by Tom Lightfoot

What It’s Like To…Survive The Pentagon Attack

Dec 15, 20043 mins
IT Leadership

It was about 9:35 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. I had just left the north exit of the Pentagon, where I work as head of a team modernizing the telecommunications system.

I was on my way to a 10 a.m. briefing with the project’s program manager at what we call the Modular Office Complex—a few trailers set up in the north parking lot of the Pentagon. I was a bit preoccupied; just a few minutes before I left my basement office, I had learned that two planes had flown into the Twin Towers. We knew it must be a terrorist attack and we were on high alert.

Just then, I felt a wave of heat like the highest setting on a blow-dryer. The ground jumped under my feet. Pressure pushed in on my chest and I heard a loud explosion. I looked up and over the top of the Pentagon—just around the corner about several hundred yards—and saw a huge orange fireball roll up toward the sky. My first thought was that a truck bomb exploded. Then I became angry and thought, “How dare they? Somebody is going to pay for this.”

Two women ahead of me screamed and turned to run back into the building. I told them to stay outside. Very quickly, people began exiting the building. I walked to the renovation headquarters to see what I could do. As I walked, I began to hear the sirens—fire trucks and police cars rolling toward the Pentagon. When I got to headquarters, I made some calls to make sure the people who worked on my team got out OK. They did. I called my wife and left a message letting her know I was all right. We were soon evacuated to a grassy area farther away because we heard that another plane was on its way to Washington. We stayed there until about 3 p.m. when we were told to go home.

The next morning, with fires still burning, we went into the impact area to see what equipment could be salvaged. We walked by escalators where water was rushing down the steps like waterfalls. Firemen were still dumping water onto the roof. We could see where the airplane had crashed into what was once the Navy Command Center. Everything was charred. At the time, it was estimated that as many as 800 people had been killed. By the looks of the damage, it could have been a lot more than that. [The death toll ultimately was determined to be 184, including those on the plane.]

The jet had stopped just short of one of our equipment rooms, which housed the switches for the area. The doors had been blown in. We had to turn off the phone numbers to the damaged area so that the host switch, which routes calls to specific telephones, didn’t overload as it tried to connect to phones that no longer existed.

In the following weeks we got new cable into the area, hooked up dial tone and managed to get 1,000 temporary phones working. We immediately started planning a command communications survivability program [CCSP] to make sure the different parts of the Pentagon telecommunications systems could continue to work if one part were taken down in an attack.

We should have all the CCSP work done in eight months, four years after the attack.

—As told to Allan Holmes