It’s been 19 years since Sept. 11, 2001, when four hijacked passenger jets were turned into makeshift missiles above American soil. But the tragic day is still fresh in the minds of some of the Army’s top leaders who survived the attack at the Pentagon.
Positioned across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, the Pentagon is the nerve center for all things national defense. It’s also one of the world’s largest office buildings, made up of roughly 23,000 military and civilian employees, including the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The five-sided structure is often seen as a universal symbol of America’s strength and security, which made it a target that September morning.
As the sun rose over the nation’s capital that day, the gridlocked morning traffic crept along the Beltway. Underground, train riders like Brig. Gen. Mark S. Bennett and Maj. Gen. Paul A. Chamberlain, who were younger officers at the time, crowded into railcars to beat the slow-moving jam.
All and all “it was just a morning like any other,” Bennett recalled.
They were young officers navigating the city in 2001, but today Bennett is at the helm of the U.S. Army Financial Command, and Chamberlain is the director of the Army budget.
By the time the Metro train dropped them off, the Soldiers weren’t the first to arrive at the Pentagon. Employees were already buzzing through each ring and corridor of the building.
Pentagon staffers were already immersed in numerous morning routines; briefings were planned, PowerPoints were being finalized, coffee was brewing, and some, like Chamberlain, found time to squeeze in a morning run.
“The sky was crystal clear blue that early fall morning,” Chamberlain said, looking back. “I went for a run, came back, and took a shower.” That’s when he first heard the news at the Pentagon Athletic Center. “Over the radio speakers in the shower, I heard a plane [may have] hit the World Trade Center in New York -- which was very odd.”
The news quickly spread around the building. Lt. Gen. Thomas Horlander, deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army, Financial Management and Comptroller, was then a 41-year-old lieutenant colonel on a mission from Fort Rucker, Alabama that morning.
The Pentagon has three times the floor space of the Empire State Building, and can be daunting to navigate for newcomers, like Horlander. The Colorado native was in an unfamiliar place during his work trip to the Defense Department epicenter.
When Horlander and his coworkers walked into the building, the security guards knew they were out-of-towners, he said, during a recent interview. “I said [to the guard] we’re trying to locate a conference room. He gave us assistance and said when you get there to turn on the television -- an airplane just hit one of the Twin Towers.”
After that, everything changed. Newscasts started reporting the incident at the World Trade Center in New York City. The news anchor on the confirmed “smoke was billowing out of one of the towers,” Chamberlain said. “I thought, wow, it must have been a significant plane that hit it.”
‘Something is happening in New York’
At first, reporters speculated why the smoke poured from the North Tower. Many anchors, like on Chamberlain’s radio, said it looked like an airplane accident. But others suggested maybe a kitchen fire from the Windows of the World restaurant, a popular tourist destination located on the 106th and 107th level of the tower. The truth was nobody knew for sure.
That’s when many work routines stopped. All that people could do was watch in knots. At the Pentagon, workers, including Chamberlain, circled TVs like campfires and waited for new information like warmth. Another Army officer, Wes Miller, who was a colonel at the Pentagon in 2001, questioned if it was accident or not, he said.
Before anyone could clarify what happened to the North Tower, the news broadcasted a commercial airliner fly full-force into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., causing a massive fireball in its wake, while inadvertently confirming Miller's suspicions.
“It was too unusual to see a plane fly into the side of a skyscraper. There was no way that could have been a mistake,” said Miller, who serves at the Pentagon today as the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for financial operations.
As Miller watched in horror, a coworker said, “This is not a day you want to be working at the Pentagon.” The colleague planned to take leave, he said, but wasn’t able to get out in time.