Excerpt from Hensonís Department of Defense oral history interview
Q. (767) So, you had a staff meeting?

A. Right. We had a staff meeting and then everybody turned to their normal dayís events about 8 oíclock. I went from that meeting down to the Joint Staff to meet with them at 8:15. I was there on the Joint Staff, on the other side of the Pentagon until about 8:35. I left there and went to OSD. We had some budget issues that we were trying to work out. So, I met with the OSD Staff until about, probably, just a little bit after 9 oíclock. They were on the second floor, E-Ring, just down from where the aircraft hit. I walked out of their spaces, probably just a little bit after 9 oíclock, somewhere between 9 oíclock and 9:15. I walked down the E-Ring to the stairwell that accesses the helo-pad, which is, essentially, where the plane hit, but that was the entryway into the D-Corridor, first floor, where I worked. So, I had just walked that stairwell just a few minutes before the incident. When I went to the Command Center, I noticed a lot of activity at the Duty Captainís Station. People were watching Ė we have very large TV screens and I could see the Twin Tower event as I came in. I asked, ďWhatís happening?Ē I just got a couple of groups from guys that were watching and, again, more people were coming into that area, obviously, in reaction to the incident. I walked on past, went down to my office, where JACK PUNCHES, my Deputy, had the picture up on our TV. We had a large screen TV there. He was watching and I donít know if it was a replay or if it was the actual event at the second Tower, but, obvious to me that the first Tower was burning and I could see the airplane come around and come into the second Tower. We just convinced each other that that's not an accident. You could see that there were no clouds or anything. It had to be a deliberate act. That is my last recollection of conversation with JACK as we were both looking at the same picture, talking to each other about it. I wanted to--while it was on my mind--I had just come from OSD about the budget events that were fairly significant so I picked up the phone and called down to Norfolk to the Hampton Inn to cancel a reservation for a meeting that we had planned in Norfolk, so I'm on the phone to the Hampton Inn. I had just talked to PETTY OFFICER LEWIS and PETTY OFFICER WILLIAMS about this same trip and I had asked them to come into the office because there were some problems with the orders and we were going to make some amendments and cancel part of the reservation. They were standing by my desk as I'm on the phone and at that time, as I learned later, was 9:38, which was the attack on the Pentagon. I heard a very large crump-thump noise. It was just a single noise. It wasn't a sliding-type impact or a succession of events or anything. It was just one loud, sharp report and at the same time, the lights went out. There is a large volume of acrid black smoke and everything in the room concussed from the--the plane actually came, I guess, right across the Command Center. Part of the plane--the rescue team that came in said when they shined the light up into the overhead, they saw portions of the plane's cockpit and parts of landing gear. From my perspective, I am sitting in my chair. I am immediately struck. At the same time I heard the noise, felt the smoke, it's a complete sensation that I'm hit. All this stuff falls on top of me. I'm sitting upright in the seat and my head was pinned against my left shoulder with a massive weight on top of my head and I can't move in any direction. Smoke is coming and getting thicker. I'm trying to--I called for help. PETTY OFFICER LEWIS and PETTY OFFICER WILLIAMS hear me, but they are also under debris and they can't move. So, I'm sitting there, probably, for about 15 minutes. I don't know at this time that JACK PUNCHES has--PETTY OFFICER LEWIS subsequently told me that while I'm on the phone, JACK got up and walked out of my office to take care of some business in the Command Center and that was at the exact instant of the attack so he was killed, I think, instantly. I don't know this so I'm still calling out to him to see if he is injured, or if he can assist me, or if I can get any kind of recognition out of him. Of course, I never heard anything from him, but I continued this for the entire portion that I was in there, trying to converse with him, talking to the two petty officers there. We were all just calling for help continuously. While I'm doing this, I'm kind of working the debris that's on my left side that's holding--my head was against this, but it was in between another large segment. I think probably about 15 minutes of this position, I managed to pull some objects loose from the left hand side which gave me enough room to get my head out from whatever was pinning my head down. So, then I'm just pinned at the waist. I had freedom below my waist. I could move my legs. I kept trying to exercise them because I didn't want them to go to sleep and if I had any opportunity to get out I wanted to be able to be mobile. I guess I left out one portion, my wife had called just before I called Norfolk. She called and told me that they knew about the Twin Towers and had we gotten any advice to vacate or to get out of the building. I said, "No, everything is being reacted to here, but we haven't had any guidance yet."

