Stories from inside the Pentagon on 9/11: ‘Saw the fireball pass over the top of our head’

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The World Trade Center was not the only target of the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago.

American Airlines Flight 77 had departed from Dulles International Airport in Virginia on its way to Los Angeles when five hijackers took control of the plane and flew it into the western wall of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., killing all 64 people aboard and another 125 people who were in the building.

Upon impact, a portion of the building collapsed, and a large fire was ignited. Some of the people who were in the Pentagon continue to work at that very site, and here are some of their stories.

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Capt. Joseph Gradisher, a retired sailor who was the deputy chief of information for the Navy on 9/11 and currently works in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, told the Washington Examiner that he was in his office at the time the plane made impact.

“I felt the impact of the plane hitting the building,” he said. “There was a loud ‘bam’ — you know, huge, loud impact noise. [I] felt the concussion and ducked because it felt like whatever was coming at us was coming over my shoulder. So, this was about as close to the plane as you could get without actually being directly impacted.”

“I looked out the window that I was standing next to and saw the fireball pass over the top of our head and saw debris and smoke and things flying around,” he added before going on to describe how the public affairs office began trying to identify who had already arrived at the office and who was unaccounted for.

The Washington Examiner’s Jamie McIntyre , who writes the Daily on Defense newsletter, was also in the Pentagon that morning, but he didn’t feel the impact due to the media office’s location in the building.

He began receiving messages from colleagues at CNN, where he was a military affairs correspondent at the time, asking if he was OK. It left him “momentarily puzzled” until he realized what had happened.

“I looked down the deserted hall outside my office and saw a thin haze of smoke slowly beginning to move in my direction,” he wrote in a diary entry from that day that hasn’t been published publicly. “I made some quick decisions. I would take my laptop with all my files, but I would leave my coat and tie. It was already a warm day, and it was going to be long day of reporting.”

McIntyre walked to the inner courtyard, where he saw it “full of people, and saw black smoke billowing from the opposite side.”

As McIntyre walked around the Pentagon trying to get a better understanding of what was going on, he was momentarily detained by a Defense Protective Service officer who saw him take a photo of the building.

“I calmly repeated that I would cooperate and explained that there was no reason for him to confiscate my equipment. But he wasn’t in any mood for reason. After discussing my ‘crime’ with his supervisor, he eventually realized he would have to let me go and began walking me to toward the press area,” he wrote. “I gently suggested it might not look so good for him to been captured on videotape marching the CNN correspondent in handcuffs.”

Fellow veteran Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr, now of CNN but who was working for ABC News at the time, was with other journalists in the office of the public officers chief of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center.

She found out a plane went into the side of the Pentagon from her colleague, Jack McWethy. Moments later, a Pentagon police officer ran down the corridor “yelling at the top of his lungs, ‘Get out, get out, get out, we’ve been hit,’” she told DoD News . “I turned left and got on the road near the old helicopter pad, and there it was — five stories of fire and smoke.”

Casandra Johnson was a civilian working within the Defense Department’s legal community on that fateful September morning, as did Robert Hogue, who was the deputy counsel for the commandant of the Marine Corps.

She was at her desk when she heard “a very light, like a pop almost,” John told college students earlier this week during a virtual forum hosted by the Defense Department, according to DoD News .

“The next thing I know, our executive officer comes by very calmly and says, ‘Can you all just pick up your belongings, your purses, whatever, just leave the building. Let’s leave quietly.’ I remember putting my hands down on the desk, saying, ‘I’ve got nothing to worry about. I’m in the Pentagon. I’m safe here,'” Johnson said, later describing the “big bellow of smoke” emanating from the building.

Similarly, Hogue recollected “hearing a very loud grinding noise and a vibration,” he told the students. “And then, ‘Boom!’ The next thing I know, I’m in the corner on the north side of the office. I’ve been blown from the south side, through the ceiling tiles and the lights. And I woke up on my face looking to the west wall.”

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“As I was looking at it, I realized it was actually orange and black and then the realization, ‘That’s a fireball.’ Then, I see my boss in the foreground. He’s on the floor. There’s a major in there trying to pick him up. And slowly as it unfolds, we realize we’ve been hit — we’ve got to get out of here,” he added. “We pulled and pulled and got the door open just enough to squeeze out into the hallway. At that point, the south side of the building is in the process of collapsing.”

The hijacked flights and thousands of innocent deaths that will forever be associated with the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, set the United States on a path to the War in Afghanistan that only concluded days ahead of this anniversary. The war, in which approximately 3,500 American and allied troops lost their lives, stretched a generation.

Five of the terrorists behind the attack had their Guantanamo Bay-based trial restarted earlier this week. The defendants are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was described as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” in the 9/11 Commission Report; his nephew, Ammar Baluchi, who sent money transfers to 9/11 hijackers inside the U.S.; alleged hijacking trainer Walid bin Attash; 9/11 facilitator Ramzi bin Shibh; and al Qaeda money man Mustafa Hawsawi.

Source : Stories from inside the Pentagon on 9/11: ‘Saw the fireball pass over the top of our head’