September 9th, 2011
03:07 PM ET

Evacuating the Pentagon on 9/11

By Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr

Every year the memories come flooding back. Like most Americans, I often have told the story of "where I was when it happened." Maybe this year, the 10th, it will be the last time, for at least a while.

The day started around 6 a.m. when I woke up, peeked out the window and saw a late summer day of gorgeous weather, a blue sky and no clouds.

September 11 is my birthday, so the only thing I was thinking about is how soon could I leave work and go out to dinner with friends. I drove to the Pentagon with little on my mind. I had no concept that a dark cloud was forming as I entered the area of the Pentagon on the second floor where all the major news organizations have their offices.

But then, New York. I watched television reports of the attack on the towers from the office of a senior Pentagon official along with other reporters who had gathered when the second plane hit. Suddenly the world had paled and darkened, all at the same time, instantly.

I was walking back to the press area when a Pentagon police officer ran down the hallway yelling, "Get out! Get out! We've been hit! Everybody get out!" Hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon creating a fireball.

The hallway instantly started to fill with hundreds of people. Some 20,000 work in the five-sided building, which is so spread out that many on the other sides, away from the attack site, never even felt the plane hit. They only knew because they'd been watching the news on television.

Within minutes I found myself standing outside where the plane had hit. Flames shot up to the roof, black oily smoke filled the air and then the sirens started screaming. Fire trucks, police vehicles and ambulances from all the surrounding communities converged.

Journalists are trained to look for nuance. Every story has shades of gray. But on this day, the world was a stark contrast. Something evil had happened and the response was one of courage and fortitude. At one point the first responders asked for help from anybody who had medical training. Dozens of military personnel who had already escaped surged forward as survivors stumbled from the flaming wreckage of the collapsed part of the Pentagon.

A total of 184 people died in the attack. The conventional wisdom of the past 10 years has been it could have been a lot worse. The plane hit a just-renovated portion of the building that was stronger than the rest of the Pentagon. And there were many vacant offices.

But still, many suffered massive burns and smoke inhalation from the fire. Trapped workers jumped from second story windows into the arms of military personnel waiting below. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld helped with some initial rescues, until his security team begged him to go back inside.

An Army general came up to me and simply said, "We are now at war."

Ten years later the Pentagon is often, and deservedly, held up as a model of a building made more survivable. Blast-resistant windows have been installed, steel-reinforced concrete is everywhere, even in the stairwells so they become places to shelter while awaiting rescue. There are breathing masks and fire doors that shut off areas of flame and smoke. And there is illumination tape with arrows lining miles of hallway floors so in the event of heavy smoke, anyone forced to crawl out can follow the arrows to safety.

Our CNN office window is a breakaway. In an emergency the fire department will break it from the outside and help everyone in our area climb out.

The Pentagon quickly rebuilt after the attacks. A year later the gaping fiv-story-tall hole was gone.

So a decade later, why tell all of this one more time? A decade seems to be a natural marker. We remember and pay our respects. The date 9/11 has become part of history - people recount memories, schoolchildren are taught about what happened that day. But the utter shattering of that peaceful morning 10 years ago has faded.

Unless, of course, you were there. And then the memories are part of your life forever. It all comes back when a plane flies just a bit low over your head or when you hear a police or fire siren wailing.

For me, every day I have walked into the CNN office in the Pentagon for the past decade has been not so much a day of remembering an event in history, but of reporting about the ongoing sacrifice made by so many troops.

So on this 9/11, I will be thinking about Lt. Andrew Kinard and Col. Greg Gadson, who each lost both their legs in Iraq; about Capt. Shannon Meehan and Staff Sgt. Mike Hanes, who came home to the nightmare struggles of post traumatic stress after their tours in Iraq; about Sgt. Mary Dague, who lost her arms trying to defuse a bomb.

And especially I will be thinking of two men: The late Lt. Col. Ray Rivas, who served multiple tours but lost his battle once he was back home, writing a final note to his family from the front seat of his car. And Master Sgt. Benjamin Stevenson, killed on his 10th tour of duty.

For so many who have served and for their families, there is no luxury of fading memories of that morning 10 years ago.

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Mario500

    I hope you had a good birthday this year in spite of the calendar date being associated with the day of the attacks and your personal connection to the attacks.

    September 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  2. J Fisher

    This is an interesting perspective from a journalist who was actually there. First-hand accounts are more chilling than having random reporters talking about the events.

    September 19, 2011 at 8:15 am | Reply

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