 1998. The second is Zoe Falkenberg’s, she was born in 1992. There are three benches for the year 1990, for Bernard Brown, Asia Cotton, and Rodney Dickens. All five of the aforementioned children were on American Airlines Flight 77.
I had to pause between the year lines for 1992 and 1990. I know it sounds dramatic, but I couldn’t help but stare at the blank space between those two years and think “There could have been a 1991 line right here, and there could have been a bench with my name on it.” But praise God there is not.
Before leaving, I sat on Dana’s bench, prayed quietly for the all the lives who have been touched by this tragedy, thanked God for keeping me safe, and that I would one day be courageous to share my story with the world.
My life was forever changed after 9/11. Within a few months of the day, my dad was sent to Middle East and would return for two subsequent deployments over the next few years. My family was separated like this, scattered over different continents for years. I lived in fear and sadness from the experiences I’d had at such a young age, and they tinted my life for so long. I’m really thankful to have had the opportunity to build so many positive experiences to outweigh the negative. While I’m no longer plagued by yearly nightmares leading up to the day of September 11th, it’s still hard to talk about. But every year it gets easier and the fear fades away, thanks to having a space like this to share my story. Thanks for taking the time to read it.