Q. (818) Had it ever occurred to you that the Pentagon might be a potential target at the time?

A. It hadn't occurred to me. I hadn't even thought about it, but I knew instantly what it was. I didn't think it was a bomb. I knew instinctively it was another airplane that had hit us. I guess the black smoke was a clue to me subconsciously because I knew it was burning fuel and airplane stuff and things were still failing out. My guess is that took about 15 minutes.

Q. (826) What is going through your mind while you're there trying to work your way out?

A. The first thing that was going through my mind was that the pain was absolutely incredible with all the stuff on top of me. I could feel blood running down my arm so I knew I was wounded, but I didn't know where or how much. I knew that I couldn't stay conscious a long period of time with the position I was in and the pain I was in, so I was trying to get some relief any way I could; trying to get help from anybody. Unbeknownst to me--because you could not see--it was totally black, absolutely zero light available except that there were fires burning all around so you had a kind of illumination effect, but you can't see anything because of the density of the smoke, so I couldn't even see what was pinning me down. I could feel that it was a very heavy structure and that I was not going to move it myself. A comment about that, I guess you look at fortuitous things kind of strangely, but fortunately, this massive thing (they think it was my desk) shifted aft and the top portion of it came across into my lap. It was lying across the chair arms, so it never actually crushed my body. It was so heavy I couldn't shake it or move it or anything, but it was sitting on top of this government chair resting on these two little round wheels underneath there. I can't do anything to get out of that and it's so confining that I can't move my body or get any push to move out of it, so I'm just stuck here.

Q. (853) How is breathing?

A. Breathing was hard to begin with and got more difficult as the time went on so that at one point after I'd freed my head and we were still calling for help it struck me that I probably had about five more minutes alive because I didn't think I could--I was coughing so much. As you breathe this stuff in it displaces the air in your lungs and the smoke remains there, but the air pockets are not there so that each breath becomes harder and shorter and so you are choked and strangling. I'd been calling for help for so long; that the smoke was quite toxic so your throat is burning and all. You can imagine you are trying to be as loud as you can to get somebody's attention, so your voice is getting weaker and scratchier. I could just barely talk by the time this is over. So about that time was the really heavy boiling black smoke. It had been heavy before, but you could almost reach out and grab a handful of smoke it is so heavy. I can't move to see what was behind me, but I could feel the flames at my back. Again, I'm in this government chair and I guess it was fire retardant because I didn't sustain any burns from the flames. While this part is going on, as I said, I think I've got about five more minutes of life left and then
I'm all through. I just didn't think I could breathe any longer. I was out of resources. The two people beside me, Petty Officer LEWIS and Petty Officer WILLIAMS were no longer talking to me. I couldn't even hear them coughing now. We'd all been coughing all this time. It was totally silent in the room there. While this is happening, there is a small working party of people who have been going up and down who have been trying to find people they could help. My room is completely sealed. The entrance to my room was at the back so it caught the brunt of everything that came out of the overhead and all the things in the room that shifted aft, so there is no more exit/entryway and nobody would have ever gotten through to me that way.

Q. (894) You could hear them going around?

A. I didn't hear anybody. I couldn't tell that anybody had heard us call. I never heard another voice during this, other than the two people that are here with me.

