As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’m asking myself, “what do we say to each other?” How do we acknowledge the memory of that beautiful blue-skied day that now holds such painful memories? In our national tradition we bid each other a Happy Fourth of July, a Happy Thanksgiving. What do we say to each other on Sunday?
I’ve made my home in New York City since 2009, when I retired from the U.S. Navy. With the exception of a friend’s loss of his brother in the first tower and having seen a lot of the news coverage, the events in New York on 9/11 are foreign to me. I see reminders as I walk through the city, small memorials on city street signs and plaques on firehouse entrances. But I don’t share the experience my New York community had.
In 2001, my home was the metro D.C. area, an apartment literally steps from the Pentagon. My neighbor was at home and looked out her window just in time to see the plane hit the building. I heard the impact, just moments after American Airlines Flight 77 whooshed over the building where I was working, Federal Office Building 2 or the “Navy Annex” to the Pentagon.
Seconds after the plane hit the building a quarter mile away, our fire alarms sounded. In a moment of good thinking, I grabbed my keys as I left my cubicle. Shortly after mustering across from the Annex, all military personnel were told to report to the Pentagon’s South Parking lot. We took off running. As I made my way downhill, I realized that my shoes – black regulation pumps – weren’t very practical, so I detoured home for a quick change and to pick up blankets. I remembered photos from the bombings in Oklahoma City, people wrapped in blankets. While at the apartment I made a quick call to my parents. “I’m okay; I’ll call you again later,” I said.
Blankets in hand, I hurried over to South Parking, giving the pile to a medic there before going on to join a group that was told to get drinking water for the rescue teams. We walked across a field, passing FBI agents who were flagging small pieces of debris from the plane. We got to the Navy Exchange Service gas station and mini-mart, where an employee said they were closed, and she’d get in trouble for opening the store to us. An Air Force Colonel assured her that her boss would understand. We loaded two shopping carts with bottles, paying with a quick collection from everyone’s pockets, and pushed them down a car-less road to the staging area.
After that small contribution to the effort, our team was disbanded. I returned to the Annex parking lot where several military and civilian folks were gathered, still not allowed back into our building. This was back when not everyone had a cellphone, so I offered my apartment – and landline phone – to anyone who wanted to use it. I collected names, phone numbers and messages to call family members to let them know their loved ones were okay. I went home and dialed the first number. “Hello,” came the voice on the other end. Somehow I found the right thing to say: “John is okay.” Only after that reassurance did I identify myself as an officer from the Navy headquarters.
The Navy personnel staff, to which I was attached, had assembled a makeshift command center; the lessons from the USS Cole less than a year earlier were still pretty fresh. Navy had dispatched officers to local hospitals to gather information on any wounded who’d been taken there for care. The ad hoc watch would be collecting information from them and also working with the Pentagon offices accounting for their people. I signed up for the 4pm to midnight shift.
Throughout the day I’d been doing my own mental accounting of friends working in the Pentagon. I hadn’t been in D.C. long enough to know the layout of the building very well, but after thinking it through and talking with others, I realized that the part that had been hit was the newly renovated section. The part where my good friend Ann had moved into a new office just weeks earlier.
Shortly before starting my shift on the casualty watch, I checked in with my parents again. By then I’d confirmed that most of my friends were safe, all except one. “Is your friend Ann okay?,” my dad asked. My response was the hardest thing I’d had to say all day: “I don’t know,” my voice cracking as I tried to get the words out.
Early into the watch I learned that Ann was safe. Unfortunately I also learned that another friend, someone I hadn’t included in my mental roster, was gravely wounded. His wife, also a Navy Lieutenant, was on travel and hadn’t been notified. Because she didn’t know, I couldn’t tell anyone the news about Kevin. I couldn’t reach out to our friends and ask them to start praying for him.
At the end of my shift, I walked out with a group of officers from the Operations Directorate (coded N3/N5 on the Navy staff). The Navy Command Center, which had taken a direct hit, was part of N3/N5. The officers with whom I walked had spent the day doing their grim accounting. The Captain spoke quietly. “Thirty years and I’ve never lost anyone. Until today.” There was silence, nothing more to say.
Early Wednesday morning a friend down in Norfolk called to check in on me. I still didn’t know if Kevin’s wife had been notified. I couldn’t tell Millie the news about our friend. I wasn’t allowed to say anything.
Kevin did survive, after several months in the burn unit at the Washington Hospital Center. After making his way out of the demolished command center, Kevin had been found by an Army NCO who got him out of the wreckage and into an ambulance.
I met Steve Workman, Kevin’s rescuer, at the hospital about two weeks after the attack. He was bringing Kevin’s family lunch - not a bag of sandwiches he’d picked up from a local deli, but a beautifully prepared lasagna fresh from the oven, salad, iced tea, lemon slices, the works. We met up again the next day, at the Family Support Center that the Defense Department had set up in a hotel near the Pentagon. I was working at the Navy’s desk there, helping coordinate the casualty assistance process. Sergeant First Class Workman was in his dress uniform; we saw each other from across the room. “What are you doing here?,” we said to each other.
Sergeant First Class Workman had volunteered for duty as a casualty assistance officer and was assigned the case of a Staff Sergeant who had been lost. He had spent the morning at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. SFC Workman started talking about what he had seen at Dover. I said nothing, listening as he detailed the care and dignity with which the remains of the soldier were readied for her final journey home.
I moved to New York in 2006, taking command of the Military Entrance Processing Station in Brooklyn in July. As September approached, I began wondering what it would be like to be in New York on the fifth anniversary of 9/11.
One day my First Sergeant and I shared our stories about that day. She had reported to the Army’s casualty coordination office in Alexandria, Virginia in the summer of 2001. The afternoon of that beautiful blue-skied day, she learned that her best friend had been killed in the Pentagon. First Sergeant told me about her friend, a very committed soldier. As she spoke I realized we shared a bond deeper than simply having been in D.C. on the same day. “Your friend’s casualty assistance officer was Sergeant First Class Workman,” I said.
A command conference ended up taking me away from New York City on the fifth anniversary of the attack. This year, the tenth anniversary, I have decided to go out of town, to a quiet place, where I may not say anything. But I will never forget.
Ellen Emerson is a retired Navy Commander who helped in the first aid efforts at the Pentagon on 9/11.