By MARY ANN OWENS
Gannett News Service - 9/11/2002 (A report published one year after the attack.)
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The sound of sudden and certain death roared in my ears as I sat lodged in gridlock on Washington Boulevard, next to the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Up to that moment I had only experienced shock by the news coming from New York City and frustration with the worse-than-normal traffic snarl ... but it wasn't until I heard the demon screaming of that engine that I expected to die.
Between the Pentagon's helicopter pad, which sits next to the road, and Reagan Washington National Airport a couple of miles south, aviation noise is common along my commute from Alexandria, Va., to the silver office towers in Rosslyn where Gannett Co., Inc. and USA TODAY were housed last fall. But this engine noise was different. It was too sudden, too loud, too encompassing.
Looking up didn't tell me what type of plane it was because it was so close I could only see the bottom. Realizing the Pentagon was its target, I didn't think the careening, full-throttled craft would get that far. Its downward angle was too sharp, its elevation of maybe 50 feet, too low. Street lights toppled as the plane barely cleared the Interstate 395 overpass.
Knowledge that I was about to die was immediate and certain: This plane was going to hit me along with all the other commuters trapped on Washington Boulevard.
Gripping the steering wheel of my vibrating car, I involuntarily ducked as the wobbling plane thundered over my head. Once it past, I raised slightly and grimaced as the left wing dipped and scraped the helicopter area just before the nose crashed into the southwest wall of the Pentagon.
Still gripping the wheel, I could feel both the car and my heart jolt at the moment of impact. The left wing crumbled under the plane's weight as the tail fell to the ground and exploded. An instant inferno blazed about 125 yards from me. The plane, the wall and the victims disappeared under coal-black smoke, three-story tall flames and intense heat.
Screams of horror, hysteria
Knowing I had just witnessed the mass murder of hundreds of people, maybe more, I wanted to be sick, but there was no time. Debris was falling. As brick, mortar and who knows what else fell from the sky, I sprawled myself across the front seat, and tried to cover my head within an entanglement of arms and briefcase, fearful that pieces of the wreckage would crash through the windshield or roof.
As the thudding stopped, screams of horror and hysteria rose from the line of cars, and I became a person I didn't know. I didn't scream. Operating on instinct, I climbed out of the car. First I checked to see if I was bleeding. I wasn't. Then I tended a hysterical woman in the car ahead of mine who needed to be held, told to breathe deeply and be reassured the danger was over.
Borrowing a cell phone, I managed two quick calls; one to the office and one to my husband. Then I commenced a frantic search for a camera. Purchasing a disposable for $20 from a tourist several cars up, I quickly clicked half the roll; careful not to take too many. I wanted to be ready for the arrival of a second plane, which I was sure would fall from the sky any minute.
As other cars began moving slowly from the area, I pulled mine over to the west guardrail and got out, camera in hand, an eye on the sky and a finger on the shutter.
Within a few minutes I gave up my vigil. Radio reports said the skies were clear, but another plane had just crashed into a Pennsylvania field. When security personnel ordered me off the scene, I didn't argue, I simply left. Pulling away, my hands and stomach shook.
Without thinking, I made an abrupt U-turn in front of Arlington National Cemetery. I wasn't going on to the office. I was going home. I needed to see my husband, call my children, hear my small grandson's voice. The full impact of actually being alive overwhelmed me. A mere 125 yards had made me a witness instead of a casualty. Survival wasn't a miracle, it was luck ... pure luck.
A hushed humbleness
Two hours later - with the comfort of my husband's presence, all my family accounted for ... and two shots of whiskey - my trembling decreased. Convinced I had experienced the worst life could offer, I felt like a fool after viewing the television footage from New York. This was horror, terror and evil beyond imagination. I couldn't even fathom the final death toll. 10,000? 30,000? More? The internal frenzy that had been plaguing my body finally gave way to a hushed humbleness that would last for days. I spent the rest of the day and most of the night watching cable news, wondering who our enemy was and gazing out into the clear, eerily silent sky. I never closed the blinds, I wanted a clear view ... just in case.