Q. (897) When you think, I might have five minutes left, what is going through your mind?

A. I guess people expect you to say I'm thinking of my God or my family, but really, I was putting all my energy into trying to get out of there and I never really went into a phase where I was just reflecting on, "Well, this is it." I'm trying to do something that's going to benefit me and get me out of there. I just didn't spend any time philosophizing. I just accepted that you got to continue to call out because you don't have any other recourse. You are stuck here. If somebody doesn't get you out, you're not getting out. So I'm still hollering, "Help?" Again, that was my good fortune because there's a group outside the command center. This is a cinderblock wall and they are on the other side of it. I guess one of the main mounts of the airplane had hit right outside my office so it made a hole in the office. There is a small hole that went all the way through into my office. The guy said the tire was lying there by the side so they knew what made the hole. They could hear someone calling for help. Two guys took a pole or something and enlarged the hole enough to where they could get through it. They are going through an electrical compartment that still has hot wires and the fire main for the command center's water system had ruptured. The airplane went through that, so they are standing in water going through these loose electrical cables. So it's hot and they are getting kind of shocked. It is amazing that people would go through that to begin with, but they did. They had to go through fire. A couple of them got fire extinguishers and put the fire out. As they came into the office, somehow they acquired these little penlights and that's the first light I had seen. I can see the little pen light moving and they are illuminating saying, "Is anybody in here?" And I said, "Yeah, I am." So one of these guys comes across -across-the room is just a pile of rubble. It is still falling from the overhead. The flames are melting the solder in the overhead so all this stuff is failing down and guys are getting little holes burned in them as they are coming in. One of them crawls through this little tunnel across to where I am, shines this light on me and says, "There's a guy alive here," and I was still saying, "Help." He says, "I'm a doctor and I'm here to get you out." Boy, those are the best words I've ever heard in my life. I mean, at this point I felt like I'm going to get out of this. Still, I can barely converse. I'm choking, strangling. Doctor DAVID TARANTINO, the flight surgeon that was at my side there looked at my situation. He tried the wood that was in my lap--couldn't move it. He lay on his back beside my chair, put his feet up against it and did a leg press on it. At the same time, Captain DAVE THOMAS, who had come in behind him, and who I never saw-- Tarantino was the only guy I saw. I vividly remember his feet up against these and his skinny little legs going up there. DAVE THOMAS puts his back against the same structure on the other side and together they lifted this thing about maybe-it felt it moved maybe an inch or so which was enough for me to get pressure on my chair arm and pull myself over the side to the point where they could drag me out.

As we start out, my leg catches on the cables to my printer, I think, big, heavy cables, so we had to disengage that part. On the outside the Air Force Surgeon General, Lieutenant General CARLTON was with his rescue party. The two guys that saved me weren't part of any organized party. They just happened to come together. They didn't know each other and had never seen each other. Captain DAVE THOMAS, in fact, as they got out, reached over to TARANTINO and ripped his nametag off and said, "I want to remember you." He still has the nametag today. There's a SEAL Commander by the name CRAIG POWELL who has been at the entranceway holding up a portion of the roof, I guess, or whatever he can so that we would have a safe exit. He continued to hold this structure up until I got out; THOMAS got out behind me. I'd told TARANTINO that I thought JACK PUNCHES was still in there, so TARANTINO was trying to find another body in there. The two petty officers that were with me were able to--the light probably at the same time I did. They managed to crawl across the debris while TARANTINO was coming across this way. They exited and went across the same hole, so they were safe. They took me out the hole. They had a litter out there, put me on the litter and took me out to the center courtyard. There was a triage team there. That's when I learned I had holes in my head and face. They thought, with all the blood that was down my arm, that there were injuries there. I couldn't sit up my neck was so strained from all the trauma. They thought my neck or back was broken so they put me in a splint. They sent me in an ambulance to the emergency care center at Pentagon City. I really got good treatment there. They sewed me up and took x-rays of me. The x-rays looked like I had some neck injuries. They sent
me to Arlington Hospital. I went into the emergency room. It was just like you see on ER. There must have been 50 people there taking X-rays, CAT scans, blood, giving me oxygen. So I was cared for very well there for about four days. The worst part was the smoke getting my lungs, being able to breathe right, and getting my voice back, and all that. I was there about four days.

Q. (20) How many stitches did you get?

A. I don't know. You can hardly tell. I've got a dermatology thing going on right now. This is nothing to do with the incident. The stitches were mostly in the back of the head and behind the ear and across the chin. They did such a great job that hardly any of it shows anymore. When I first looked at myself in the mirror I thought, "My God, you are never going to be normal again," because the cheekbone had been compressed against some object so my eye was swollen and closed on the left side and I had a big gouge out of my chin which they sewed up. My right ear looked like it was deformed. It was completely black and it stayed black for a couple of weeks. It took all the trauma from whatever it was that fell on top of me. I was completely black except for the bloody parts. I looked like I'd been swimming in the smoke. Even as long as four months, I still get little pieces of carbon when I'm cleaning my ears, because I guess all the stuff went inside there I'll still get a little flecks of carbon that came out of my ear canal.

