10 years of memories; ARSOUTH officer recalls tragic day for first time since attack
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (October 7, 2011) - Although it has been 10 years, I can still remember that day like it was yesterday. I can still remember exactly what I did that morning and all the people I greeted in the hallways and offices. I was oblivious to what was about to happen and it never crossed my mind that it would be the last time I would speak to many of them.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. For the first time, I have decided to talk about my experience that morning working in the Pentagon.
I was a young captain working in the Pentagon for Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maude, the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel and working directly for Brig. Gen. William P. Heilman, as his executive and public affairs officer.
It was a sunny September day in Washington, D.C., with very few clouds in the sky. I arrived at work on that Tuesday at about 6 a.m. I started my day as most public affairs officers do across the Army, by going online, reading the early bird and scouring the news for headlines and to get caught up on any major Department of Defense issues in the media. That morning, I was specifically looking for issues affecting Army personnel management.
By the time I finished checking and reading the major headlines and issues for the day, my boss arrived and I started working on the packets for the General Officer Steering Committee meeting we were planning to have later in the week. I knew I had to deliver the packets to dozens of offices in the Pentagon later in the morning, so the General officers and Senior Executive Services civilians attending our meeting would have the read-ahead information.
At about 8:50 a.m., for some reason, I decided to check the headlines again online and I noticed a story about a plane or something had hit one of the World Trade Center’s towers. I did not think much of it at first, except maybe it was an accident or small commuter plane pilot error.
I did think it was news worthy enough to inform my boss, so I printed off a copy and handed it to Heilman. I went back to working on the packets and then at about 9:15 a.m., I checked the headlines again to see if there was an update on what was happening in New York City. I was still confident that it was just probably a tragic accident. When I went to the online news site, it was a new update saying a second plane hit the World Center towers.
At the moment, I knew something more than an accident was occurring. However, I knew I still needed to take care of delivering the packets, so I told my boss I was heading out to start making the deliveries to the other offices and that I would stop by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Public Affairs office and see if I could get more information.
My first stop delivering the packets was Maude’s front office. It must have been about 9:30 a.m. because I was talking to Deborah A. Ramsaur, Maude’s secretary. I handed her the packet and I still remember Ramsaur’s friendly smile and she asked me if I was going to go to the Executive Officer’s meeting taking place across the hall. I told her I couldn’t attend the meeting today, because I really needed to deliver the read ahead packets. I remember she joked with me and said, “It must be nice being a captain and getting to choose which meetings you want to go to.” And in her typical, playful demeanor she said, “Just kidding, I know you are very busy today,” and gave me her friendly smile.
And about at the same time she was making those comments, Maj. Ron Milam and Gary Smith walked into the office. They were scheduled to meet with Maude. Smith, a retired lieutenant colonel, worked at the Army Human Resources Command as the Chief of Retirement Services. I worked with Smith on previous projects and I remember reminding him that morning about the upcoming Well Being GOSC meeting. I remember Smith was always helpful and knowledgeable about personnel and the Army retirement program.
All that summer, Milam and I had been saying we need to do lunch and finally that day in Maude’s office we agreed to have lunch later in the week. At that moment I turned to leave the office and I remember Maude walked right by me, I greeted him and he said, “good morning,” and I believe he walked out into the main hallway. I was not sure where he was going, but I remember thinking he must be going to check on what’s happening in New York City and was delaying his meeting with Smith and Milam for a few minutes.
As I walked out the door I remember catching a glimpse of Spc. Craig. S. Amundson, Sgt. Tamara C. Thurman and Edmond G. Young, Jr. Amundson and Thurman worked in the front office for Maude and Young was a civilian contractor computer technician.
It is interesting how when I think back about that morning and all of my co-workers, I remember how friendly and nice everyone treated each other. From Ramsaur with her great smile, to Amundson and Thurman always being helpful, to Young who could always be trusted to work on a computer issue until he figured out the problem. Small things like a friendly office environment and everyone being professional, you take for granted and don’t think about it until it’s too late.
As I walked out, I remember seeing people in the hallway and at their cubicles talking about what was happening in New York City and then I remembered I should go to my old office in the Chairman’s public affairs office and then stop by the Office of the Secretary of Defense public affairs office and see what was going on.
I left Maude’s office and within four or five minutes, I arrived at the Chairman’s public affairs office on the other side of the Pentagon. As soon as I walked through the door, someone came running down the hallway and shouted, “A plane hit the building!”
I never felt the impact and honestly at that moment, I really did not believe a plane hit the building. I remember about two weeks earlier there was a small fire in one of the Pentagon dining rooms or kitchens and maybe that is what was happening and we were having another fire drill.
Even so, I immediately took off running at full speed back to my office, to tell my boss and for some reason I took the long way back to the office. I still to this day do not know why I went the long way back, but had I taken the short way back I would have run right into the wall of flames.
