A CSO's original notes from 9/11.
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Original Essay November 12, 2001

I wrote most of this on the day of the attack. Tonight, I finished it. I just wanted to have a record of what happened so that I could always remember it. After I finished, I figured some of you might be interested.

Rick Howard

12 November 2001

A CSO's original notes from 9/11.

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I work in the Army Operations Center (AOC) at the Pentagon and I manage the computer systems and networks that make this place go. Tonight, I am pulling 24-hour duty and things have just quieted down enough to finish my thoughts.

The mission of the AOC is run the day-to-day operations of the Army and to handle any crisis situations that may pop up. On September 11th, I was sitting in a conference room on the 5th floor of the Pentagon. The AOC is actually in the basement, two floors underground and under one of the parking lots. Unbeknownst to me, when the first plane crashed into the WTC, the AOC stood up its Crisis Action Team (CAT) to handle the situation. When the plane hit the Pentagon at around 0930, the CAT was already fully operational.

I heard the fire alarms go off and everybody in the auditorium treated it like any other fire drill (Ho-hum, Yawn, here we go again -- after all, the Pentagon is really old and we get a lot of false alarms). I heard a loud noise prior to the alarms, but it sounded to me like somebody had dropped a bunch of dishes off a table. It wasn't until I saw people running in the hallway and the large cloud of smoke billowing in the air that I thought something was wrong. From where I was though, I still thought that something had caught fire. I had no idea that a plane had crashed.

The Pentagon has an alternate location; a place where the key leaders can go in case something happens. It was designed back in the early 60s when the Cold War was going hot and heavy and the thought was that the Soviets would drop a nuke on Washington at any time. The Pentagon needed another place that leaders could use in case the DC area was a smoking crater. Well, the Cold War is over but we still use that site for emergencies. I manage the computers there too; at least for the AOC piece of it.

The security guards moved us all out of the building. As I left, I could start to get a feel for how bad it was. The fire was raging. Huge fireballs leapt high above the Pentagon's roof. People were lined up on the outside of the parking lots just watching (The Pentagon holds about 27,000 workers). I saw many friends and acquaintances. I even ran into my next-door neighbor. His uniform was in tatters and it had bloodstains and burn marks all over it. He was OK, but he was definitely close to the impact area when it happened.

From where I was, I could not tell if the fire had reached the AOC part of the building. As I walked closer to the crash site, I began to get more and more concerned that some of my people might have been hurt. I was also concerned about the alternate site. I had to get my people up there. So, I started walking around the Pentagon to get my side of the building.

The security guards kept pushing the crowd back further and further away from the building. I had to hop the fence at Arlington Cemetery and cut across in order to get to my side of the building. By the time I made it, I could tell that my side of the building was unaffected by the crash. The fire was not close; but I didn't see any of my folks on the outside.

I became increasingly more agitated that I had not run into a single person from the AOC. I began to worry that the fire had spread through the basement. By the time I arrived on my side of the building, the medical staff from Walter Reed was just pulling up in a bunch of buses. They started running into the building; so, I picked up one end of a gurney and ran in with them.

When I got in, I tried to peel away from the group and head down the AOC hallway, but the smoke was so thick that I could not make it. My fear for my fellow workers quadrupled right about then. I made my way back to the medical folks. They were setting up triage stations outside in the center court of the building. For two hours, I sat as part of the stretcher team waiting for casualties to come out. Here is the sad thing, nobody ever came out. The firemen tried and tried to get through to the crash site, but the fire was too hot. They couldn't get through. They tried numerous paths to get in, but all failed. I learned later that the casualties were brought out through the outside of the building, but we did not know that then. There were about 200 of us in there; sitting around on the various triage teams, yearning to do something useful. The longer we sat there, the more we all knew that there were not going to be many survivors.

I usually carry about $500 worth of communications equipment with me: cell phone, beeper, etc. Not today. I left everything back in the office before I went to my meeting (Except my Palm Pilot - I actually wrote the first version of this account on my Palm while I sat in the center courtyard). It didn't matter though. None were getting through on their cell phones. The grid was jammed. Finally, late in the afternoon, somebody yelled that he got a line. About 30 of us lined up to tell this guy's wife our phone numbers so that she could call our spouses and tell them that we were OK.

My wife, Kathy, was going a little crazy. Many friends and relatives were calling her to see if I had survived. Of course, she didn't know and worried about me getting a busy signal if I ever got a chance to call. She didn't get the word that I was safe until about 3:30 PM. When the lady called with my message, she announced herself as being from the Department of Defense. I guess she was trying to be professional about it. To Kathy though, she thought she was getting the "Official" notification about my death. For a couple of seconds there, she thought she was a widow. She really had a tougher time then I did.

Finally, around 5:00 PM, I saw one of my folks walking around in the center quad (to my great relief). Like I said before, when the first plane hit the WTC, the AOC activated the CAT. When the plane hit the Pentagon, they just closed the doors to the AOC and hunkered down. They were all worried about me since they knew I was upstairs in a meeting when it happened. When I finally showed up, it was like a mini-reunion. I was very glad that they were not on fire and they were very glad that a plane did not land on me.

The next two weeks were very busy. Because of our mission, we had built numerous redundancies into our communications systems. After the crash, we were the only Army organization that still had phones, computers and Internet access. Everybody else that didnʼt descended on us to get service. I have never seen so many general officers in one place. The days went by in a blur.

Today, things have settled into a rhythm. We are still working long hours but the workload is predictable now. Everyone is just waiting for the next shoe to drop (When I wrote this, we still had not bombed Afghanistan).

I find myself blinking back tears at the enormity of it all; 5000+ (This number has been reduced to 3000+) people in one day, dead. It is unthinkable. And then, you start to notice the gestures of American solidarity. There is a very large picture hanging at the entrance to the Pentagon now. It is a picture of the fire crew, only hours after the crash, draping a giant American flag over the outside of the Pentagon adjacent to the crash site. It chokes me up every time I see it.

I have been attending numerous memorials these past few days. One general said something that really stuck with me. He said that a catch phrase had been spreading around the Pentagon since the attack. When we run into co-workers and friends and say, "It is good to see you," the phrase has a different context then it use to. It sure does!