Q. (45) What about the lungs. How did they treat you for that?

A. They gave me medication and oxygen for a couple of days. The lungs repaired themselves. They kick all this stuff out. I was spitting big, black clumps of crude for two or three days. Youíre just coughing and constantly bringing this stuff up. I had an evaluation at Walter Reed a few weeks after I was released home and Iíve got 100% lung capacity. I am able to golf and run, and do all those things, so Iím recovering pretty well.

Q. (325) Will you be getting a replacement?

A. I have deliberately not hired anybody because Iíve been waiting to see how the new administration and new Homeland Defense would go; maybe I would want a different type guy. While I procrastinated, the budget cycle caught me and they took 27 billets away, probably to use for Home Defense. His billet was one of the billets I lost there, so I wonít be hiring anyone in. I had brought another guy on as an ADSW billet that I am kind of using in the same capacity and heís coming up to speed and learning the system. Other than that, we are pretty much the same group we were before. Iím a packrat. Iíd saved virtually every document that Iíve ever received for the last 23 years. When we were in the old command center, I had two big, times two, cabinets that were completely filled with archives, which really served me well because over the years some of the events you don't have a clear recollection of it. You know there was a document that was signed by CAP WEINBERGER that established certain things and frequently you are called upon to answer, "Why are we doing this?" well, we're doing this because Secretary LEHMAN said we would do it. We spent about four months before we moved out of the Command Center going through every file and pulling out all those documents that we considered critical and we scanned each one of them and put them all on CD- ROMS thinking that we've always got a copy of these things. Sure enough, they burned with everything else. We'd gotten rid of the big cabinets because of space confines in the new Command Center, we just didn't have the luxury of all the big cabinets and everything like that, so we'd cut all the files down. I still had a whole room full of files that I considered important documents. All that was burned, so we've spent the last four months recreating files from things we had e-mailed to people in the fleet so we've had them e-mail us back and we are rebuilding the archives to the extent that we can.

Q. (360) What was it like getting back and seeing DAVE TARANTINO, DICK THOMAS?

A. I guess one thing I didn't think of. While I was in the hospital--you know I'd never seen these people, I'm carried out on my back. As soon as I got out in the courtyard, all I could see was the sky because they've got me pinned to this litter, and the sky was absolutely crystal blue and I'd just come from this horrible environment so nothing ever looked so good to me as just being outside and having the sun reflect like that. That was big. I didn't know who pulled me out. I didn't know how I got out. I didn't know these guys. I should have made more of the incredible bravery of these guys. I've been on ships for 20 years and I understand damage control and fire parties and things like that, but I know those guys have got the equipment to deal with it and all. These guys didn't have anything. They didn't have any breathing apparatus: They had some wet t-shirts they slung over their head. They had a fire extinguisher that they pulled off the wall, but they had nothing but courage coming in there and I guess you had to be in the environment to appreciate how brave that was. Stuff was still failing. Fire is all over. The rubble that they crawled across was unsound. Things are burning them and with all that they kept coming because they knew there was a guy in there who was still breathing ... just an incredible act of bravery. I thought their awards were well below what they deserved. I thought it was enemy action and they should have had the Navy Cross for what they did. Anyway, I'm in the hospital and somehow NBC learned of my story and I'm not sure how they did, but they came and interviewed me and did a little piece that they put on MSNBC. It was on local channels. I did that not because I wanted everybody to see my picture, but I wanted to see if I could find out who rescued me. Sure enough from that interview and the publicity we learned who the saviors were. Then MSNBC did the follow-on where they came to our house and showed us rendezvousing there. That was a wonderful time for me because I really wanted to meet those guys again and I wanted my family to meet them. I've had them over for dinner and we talk. I'd like to adopt them, but I see them all I can. I'll be forever grateful to them. I was definitely a dead guy if they hadn't come in after me. There was no way I was getting out of there. By the way, as we cleared the room and Commander POWELL stepped aside, I understand the whole structure collapsed and I think I was the last guy who came out of that particular area. If you haven't talked to PAUL BRADY and TRIPP LLOYD, then you'll appreciate their part of the story, because they were on the other side of my wall. The airplane knocked holes in their structure so they just stepped out of the Command Center into the passageway. They weren't pinned under anything. Again, God was looking after a bunch of us that day.