Personal Experience At The Pentagon on September 11, 2001
By Penny Elgas
I had an early appointment on September 11th, so I drove to work later than usual. I work at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation near the White House. I headed north on 1-395 to DC from my home in Springfield, Virginia and I entered the highway a little after 9am so that I could take the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) express lane. As usual, traffic was very heavy and after I exited I-95, I found myself stuck in late morning rush hour traffic -- almost in front of the Pentagon. For most of my drive I had been totally focused on my radio and was extremely aware of the events that were unfolding in New York. Even though the radio reporters were cautious, I was already convinced from the first strike that it was not just an unfortunate pilot error. However, I felt that New York was under attack and I couldn't have imagined what would unfold in front of me.
Traffic was at a standstill. I heard a rumble, looked out my driver's side window and realized that I was looking at the nose of an airplane coming straight at us from over the road (Columbia Pike) that runs perpendicular to the road I was on. The plane just appeared there- very low in the air, to the side of (and not much above) the CITGO gas station that I never knew was there. My first thought was “Oh My God, this must be World War III!”
In that split second, my brain flooded with adrenaline and I watched everything play out in ultra slow motion, I saw the plane coming in slow motion toward my car and then it banked in the slightest turn in front of me, toward the heliport. In the nano-second that the plane was directly over the cars in front of my car, the plane seemed to be not more than 80 feet off the ground and about 4-5 car lengths in front of me. It was far enough in front of me that I saw the end of the wing closest to me and the underside of the other wing as that other wing rocked slightly toward the ground. I remember recognizing it as an American Airlines plane -- I could see the windows and the color stripes. And I remember thinking that it was just like planes in which I had flown many times but at that point it never occurred to me that this might be a plane with passengers.
In my adrenaline-filled state of mind, I was overcome by my visual senses. The day had started out beautiful and sunny and I had driven to work with my car's sunroof open. I believe that I may have also had one or more car windows open because the traffic wasn't moving anyway. At the second that I saw the plane, my visual senses took over completely and I did not hear or feel anything -- not the roar of the plane, or wind force, or impact sounds.
The plane seemed to be floating as if it were a paper glider and I watched in horror as it gently rocked and slowly glided straight into the Pentagon. At the point where the fuselage hit the wall, it seemed to simply melt into the building. I saw a smoke ring surround the fuselage as it made contact with the wall. It appeared as a smoke ring that encircled the fuselage at the point of contact and it seemed to be several feet thick. I later realized that it was probably the rubble of churning bits of the plane and concrete. The churning smoke ring started at the top of the fuselage and simultaneously wrapped down both the right and left sides of the fuselage to the underside, where the coiling rings crossed over each other and then coiled back up to the top. Then it started over again -- only this next time, I also saw fire, glowing fire in the smoke ring. At that point, the wings disappeared into the Pentagon. And then I saw an explosion and watched the tail of the plane slip into the building. It was here that I closed my eyes for a moment and when I looked back, the entire area was awash in thick black smoke.
I was not sure what to do next. Everyone started to emerge from their cars and, with looks of horror and disbelief, many began to beg for cell phones to call 911, to call family, or to call the story in to their newspapers. I continued to listen to the radio and everything was still about the events in New York. I was absolutely convinced that another plane was headed our way because there had been two planes at the World Trade Center and I felt that we were all sitting ducks on that road. I wanted the traffic to turn around. I didn't know what else to do so I got out of my car and ran back toward the highway yelling "Go Back! They just hit the Pentagon!" But of course, no one could move in any direction because traffic was at a standstill. A young woman in her 20's from the car in front of me was standing in front of my car and was visibly distraught and said she didn't know what to do. I told her that she was could come sit with me in my car for awhile and then I went to my car and started throwing everything from the front seat into the back seat to make room for her. I remember momentarily thinking that something was odd about the stuff as I tossed it back, but I didn't focus on it. Just then, a rather large man (from the regular traffic lanes) in a light tan military uniform bellowed to everyone within earshot. "Get Back In Your Car!!" So we did.
Then I became aware of people streaming out of the back side of the Pentagon and congregating on the sidewalks. It appears it was only a minute or two after the impact because they weren't yet looking at the crash site and seemed perplexed as to why they were outside. Perhaps only a few minutes lapsed from the actual time of impact to the time when someone was yelling at the traffic to "Go! Go! Go!" But it seemed like an eternity. As I began to drive, I heard a crunching sound (like driving on gravel) and I saw a piece of metal on the road about the size of a softball (it looked like a small conveyer belt-like roller with pins.) I remember thinking that I could puncture my tires - but in that same thought, I vowed to keep driving, even if I had to ride home on the tire rims. As the car moved slowly forward in traffic, I realized that I was still headed toward my office and I absolutely did not want to go there - my office is on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few doors down from the White House.
So I made my way across the lanes of traffic and instead, I exited into the Pentagon's parking lot. I circled around to the right and came out under the road that I had just been on -- headed toward I-66 West. It was then that I realized that my car seemed to be shaking and I thought that perhaps I had punctured a tire. It also seemed that my car was moving extremely slow and that I might be stuck in 2nd gear. I looked down at the gearshift and confirmed that it was in "Drive". Then I looked up at my speedometer - and I was flabbergasted to find that I was traveling at over 80 mph and it felt as if I was not moving at all. My car tires were okay, but my little Dodge Neon was shaking because I never pushed it that fast before. I realized that I was still feeling the effects of the adrenaline rush and I forced myself to slow down.
