It was a Tuesday. An early September Tuesday. The weather was perfect as sometimes happens in the North American mid-Atlantic in late summer. Cool mornings giving way to pleasantly warm afternoons. The gauzy summer-heated air is gone. The skies are crisp and blue.
Around 06.30 am. I left my rented house in suburban Norther Virginia to walk to my bus stop two blocks away. Where I worked, junior staff like me did not merit parking privileges. My family was still sleeping, a tired Mom with a toddler and an infant. Later that day they would head up I-95 to visit the grandparents in New Jersey.
My fellow riders all worked at the same place and the morning small talk as we waited was the same with minor changes in the vernacular depending on your dress. The bus was an express, it made a few stops in the suburbs and then got on the beltway for the trip toward the river. It was reliable, usually arriving around 07.30 am.
Twenty-five thousand people work at the Pentagon. Divided roughly equally between civilian and uniformed military. Most military officers will never enter the Pentagon much less serve a tour there. But, for those who do an average Pentagon tour is 2–3 years. I spent nearly 5 years there, but, weirdly, I liked it. There was an energy there that I found compelling.
The Pentagon has five concentric rings identified by the letters A-E. The innermost ring is the A ring proceeding to the outermost E-ring. The E-ring is reserved for the most senior officials, civilian and uniformed, as it is the only ring that has a view — some of them quite spectacular. Each of the Pentagons five exterior sides has its own entrance. Starting from the apex and going clockwise they are the Mall Entrance, the River Entrance, the Concourse, South Parking and the Helipad Entrance. In addition, there are 10 corridors, 2 each emanating from the five internal vertices of the A-ring. To this day, the Pentagon is the largest office building in the world with 6.5 million square feet of space. Yet, because of its design you can walk from any point in the Pentagon to any other point is no more than 15 minutes. Offices are in bays 00–99 and are referenced to their floor and nearest corridor. As an Air Force officer working for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (a uniformed officer) I worked on what is colloquially called the “Air Staff.” My office was on the 5th floor, D-ring, second bay, office 86; hence: 5D286. The nearest entrance was South Parking.
Everyone in my office was an aviator of some stripe. Specifically, we all flew large aircraft, what the Air Force calls the Air Mobility Fleet — essentially transports and air refueling tankers and a few cats and dogs. Our boss was a colonel with a lieutenant colonel as deputy. The rest of us were majors, “action officers” in Pentagon parlance. It was a bay style office with windows on the north-side looking onto the south-side windows of C-ring. The colonel had the only separate office space at one end of the bay. His door is normally left open so he could more easily bark stupid ideas at us. He had a TV in his office that was permanently set to CNN and muted.
Around 09.00 the colonel said something like, “guys, get in here.” This was not normal. He was not a people person. We gathered around the TV and watched as CNN played the initial videos feeds of the first tower impact. The news anchors, who had only seen this video minutes before, were struggling to identify the type of aircraft. It looked so tiny against the immense tower. We were all military aviators with thousands of flight hours in large aircraft. We knew exactly what it was. But still, it was hard to get your head around. As we watched the second impact occurred. Nobody talked. After a few minutes, not knowing what else to do, we all started to filter back to our desks. I will remember to my last day what followed. One of my colleagues said, “well. It’s a good thing we work in the Pentagon, that would never happen here.”
“Here” was not out of his mouth before the high-pitched sound of jet engines at full throttle filled the office — but just for a fraction of a second, followed by an impact and a compression wave through the office. The power went out. From our window we could see black smoke rising over D-Ring coming from the west side of the building.
All of us knew that sound from years spent on flightlines. No one said a thing. We have a procedure for securing classified documents in the event of an evacuation. Since most of our work was done on computers it wasn’t much, but we gathered our classified and stored it in the office safe, took a head count and headed for the exit. At this time the Pentagon had no elevators or escalators. With only 5 floors it was not a burden. We exited our offices and made our way to the nearest stairwell exit. Smoke was starting to enter the bays and corridors now, but not a lot yet. In our case this stairwell exited onto South Parking, a parking lot between the Pentagon and I-395 which went from Arlington across the Potomac into DC. I-395 is a huge road here, 10-lanes, five in each direction. There was a pedestrian tunnel under the highway through which you could access the areas of Arlington called Crystal City and Pentagon City. Mostly vertical apartment buildings and defense contractors.