As soon as I arrived at my office, Heilman and his deputy, Col. Arnold Smith, told me to, “Get your stuff and get out of the building.” I grabbed my hat and bag and followed right behind Smith and Heilman.
The Pentagon security officers were shouting at everyone to leave the building and they were not letting anyone go back into the Pentagon. As soon as I came out of the Pentagon on the north parking lot side, I could see a tower of smoke coming from the Pentagon on the other side.
I could not believe what I was seeing. On this beautiful sunny day our country was experiencing a tragic nightmare. I remember looking around for people from my office and somehow I lost track of Heilman and A. Smith. Security personnel began telling everyone to get in their cars and leave the Pentagon parking lot.
I remember getting in my car and driving home. At that time I only lived about 10 minutes from the Pentagon, but there was traffic everywhere. As soon as I arrived at home, I turned on the television and could not believe what I was seeing. One side of the wall of the Pentagon was engulfed in flames.
At the time I had no clue that it was the part of the Pentagon, where my colleagues worked and that just a few minutes earlier I was standing right in the direct impact path of the plane.
I tried calling friends and family members, but my cell phone and home phone lines were both busy. Eventually, later that day I reached my boss, Heilman and I asked him, “What part of the building did it hit?” Heilman said, “It looks like it hit right where Maude’s office was located.” Then I asked him, “Have you seen Lt. Gen. Maude? Is he okay?” I remember Heilman saying, “It’s been two or three hours and we have not seen him.”
I was still hoping that he was incorrect and that the plane hit another part of the building. I told him I remembered seeing Maude leave his office and walk into the hallway minutes before the plane hit the building. Maybe he didn’t make it back to his office by the time the plane hit or maybe he was injured somewhere.
Heilman again said, “It has been a few hours and the fire and flames are too strong.”
I felt hopeless. There was nothing I could do, but watch the news. I told Heilman I wanted to go back and work in the Army operations center or go work temporarily in the Army Public Affairs office because I knew they would need some help. I was told to wait at home until we received confirmation we could go back into the Pentagon. All the bridges in Washington, D.C., were closed and police and FBI were not letting people move around or get close to the Pentagon. I had to stay where I was and watch the news and tragic events unfold.
For the next couple of days we worked out of the Army Human Resources Command located a few miles from the Pentagon in Alexandria, Va. Later that week, I was allowed to go back to the Pentagon and I worked night shifts in the Army Operations Center. I had the job of accounting for personnel and fielding the Pentagon hotline for people who were looking for loved ones and co-workers.
For the next several days and weeks I worked the night shift in the Pentagon, running down every lead possible on missing persons or individuals presumed to have worked in the Pentagon. We worked on a list of hundreds of people until we verified they did not work there or they did and they were unaccounted for. Later, once remains were identified, I worked on the coordination team to set up casualty mortuary, memorials and funerals for those killed in the attack. From a list of hundreds, we worked it down to 184, including the men, women and children on American Airlines Flight 77 that hit the Pentagon.
Probably some of the saddest days were coming in to work and getting the information of remains identified of one of my co-workers and then working to set up memorials. Even after days or weeks, the human spirit always tries to keep hope alive, that maybe there was a mix up and Deborah, Ron, Edmond, Craig, Tamara, Gary or Lt. Gen. Maude or someone would be found somewhere alive.
However, that never happened. All those individuals I saw that morning and especially for the individuals in Maude’s office, I believe I was the last person to see them that’s still alive today.
I am not sure what led me to leave Maude’s office and that not only did I leave the exact impact area, but by the time the plane hit, four or five minutes later, I was on the opposite side of the Pentagon. Also, when I ran back to my office, I still do not know why I took the long way back. Had I taken the shorter route, I would surely have been injured by the wall of flames.
For months and even years after 9/11, I suffered from survivor’s guilt and I questioned why I was spared that morning.
I do not regret working in the Pentagon after 9/11 and although it was a grim task in maintaining the casualty log and coordinating memorials for my friends, co-workers and colleagues, it was the least that I could do. They suffered the ultimate sacrifice for our country and I wanted to at least honor their memories.
Today, 10 years later, I try to appreciate my office peers and colleagues I work with and get to know them better. One thing I have learned is that your life can truly change in an instant and you should appreciate friends and family, so I take every day as a gift.
I often think of my 26 co-workers and friends I lost that day. On my desk, I keep a rock from the destroyed wall of the Pentagon to always remind me of them. I believe the best way I can honor them is not forgetting them, treating my colleagues and co-workers with respect and being the best officer and American citizen I can be. I am Army Strong.
Lt. Col. Antwan C. Williams is the Chief of Media Relations and Command Information in the Army South Public Affairs Office. He enlisted in the Army Reserves while still a senior in high school and later graduated from Southern University’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program with a degree in journalism. He began his Army officer career in the Adjutant General’s branch in 1991 and started working in public affairs in 1998. He holds a masters degree in international relations and a juris doctorate, law degree, from George Washington University.