Even though I can recall each second of the Pentagon attack in vivid detail, my memories of the following hours and days are more blurred. Yet, there are some poignant moments that remain etched in my heart. Like the way my husband's voice fell silent and his jaw drew rigid as he looked at the photos I took at the scene. Or the way neighbors and colleagues replaced the customary, polite hellos with warm embraces and tears.
Tears were a common occurrence during those first couple of weeks. Everyone seemed to have their own breaking point. Mine came while sitting in the newsroom reading USA TODAY's obituary page devoted to the people aboard American Airlines Flight 77.
The morbid thought that these passenger's last seconds of life took place over my head made my throat constrict. Reading each entry, I came across the names and ages of young children ... children who incinerated only a few yards from where I had cowered in my car. I had never cried at work before ... but I cried, and in the year to come, more tears were in store.
In the months that followed, society tried to heal and learn to cope with anthrax and potential suicide bombings. Many sought therapy to soothe anguish and fears. I chose academics, cynicism, defiance and anger. The '60s social revolutionary that lay dormant in my soul for more than 30 years resurfaced with vengeance. I didn't want to be comforted. I didn't need to feel good about myself. I was angry and proud of it. If anger wasn't a healthier state of mind, it surely was a wiser one.
I read up on the Islamic religion, Middle East culture and fanatic personalities. None of my research could help me grasp the mindset of hate so consuming that one could joyfully, callously and deliberately fly planes filled with innocents into occupied buildings. Nor could I understand a motherhood where a woman proudly poses for a news camera as she helps her young son dress up in suicide-bomber garb ... an outfit so complete it included a Black Monday hood, made famous during the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The caption cited the 8-year-old's ambition to blow himself up before he turned 15.
Sensitivity to engine noise
Amazingly, a year has past since that nightmarish day. The mountain of World Trade Center rubble has been cleared. The Pentagon's reconstruction is almost complete. Commemorative ceremonies are being planned, but I refuse to participate. I worked too hard to dry my tears, and I won't risk letting them flow again in a staged moment of ceremony.
My sentimental and philosophical moments come in the middle of the night when I can't sleep. Sometimes I wonder about the brown silk suit I had been wearing that day. I'm not superstitious, so I ponder why it hung untouched in my closet for months before I wore it again. Other times I philosophize about United Airlines Flight 93 and its crash in the Pennsylvania countryside. Never once have I doubted the heroics of the passengers. And I want to believe the plane crashed in the struggle ... I really do. It's the physics I don't comprehend. If a fuselage is solid upon impact, how does debris spread more than six miles?
Recently however, my midnight thoughts have turned to the hysterical woman I held in my arms on Washington Boulevard. I've wondered where she is and how she is. I don't know her name and unfortunately, I have no recollection of her face.
In the past several months my sensitivity to airplane noise has finally subsided. Oh, an engine still catches my attention, but then again, I suppose that might always be the case. It's flying itself that has become my major issue. I still cannot bring myself to board a plane. It's not that I don't want to fly, I simply can't. When an aircraft appears on the horizon, all I see is a missile, and time has done nothing to change that.
Copyright 2002, USA TODAY International. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.
About the author, Mary Ann Owens:
Back on 09/11/2001, Mary Ann was working as a journalist for USA Today / Gannett News Service. She just happened to be in the Pentagon parking lot that day. She is currently employed as a Professor of Journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, and has worked in the field of journalism since her junior year in high school.
If you want to learn a whole lot more...
Click for the online Pentagon Report on 09/11/2001. This is very detailed report, with many pages, and lots of photographs of what happened.
Click for the Arlington County - After-Action Report on the Response to the September 11 Terrorist Attack on the Pentagon. (This is a huge 7.7MB Adobe.pdf file)