As I drove, I remember being frustrated and thinking that everyone else on the road looked too normal and too unaware of the atrocity that had just unfolded in front of me. I turned off I-66 and when I reached the corner of Glebe Rd and Columbia Pike, I hear a terrible explosive noise (which I later was told was the sonic boom of our fighter jets). I thought it was evidence of another attack. Traffic stopped and people poured out of stores and cars and homes to look up to the sky. I turned on the radio to find out what happened, and heard that a WTC tower had collapsed. So I pulled over to the side of the road to catch my breath and sobbed for all the lives lost and for what seemed to me at that time like the beginning of the end. I turned south onto Columbia Pike and headed home - stopping once to attempt to use a pay phone, but all lines were busy. As I drove farther from the crash sight, emergency vehicles continued to zoom past me toward Arlington, Virginia and the Pentagon.
A Second Shock...
When I arrived home, I turned on every radio and TV in the house -- I'm not sure whether I was trying to drown out my thoughts or whether I was just hungry for news. I made a cup of tea to calm my nerves and called my husband to let him know that I was okay. I told him that there was a piece of the plane in my car, but for some reason, I couldn't deal with it just yet. I also called my son at college to reassure him that I was okay. Apparently, I made several cups of tea that I don't remember making because later that day I found four sopping teabags lined up on my kitchen counter. I believe now, that I was operating on “auto-pilot” and was probably in shock for much of that day. At some point I opted for quiet and turned off all the noise except the radio in my kitchen. Then I went to my car and faced that piece of the plane that was in the back seat. It appeared to be a piece of the tail. There was no metal on it and it was very lightweight -- all plastic and fiberglass. It was 22" long and 15" wide. I have no idea how it got into my car because I do not remember seeing any rubble flying around while I was at the crash site. I assume that it dropped in through the sunroof or flipped in through a window. The plane piece consisted of a layer of white paint, and layers of yellow and gray fiberglass as well as a thin brown corrugated material.
I gingerly picked up the piece and carried it into the house. As I entered the kitchen, I heard the radio announcer on WMAL state that it was an American Airlines flight and I thought to myself, "I knew that." But then the announcer said that is was Flight number 77 and he stated the number of passengers and crew and it hit me hard that the planes had been full of innocent victims. The radio announcer said that they were taking calls from people who had a personal experience to share. I dialed the station. I remember that I told them that I was "Penny from Springfield" and that I had a piece of the plane. The next thing I knew, I was on the air and Chris Core said "Penny from Springfield, What did you see?" I don't remember any of the rest of our conversation and coworkers who heard it said it was somewhat incoherent. The only thing that I remember is that at the end, Chris Core said, "How weird is that?" And I remember thinking that his comment didn't make me feel any better.
As you could imagine, I was in no shape to work the next day so I stayed home with my husband. All day on September 12th, I sat glued to the television and overdosed on horrible replays from New York and DC/Arlington. At one point, I unconsciously barricaded myself in a mound of sofa cushions and that's when I realized that I needed to find some mental relief. I talked to several coworkers and to a counselor from our Corporation's counseling program, as well as to family and friends. I wasn't too keen about returning to work, but I had a major project to roll out and I just kept telling myself that I would not let the terrorists succeed in terrorizing me further. I returned to the office on September 13th with several rolls of red, white and blue ribbon and a supply of pins. I began to make multi-colored ribbon loops and pinned them to the bulletin board outside my office with a note that they were available for anyone that wanted to wear one. On that day and the next, I posted over 160 ribbons and it was helpful to me to see them worn by so many.
On the One-Month Anniversary, October 11, 2001, my co-workers and I were still felt traumatized by the events of one month ago. I invited them to come to my office to watch the commemorative ceremony in New York via CNN on my computer. It was then that we learned of the Pentagon Memorial service planned for later that morning. A co-worker, Victoria Hebert, and I decided that we must attend it. We knew that it would be a heavily guarded event, and we didn't think that we would be able to crash it, but we felt compelled to try and get as close to it as possible. We left the office around 10:00 am for the 11:00 am service. We took the Metro to the Pentagon station and surfaced right up into the Pentagon Parking Lot. The event was held on the side of the building opposite the damaged side. We followed a few people that were in the parking lot and we were stopped at several checkpoints by armed military personnel but were always allowed to proceed toward the River Parade Area.
It was both unsettling and reassuring to see all the military personnel in their battle fatigues with guns drawn and machine guns strapped to their backs, standing atop HumVees and other military vehicles. The most unnerving view was later during the services, when we saw FBI personnel patrolling the riverside behind the bleachers -- with large guns drawn. One of FBI agents was dressed in black from head-to-toe with a tight black hood pulled over his head that showed only two white circles for his eyes.
There, we headed to the seating area reserved for ticketed guests. We passed through the metal detectors, but we were turned away when we couldn't produce a ticket. Fortunately, they directed us to seating that was set aside for the public in the grassy area just below. There were chairs, bleachers, large-projection screens and an excellent sound system. We chose seats at the top of the bleachers and from that vantage point we could see the roofline of the Pentagon with its large flag draped down from the top (and armed snipers walking along the roof).
We visited the "wall" of American Heroes which was a three-panel board containing the names of each of the dead from the Pentagon disaster and an obituary for each. It was at this wall that Milegro Arcega of the local NBC news interviewed us. Mr. Arcega and his cameraman were extremely respectful. The interview was not aired, but it was another opportunity for us to express our anguish and to heal.
The Pentagon memorial service was very moving and personally very helpful. My co-worker and I were so glad that we were able to be a part of it. After the service, we made our way to the other side of the building, through the parking lot and up onto the grassy embankment not far from where my car had been on the morning of September 11th. Victoria and I climbed up the embankment with reverence, but I was unprepared for the overwhelming anguish that I would experience when I turned around and viewed the gashed building again in the sunlight, for the first time since September 11th. God Bless America!