Another 30 messages sent out to the world. Actually, what seemed like the "world" were really countless military commands throughout the Marine Corps. Every twenty to thirty minutes approximately 30 "official" messages were transmitted from our communications center (Comm Center). This was my job as a Lance Corporal. I sat there, hours on end, revising official messages and transmitting them out to the world. This was a typical day for me on watch, although proved to be not so typical on September 11, 2001.
I worked at the Navy Annex, which is on the Pentagon reservation, but is about ½ of a mile to the west. My watch had the morning shift, which meant we were on deck by 0530 and were to be relieved at 1330. This was considered the worst shift of the day, because all the senior Marines were around and you had to had to work extra hard. There were three other Marines on shift with me, Sergeant Smith, Corporal Charlie, Lance Corporal Jones, and me. Jones and I went to boot camp together, combat training together, school together, and now we were at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, together. We had this game on watch where the last one to report in for the day, received the email job. The email job was considered the worst, because all you did was sit and stare at text on the computer screen for eight long hours, during the week, and twelve on weekends. The only breaks you would get were when you would turn around and transmit a disk full of messages. This game was really only between Jones and me, because the Sergeant and Corporal had their own assigned jobs. The Sergeant was the Communications Watch Officer, and the Corporal was the Communications Watch Supervisor. Those were the jobs us non-rates strived for. Lance Corporal Jones came in extra early that day, so I was stuck with email.
The day started as just another routine day, nothing out of the ordinary. Staff Sergeant was barking orders and stirring the pot as usual. Around 0845, the Gunnery Sergeant (Gunny) stepped out of his office and said a plane flew into the world trade center in New York City. Nobody really said or did anything as we were all pretty busy with the mornings work. The Gunny ordered a Marine to get the TV and turn on CNN. Normally the TV is never brought out during working hours, so this was the first hint that something was serious. We were kind of joking that it was some idiot pilot that lost control of their Cessna; accident for sure.
CNN was on and they were all over the story in New York. Nobody really knew what was going on at this point, until the second plane hit the south tower on live television. At this point, we all knew this was real, but still were unsure of why this was happening. The thought of an attack wasn't on everyone's mind yet, but it was apparent that this was planned by someone, but whom?
Alarms were going off on all the systems. These alarms meant very important information was inbound and required immediate attention. Jones was routing messages as fast as he could, but was trying to get an explanation for the planes at the same time. As I said, normally we don't read the messages, but we were starting to now. Message traffic was picking up and it was keeping us busy, which was keeping our minds off what was on TV. Suddenly, the building shook, and all at once, everyone stopped what they were doing.
I looked over at Corporal Charlie and asked, "What was that?" He said, "I'm not sure, but it sounded like the dumpster outside." There are these alleyways between the wings of the building and the one next to our wing had a giant dumpster in it. A couple times a week this big truck would come and pick up the full one and drop an empty one, shaking our part of the building. However, the concussion we just felt was much stronger than what the dumpster could make. This is when the emergency/fire alarms started going off. Normally, when the fire alarms sound, not everyone evacuates the Comm Center. We were operational 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, no exceptions; not even for a fire. After so many false alarms, one becomes complacent when they go off, but this was far from a drill.
Nobody saw the Gunny leave, but he came running back in the door yelling, "The Pentagon was just hit!" Immediately, he ordered all Marines out. We were evacuating over to our base, Henderson Hall, which is just across the street. Two Marines were to stay on deck to man the systems. I volunteered and told Jones to go ahead and get out.
Sergeant Smith and I were the only Marines in the Comm Center, and probably the only people in the Annex. The Comm Center has no windows or doors to the outside world, other than this one-sided, privacy glass, window where people come by to drop off messages or pick them up. Nobody can remember the last time this window was closed, because it was to remain open all the time -- no matter what. Word had not been passed to us regarding the situation at the Pentagon, so we didn't know what to expect at this point. For all we knew, terrorists were charging the Pentagon and Annex, so we started making a checklist of items to lock down and destroy. First, we lowered the big steel door over the window. Instantly, the whole situation became more real. I always wondered why we had a sledgehammer in the Comm Center. I quickly found out that it was for smashing classified computers so the enemy couldn't obtain any information. As silly as it sounds, we really had no other choice but to be ready for anything.
