Waiting for the Call: The September Eleventh Disaster At The Pentagon
The conference room doors blew open. The rush of wind hit the officers in the meeting room and the concussion made their ears pop. Col. Robert Cortez instantly knew what it was. He ha heard such sounds before. He was a Vietnam veteran. He knew the concussions, the rush of wind, the smoke and fire. The Pentagon had been hit. It was under attack. He was certain of it.
The New Mexico Army officer had reported for work on September 10, the first day of his two-week summer camp with the Undersecretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs at the Pentagon. On September 11, he was moved to a different office, down one of the corridors of the Pentagon's famed labyrinth. He had heard such sounds before. He was a Vietnam veteran. He knew the concussions, the rush of wind, the smoke and fire. The Pentagon had been hit.
The move might have saved his life. It put him a little farther away from the point of impact when the airliner slammed into the building. He had been in a meeting for about an hour when word came of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The meeting broke up temporarily so the officers could find out what had happened in Manhattan. Five minutes after they reconvened, the Pentagon's corridors exploded into fire and smoke, "There were people hollering and screaming and crying and we said, 'Don't panic,'" Cortez said."I was thinking there were 23,000 people in the Pentagon and I just hoped we could get them out safely without any panic. We needed to get people organized. I like to think of it as organized chaos."
Cortez accounted for the attendees at the meeting and then evacuated the building. As he headed toward a bus stop outside, an Army medic called out to him for help with a patient.
"An Army officer, Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, had been severely burned," Cortez said. "I ran over to the medic and helped as best I could. The medic already had him on a gurney and had begun IVs. But there were no ambulances." Knowing the Army officer probably would die without medical attention, they went to an Arlington police officer and told him they needed to find a way to get the injured man to a hospital. They stopped a firefighter and told him. No ambulance came.
Finally, they flagged down a civilian SUV, a Ford Expedition. They loaded the burned officer into it. A motorcycle police officer offered to escort them, but didn't want to leave the area completely because she thought she would be needed at the crash site. A Navy sailor came by on a motorcycle and offered to escort the SUV. Later, the sailor would admit that he was new to Washington, had no idea where the hospital was, but somehow managed to get the SUV there anyway, running over sidewalks, medians and going against traffic on the way.
"When you're trained, you just react," Cortez said. "You don't realize how ingrained it is. It's that instinct kicking in and people doing what's needed to be done."
When he went back to the Pentagon the next day, he said he was broken-hearted at the sight, the center of defense in the United States, still burning, an ugly scar slashed through it. "I was moved to tears," he said. Two days later, he watched media reports from inside the Pentagon and realized how close to death he'd come.
"It really hit me," he said. "I came that close to getting killed."
Later, he was moved to another location and unit. He met Capt. Calvin Wineland. The two men spoke of the attacks. Cortez told Wineland about the injured officer and the SUV and the sailor escort to the hospital. "Wineland said, 'Hey, that was me! I was driving the Expedition,' "Cortez said.
The injured officer is out of intensive care now but still in the hospital. Cortez wants to meet him but will hold off until the Army officer recovers more fully.
"I didn't know him," he said. "We were only helping an injured comrade. I'd like to meet him."
Cortez said the Pentagon is a different place now, security being uppermost in the minds of everyone in the building. Vehicles, packages, letters, everything is scrutinized with a heightened awareness.
More than that, Cortez senses a deeper change.
"We're focused, we're determined," he said. "This is our home territory. They're not going to get away with this."
About the Author
Tom Berger is a writer for The VVA Veteran, the official voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ? An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress.
Learn more at http://www.vva.org www.vva.org