As we exited, black smoke billowed over us coming from the west. Jet fuel is kerosene. We all knew that smell…and this was that smell. We looked to our right, the vertical stabilizer of a commercial airliner was visible amid the smoke and rubble. Arlington Fire Department units were responding at this point, we tried to focus on not getting run over.
All staff organizations in the Pentagon have an evacuation plan and normally we practiced it once a year. These plans included a “rally point” where the organization would meet, count heads, see if we were missing anyone and provide directions on what next. Our rally point was in South Parking at some designated row. I don’t remember to be honest. But we managed to meet with the rest of our team and, to the best of our ability, account for everyone. It was more of a guess to be honest. Then a lot of standing around.
It was around the 30-minute mark, from the impact, that we heard and saw the F-16s. They had scrambled from Andrews AFB on the other side of DC from the Pentagon. They were flying cap over the capital and the Pentagon. We could see they were carrying air-to-air missiles. We also noticed all the arrivals to Washington National had stopped. Washington National (Reagan) Airport is 3 miles down the Potomac River from the Pentagon. It is the most convenient way to fly to DC, Dulles is literally 25 miles away in exurban Virginia. The most popular flying approach to National is what’s called the “River Visual” where the pilot keeps the aircraft over the Potomac. On a normal morning a plane comes down the River Visual every 2–3 minutes. Now, nothing.
There was no panic, everybody was just waiting around to be told what to do. Information was harder in 2001. There were no smartphones, no broadband. Just very basic cell phones. Which, by the way, had all stopped working. The modest cell phone infrastructure of 2001 could not handle the load. Nobody could get through to family or friends. So, we waited.
Eventually word came down that we should go home and wait for directions. This is the point where we noticed I-395 was a parking lot. Then they told us metro had shut down and DC had ordered all federal workers home. Those two decisions created an incalculable mess. Complete gridlock. My office, about 10 of us, decided to walk over to Crystal City and find a restaurant or something with a TV. Wait a few hours and see if the roads opened or metro restarted. We found a sports bar with dozens of big screen TVs. That’s when we learned the first tower had fallen. It was playing in a loop on all the news stations. That’s where we watched the second tower fall.
We waited for about 2 hours, but nothing changed. I-395 remained impassible and metro was not coming back. I lived in Fairfax County in the suburban community of Burke, Virginia. It was 3 miles outside the beltway (I-495) and directly west of the Pentagon. In all it was about 8 miles away. I figured I could walk it in 3–4 hours. So, I set off. This is the part that is most like some dystopian film. I was walking down a 10-lane superhighway, in uniform, among a sea of immobile cars. I wasn’t alone. Many people had made the same calculation and were walking home. I still couldn’t get through on my cell phone, but I had a landline at home, and I should be able to get there around 6.00 pm.
When I arrived home the phone was ringing. It was my wife. She and the kids were safe in New Jersey. She told me on the drive up they were listening to a CD and did not have the radio on. But she got suspicious when the overhead electronic road signs on I-95 began flashing the message “New York City is Closed” They stayed in New Jersey for the next week. I waited for a call from work. That call came a few hours later. Leadership had decided we would report for work at the Pentagon the next morning. Metro was still down, an ad hoc carpool plan was set up. It was more symbolic than anything else. The Pentagon was still on fire, the roof — the only part of the Pentagon that can burn…and did for 5 more days. We had to wear heavy-duty filter masks, only stayed a few ours and got nothing done. But I suppose a message was sent.
In the coming weeks and months, it rained money. And in some sense, it still is. My intent here is historical, to record what happened to me on that day. Not to analyze or critique the US response to 9–11. But I will say, I think we fell right into their trap. We responded exactly as they wanted us to. And we are not through paying the price for that.
Curtis S. Milam
Colonel, USAF (ret.)
Sept 11, 2021