The phone was constantly ringing and between trying to secure everything, route and transmit messages, and telling family members of those Marines that had evacuated that we didn't know any more than them about the situation, things were getting pretty intense. Our Master Sergeant had called and talked to Sergeant Smith and apparently told him that we had to get out. Smith told him we couldn't because of all the work we were doing. I had answered the phone and told Master Sergeant the same thing. Finally, he called one more time and ordered Sergeant Smith and I to evacuate, or suffer the consequences of disobeying an order. That's when we finally left.
It felt very odd leaving the Comm Center unmanned, not to mention walking through empty hallways that are normally busy at this time of day. I worked plenty of night shifts and have been in the hallways when they were completely empty, but this was different. When we got to the guard shack to leave the compound, the guard all but pulled his gun on us as we came in. We proceeded out to the street, Southgate Road, and that's when I saw the devastation with my own eyes.
Looking down Southgate Road towards the Pentagon was nothing like anything I have seen before. A large black plume of smoke billowing out of the Pentagon, with flames shooting out the sides. I kind of just stood there in awe for a few seconds, which seemed more like minutes, until Sergeant Smith grabbed me by my shirt and drug me towards the base gate. Coming up the street was three people, one of them staggering because they were badly burned. In movies when someone gets burned, their skin and clothes look black. It's the same in real life. As I looked toward the gate, there were people inside looking out at the destruction. They were locked in and the military policemen had their M-16's out, at the ready. We helped the burned man into the gate and up to the gym, which was converted into a triage.
Smith and I were reunited with the rest of the platoon. Many of them asking what went on while we were in there and what they were going to do to the people, or persons, that did this. It was typical, tough guy, Marine lingo. Then, the Gunny came over to brief us on what was going to happen next. Some of us were going to get rifles and were going to be on top of the barracks standing guard. Others were going to aid the wounded arriving on base. The sad thing was that those getting rifles didn't get ammo. Can you believe that? A situation like this and the commanding officer authorize the use of live ammo? What were we supposed to do if we needed to use our weapons? I didn't get a chance to be frustrated with an empty M-16; I was put on casualty duty.
Since civilian ambulances showed up at the Pentagon, we didn't receive many wounded. The one's we did get were mostly minor burn victims that got out of the area pretty quickly. Some must have been in their cars on the highway next to the building. That had to be the only explanation why they were still alive.
The day seemed like it went on forever. I had tried to use a couple of Marines' cell phones to call my family, but could never get through. I had been worrying all day about calling someone back home to tell them I was alright. Finally, I had my chance. The supply building was being used as a place for Marines to call their loved ones and tell them they were ok. I was able to reach my mother around 2pm, although she later said the call had a lot of static, but she knew that since I was calling I was ok. Everyone else in my immediate family was over there as well, waiting for the good news. When I got back to the group, we were told we were all being put on new shifts that would run for 12 hours, for the next undetermined amount of days. I was on the first shift, which was to go back on watch immediately. I had already been at work since 0515 that morning and was to be on watch until around 1300 the next day.
While on watch the morning of September 12, 2001, I was told of a working party that I would be part of, involving cleanup of the Pentagon destruction. Not fully understanding what lied ahead, I thought to myself, this has to be better than sitting on watch in the Comm Center. Little did I know, what actually lied ahead would change my entire outlook on life.
Utter and complete devastation, pretty much sums it up. I remember standing in a Colonel's office just 3 days ago, overlooking the helicopter pad that no longer exists. The sights, the smells, it doesn't get much worse. It was as if time had stopped, the normal hustle and bustle of an office just came to an immediate standstill. Coffee cups sat on desks and what remained of people, sat in chairs. One person wasn't taken by the impact and was obviously trying to escape through a window; frozen in time. This both sickened and scared me. The totality of it all finally hit, not only for what had happened, but for how much of a close call it really was, for me and many others.
To this day, I ponder the thought of about 1000 yards separating me from being among those that weren't so fortunate. Things change so rapidly from one day to the next, it's impossible to predict what's going to happen. This has inspired me to live life differently than before, not taking things for granted, and taking every chance to explore new things.