Remembering the day we will never forget
In the early morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Lt. Col. Garland Williams made his regular commute to his job just like every other working American. And just like every other American, Williams had no idea that in a few hours a handful of terrorists would carry out the worst attacks on American soil since Pearl Harbor. However, unlike every other American, Williams worked at the Pentagon where his office was located on the west side of the building — dangerously close to the impact zone of American Airlines Flight 77.
Arriving at his office around 7:30 a.m., Williams recalled, “it was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and temperatures in the high 70s.” He began going about his normal business, which included filling out his and his boss’s expense reports from their trip to Chicago the week prior. Before he could drop off the expense reports at the Army Budget Office, it was time for the 9 a.m. weekly staff meeting. He left his keys, cellphone and beret as well as the two expense reports on his desk and headed into the conference room for the meeting.
On the way into the meeting, a colleague received a message on his Blackberry that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. “We thought it was like a Cessna,” said Williams. Unfazed and thinking it was an accident, they continued on to the meeting just like any other Tuesday.
Several minutes into the staff meeting, the attendees learned that a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center — but they still had no idea it was a commercial airliner. A bit perplexed at the chance of two planes accidentally crashing into the World Trade Center within minutes of each other, Williams asked his boss, “Do you want me to change your arrangements?” His boss, who had a reservation at the Millennium Hotel right next to the World Trade Center for the Friday of the same week, replied, “No, no, no, they’ll have it all cleaned up by then.” At the time, neither Williams nor his colleagues understood the extent of what was happening and the staff meeting continued as normal for only a few more minutes.
An explosion rocks the Pentagon
At 9:38 a.m. while still in the staff meeting, there was an explosion. "I thought it was a bomb," said Williams. "I’m an engineer; I did explosives for a living and that’s what it felt like to me — like a bomb went off.” He immediately thought it was a terrorist attack and his military mind kicked in.
“I was closest to the door,” recalled Williams, “so I was out in the hallway about three seconds later to get the secretaries who were not in the meeting.” If it was a terrorist attack, Williams’ thinking was that everyone could safely lock themselves in the conference room. When he got out into the hallway, he said, “smoke was rolling down the hallway and the secretaries were streaming out with terror in their eyes. Fortunately, nobody in our office was hurt.” The explosion occurred about 100 yards to the left of their conference room and only 50 yards from Williams’ office.
A high-ranking civilian and leader in the office who outranked Williams suggested everyone evacuate to the center courtyard of the Pentagon. To her dismay, Williams’ military experience and logic countered that idea. He told everyone that if it were a terrorist attack, he didn’t want to be a sitting duck for a sniper to take pots shots. It was a mindset he credits to being in Bosnia a few years earlier. Instead they headed out of the Pentagon. Because his office was closer to the point of the explosion, Williams was unable to grab his keys, cellphone and beret. “I borrowed a cellphone to call my wife, let her know there had been a bomb at the Pentagon and that I was OK.” explained Williams.
When they came out of the building, Williams says, “there was a big ball of flame, lots of fire, lots of smoke and a lot of chaos. Bits of debris from the explosion were strewn everywhere and were no bigger than a shoebox. We thought because it was right by the helipad that a helicopter had blown up.”
Williams and several colleagues headed back toward the Pentagon to the military police line where they were told, “There’s a fourth airliner in the air.” That’s when they realized the "explosion" was actually an airliner crashing into the Pentagon and that the incidents involving the World Trade Center were not accidents involving small Cessna planes but large-scale attacks with jet airliners. Williams was shocked. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that an airplane had struck the Pentagon.” Now that they knew this, they moved far away from the Pentagon anticipating another strike. America was under attack.
What started out as a beautiful, normal day turned into one of the worst national disasters the United States has ever witnessed. Although none of his direct coworkers were injured, the airliner hit near the Army Budget Office where Williams was to turn in his expense report that morning. Sadly, the woman to whom he was to give his expense reports lost her life. Williams also found out that one of his friends in the Army who also worked at the Pentagon was injured. The office in which his friend worked was at the point of impact. His friend was thrown from his desk and his computer was thrown on top of him. He managed to escape through the flames with a few bad burns.
Grief counselors were brought in and gave Williams’ team group therapy sessions that he said brought them all closer. At the end of the therapy, the same high-ranking woman who suggested they evacuate to the center courtyard of the Pentagon gave Williams a hug. Perhaps it was a thank you for his experience and skillful, military thinking.
About four weeks after the attacks, he was allowed back into his office in the Pentagon. Williams was able to grab his keys but that’s about it. His dress greens were completely destroyed. His beret was nowhere to be found; his computer and files were rendered useless. Due to his office’s proximity to the crash site, everything was damaged and waterlogged. Well, almost everything. Williams kept a congressional flag that had flown over Congress in a safe in his office. It was left undamaged — as if to say you can destroy our buildings, but you can’t destroy our country.