September 11th Reflections: My Ring Story
By Lieutenant Kevin Shaeffer ’94, U.S. Navy (Retired)
September 11, 2001—A beautiful morning to be sure. At least that’s how it started out. It was close to 6:30 a.m. and I was riding in to the Pentagon from my home in Fredericksburg, VA. I recall my mind wandering back and forth from the work I had for the day and a family fishing trip that was planned later in the month. I missed my wife, also an active duty Navy lieutenant (Class of ’95), who was out of town on business.
I had been working on the CNO’s staff for almost exactly 13 months, busy with the rigors of being a very junior action officer in a branch with responsibilities concerning naval strategy and concepts. Others have in the past joked about how working in the Pentagon could nearly be considered hazardous duty, with all of the service infighting, tactful press leaks, and biting memoranda. I would soon learn just how hazardous such duty could really be.
As I swiped my identification badge through the security lock door to the brand-new Navy Command Center, I was motivated to tackle the challenges of the day. It was just minutes after 7 a.m. About one month earlier my branch had moved from our old space into the newly renovated "wedge." The space still smelled fresh and new, and though cubicles dominated throughout, they were modern and clean and stocked with the latest computer equipment. It was an interesting time to be working in the Pentagon. The administration and services were in the final phases of the Quadrennial Defense Review and my shop was busy supporting that effort while also being at the cusp of crafting a new Naval strategy to help guide our service in the 21st century. After a quick change into my khakis I set about reviewing my email inbox and digesting my daily dose of the "Early Bird" (a compilation of relevant news articles). In the four-man cubicle with me, conducting their similar morning routines, were my officemates and friends—Lieutenant Commander Dave Williams, and Commanders Bill Donovan ’86 and Pat Dunn ’85. After our morning meeting with our branch head, Captain Bob Dolan ’81, we returned to our desks to get started on the taskings for the day. The time was just past 8:30 a.m.
Our office situation was a unique one in that we shared working space within the Command Center. The Command Center was manned 24 hours a day by officers and petty officers whose responsibilities included keeping up with actions of U.S. naval units deployed around the world as well as monitoring the worldwide news broadcasts for events of interest. Because of our working relationship, we were constantly kept abreast of current events as they occurred. At approximately 8:55 a.m., the entire Command Center instantly became acutely aware with the horrors unfolding in New York City at the World Trade Center towers. As the televised news stations switched to close aerial coverage of the burning North Tower, the images of raging fire and thick black smoke cascading up into a blue sky held the attention of every individual in the bustling Command Center. At 9:03 a.m., a tense, audible gasp erupted throughout the space. The horrific situation had gotten worse—as the second airliner slammed into the South Tower with an explicitly violent crash.
Standing next to my officemates, Commanders Donovan and Williams, I voiced what was evident to all of us, "There’s no way that is an accident! We’re witnessing a terrorist attack on our own soil." We instantly checked to see what time it was, and wondered aloud just how many people were in those airliners and at work in those towers. In stunned silence, we continued to watch the events on several large-screen displays located in the "watch team" section of the larger Command Center space. As the minutes passed, most of us returned to our desks, some in silence, some engaging in quiet discussions trying to make sense out of the moment, others intent on calling loved-ones. I specifically recall standing beside my desk, peering over the cubicle dividers and watching the burning towers on television. Commanders Donovan, Dunn, and Williams were seated at their desks—just a few feet away. Never did any of us consider our location at risk.
In a flash, at exactly 9:43 a.m., the entire Command Center exploded in a gigantic orange fireball and I felt myself being slammed to the deck by a massive and thunderous shock wave. It felt to me as if the blast started with the outer wall facing my backside, blowing me forward toward Commander Dunn’s desk. I never lost consciousness, and though the entire space was pitch black, I immediately sensed that I was on fire.
While still lying on the ground I ran my fingers through my hair and over my face to extinguish the flames. Simultaneously, I tried to roll my body in order to put out the flames I felt burning on my back and arms. As I stood to get my wits about me, I could just barely make out through thick, acrid smoke, the carnage of what had been, just moments before, a space full of my shipmates. "A coordinated attack!" I thought. I stood for a moment in a frozen shock. My mind raced. It must have been a bomb planted by one of the many construction workers or technical contractors who still mingled about, placing the final touches on the new wedge. I called out for help, but to no avail. I could sense the flames and that the space was quickly filling up with smoke. It burned my mouth and throat and I struggled to breathe. My mind raced to my wife, Blanca, the love we shared, and I was sickened at the thought of never seeing her again. "I’m alive!" I thought, and yelled out to myself, "Keep moving, Kevin! Keep moving!" I had to find a way to escape. The security lock door—would it have failed open or locked shut? I quickly decided it probably failed locked and began crawling and climbing towards the back of the space. I couldn’t see much through the darkness and smoke, but I could tell that the ceiling had collapsed into the space and that everything around me was blown to bits. It felt as if I was crawling over rubble several feet high. Soon I came upon frayed electrical cables dangling from the caved in ceiling, in front of broken water pipes and gushing water. "Great, I thought, I’m now going to be electrocuted." I managed my way just under and around the cables and found myself in what appeared to be another space, unfamiliar to me, adjacent to the Command Center. As I crawled, I could see glimpses of daylight streaming through the smoke. I felt my adrenaline kick in and I rapidly crawled over about a dozen desks, stood, and walked through what was obviously a freshly blown-out hole in the brick wall adjacent to A and E Drive, between the third and fourth Pentagon rings. Without looking too closely I knew my hands and arms were in very bad shape. I remember calling out for help and seeing several people running frantically up and down A and E Drive.
The next memory I have is seeing Sergeant First Class Steve Workman, adorned in a white t-shirt and Army slacks, answering my screams for help. "I’m alive," I yelled out to him. He was able to make contact with another man in an electric maintenance cart. Together, they placed me on the aft deck of the cart and the three of us raced off in search of medical help. After a fruitless stop at the DiLorenzo Army Medical Clinic located within the Pentagon, SGT Workman placed me on a medical gurney and we exited the building via the North exit. My constant pleas for medical help were answered when Sergeant Workman commandeered what was very likely the first ambulance to arrive at the Pentagon. One look at me was all the ambulance crew needed and we all, including Sergeant Workman, were off racing towards Walter Reed Army Hospital. It was the wildest ride of my life and felt as if we made half of the trip to the hospital "off-road," darting around congested traffic, occasionally "brushing up against" cars in our path. We finally reached the hospital emergency station and as I was wheeled into the building a team of what seemed like over 20 medical personnel descended upon me, each working on separate tasks in an effort to save my life.
As I lay on the gurney, I thought I heard one of the nurses assess my condition as "50% burns, 50/50 chance!" Time seemed to freeze and I grabbed that nurse, pulled her close and told her "No! I’m alive! I’m going to live!" I next realized that several nurses were, with little success, attempting to remove the wedding band I wore on my left hand and my 1994 Naval Academy Class Ring I wore on my right hand. The skin on both of my hands was severely burned and hanging from my fingers. They called out for the ring-cutter. "Stop! Stop!" I cried, giving pause to the group of frantic personnel around me. With the focus of all of my will and strength I managed to pry each ring off my fingers and handed them safely to a nearby nurse. "Okay, I thought, now you may proceed with saving my life." It was my last conscious memory of September 11, 2001. To this day, my wife wears my wedding band next to hers and my Class Ring on a chain around her neck. I anxiously await the day when my hands have healed enough to allow my rings to return to their proper place upon my fingers.