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On the Mezzanine level of the Pentagon

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jennifer Roman
  • 375th Civil Engineering Squadron
There are days in our lives that have important significance such as a wedding, the birth of a child, or days that we celebrate with friends and family each year. There are other days in our life that we will never forget. To me, 9/11 is one of those days. I was assigned to the operational readiness division at the Pentagon, and I was at the Pentagon when the plane collided with the building. My story is not one of significant drama, but is one where, for a specific instance in my life, I knew and could understand that life is precious and at any time it could be taken away. Some days in our lives we remember every detail, and 9/11 was one of those days. I remember that I had decorated my house for fall the day prior, made baked chicken for dinner the night before, the exact combination of blues I wore to work that day, and what I ate for dinner the next night. There is not a single aspect of that day that is not etched into my memory.

Sept. 11, 2001 started off like any other day--it was warm and sunny as I dropped my son off at daycare and rode the metro to work. My co-worker and I started our work for the day and had the news on in our office, as usual. Then the news started reporting the events from New York and the attacks on the World Trade Center, and we crowded around the television in shock. I remember having a strange feeling as I went back to my desk and commented to my co-worker, "What is to stop them from attacking us?"

Right next door to my office was the Air Force vice chief of staff's satellite office. Shortly after the plane hit the second tower in New York, the exec asked me to watch his phone as he had to go upstairs, which in the Pentagon is usually a long trek. He came back and told me that a plane had just hit the Pentagon; I remember thinking a plane, here, what, like a Cessna?

We worked on the mezzanine level and were only two corridors away from where the plane hit. We did not hear or feel anything and saw the report on CNN before our alarms ever even went off. We stood there in disbelief, what in the world were we to do now? Within minutes, the alarms starting going off and we were told to evacuate. On our floor, it was very orderly, we grabbed our personal belongings and left.

Once we reached the main floor, I saw chaos such as I have never seen in my life. People were running to get out of the building, people were running into and breaking the glass doors to escape, and the security guards were yelling for everyone to get out. A lady grabbed my arm as she was trying to head back into the building to find her husband, and I had to take her arm and tell her she would find him outside.

When we reached the outside, we walked across the pedestrian bridge on the north side, and I will never forget turning around and seeing the black smoke billowing from the building. I looked ahead to the initial triage area which was in the grass by the child development center, and there was mass hysteria. Then, the crowd became even more panicked when there were reports that another plane was in-bound. I have never felt fear like that in my entire life; I remember my supervisor was the only one of us in my immediate work center who drove. And since we were not trained medical workers, there was nothing else to do but leave.

I remember him jumping curbs to get out of there, as we had no idea what the future held. We headed toward Bolling Air Force Base, Va where we lived, and it took about four hours to make the 10 mile journey. Traffic was horrendous and there were sirens everywhere because every fire engine from every station was heading toward the Pentagon. Cell phones were virtually impossible to use, and after a couple hours of trying, I finally reached my neighbor and had her go and pick up my son from the child development center so I knew he was safe. We made it home, and I remember feeling like that whole day was so surreal. That night, all our neighbors--some we knew and some we didn't--gathered in the street and discussed the events of the day.

The next morning, we left for work as usual. I remember meeting my co-worker at the daycare center so we would travel together to the Pentagon. We got on the train and when we exited the tunnel and went across the 14th Street Bridge, all conversation stopped as we saw the Pentagon was still on fire. We had to exit the train one stop away from the Pentagon and walk to the building. The smell of the burning building was horrible and that smell lingered for a long time. It took several hours to even get in the building, but we were there and we were ok.

Life changed after 9/11. You don't usually plan to go to work and have your escape route planned in the back of your mind. When your child goes to school you don't usually have to discuss shelter in place plans, or plan in your mind "what if" scenarios. At work, if we went any further down the hall than the bathroom we took all our important belongings like purses and keys because we never knew what could happen. Fire alarms made me jumpy and were certainly not to be ignored. For months after 9/11, life seemingly stopped in D.C. Museums and restaurants were empty. We were lying in wait for what was next. We monitored the threat level all the time. My story of 9/11 is not entirely dramatic, but to me, it is a special day of remembrance of not only my own experience, but of all the lives that were lost that day.