Most people from the Midwest watched the terror attacks on 9/11 unfold from their living rooms and offices. But for 28 employees from the Crane Naval Weapons Support Center, the crashing airliners hit literally at their feet.
The Crane employees were at a Public Management Certificate Class on the fifth floor in a newly renovated part of the Pentagon.
“We were meeting with an Undersecretary of the Navy,” said Eric Moody. “She had told us about what had happened in New York and just as the class was wrapping up it hit.”
“It felt and sounded like a large garbage truck dropping a dumpster outside of your window,” said Eric Scheid. “Then shortly afterward the ceiling tiles began to fall and the overhead lights were jarred loose. Shortly after that the room began to fill with smoke.”
The Crane employees were now caught in the fog of an attack. There was no looking at big pictures. It was about figuring out what to do.
“At that point I didn’t know what hit us. My thought was that there was some sort of bomb that had gone off,” said Moody. “It didn’t take us long to figure out we needed to get out of there quickly, make our way through the smokey hallways and find our way out. It dawned on me that something had happened and that we were under attack at that point.”
“There was still no appreciation at that point that the plane had passed right under our feet,” said Scheid. “We didn’t realize we were that close to where people were vaporized and injured.”
Surviving the crash though was the beginning of the group’s worries. Out in the hall they found themselves in an unfamiliar building filled with obstacles and dangers.
“We heard from one group that went down the hall to a stairwell that the stairs were missing so we all went back the other way over a section that later collapsed,” said Moody. “I do recall having to step down about a foot and I thought that was strange. That was the part that later collapsed.”
“At one point we were not crawling, but crouch walking,” added Scheid. “We formed a chain. At some point the power went out. Passing through an area that was about to collapse was something akin to going through a haunted house with the eerie lighting and the smoke and the heat. We were just crouch-walking and holding onto each other and trying to get out of the smoke.”
Fortunately, the class from Crane had some people taking care of them. The undersecretary and her aid led the way and there were occasional helpers along the way.
“There was a military guy working in the Pentagon at the end of the hall and he was holding open some fire doors. I couldn’t see him at first and I had to keep asking him to keep talking so that I could follow his voice.”
Oddly, as the group made its way out of the Pentagon the panic seemed to grow.
“It got more chaotic as we were leaving,” said Scheid. “They rushed us out of Pentagon to the subway. We went out the opposite side of the impact. I just recall seeing a little bit of smoke and a lot of people fleeing.”
Despite the crash and chaos the crew from Crane managed to stay together and they determined then that everyone had made it out safely. But even at that point they had not fully embraced what they had just experienced. That came as they made their way back to the hotel.
“We were in it, but we were unaware,” said Scheid. “We didn’t see the coverage of the New York attack until we were out of the Pentagon.”
“It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel and I got glued to the TV that I really could make sense of what happened, and I realized then that what hit the Pentagon was a plane.”
And as they learned the details of the attack on the Pentagon from the outside they began to grasp even more acutely what they had experienced on the inside.
“It wasn’t until the newspapers came out the next day that showed where the Pentagon was hit and began to pass it around that we realized we were directly over it,” said Scheid. “We were so fortunate. That part of the building had recently been remodeled. It was reinforced. The Pentagon is a fortress to begin with but this part was more stout than the rest of the building. Half a degree difference and that plane would have been right there where we were. We would have been grievously hurt like the people two floors below us. Those are things you don’t like to think about.”
“It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized the danger we were really in,” said Moody. “Where it collapsed, we walked right across there a half hour earlier. What you think is happening at the time in the middle of the chaos isn’t necessarily what happened. I feel very fortunate that all of us were able to get out of there without a scratch.”
With the airports closed and planes grounded. The group caught a bus back to Crane where the attacks left imprints on those who somehow missed being the bullseye.
“I noticed a lot more intensity of the work than before,” said Scheid. “The job became a lot more intense.”
“My work was already in counter-terrorism protection,” said Moody. “Nine-eleven drove home the idea of how important that work is and that it is more than just protecting military targets. On a personal level it has given me a greater appreciation of people helping people. It started the instant that plane hit. People trying to get out and people on top of people trying to get out. My appreciation of those who in crisis are there to help others has really grown.”