William Layer: Remembering 9/11 from inside the Pentagon. It seemed an ordinary Tuesday …

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

It seemed an ordinary Tuesday when I walked into to my Pentagon office, 5th floor, 9th corridor, D Ring, the River Entrance side of the building, where I worked for Air Force Legislative Liaison, the Air Force division which prepared congressional testimony and otherwise supported the Secretary and the Chief-of-Staff in their relations with Congress.  Had the terrorists who hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the riverside we and senior officials would have been wiped out.

No sooner had I taken off my suit jacket than the phone rang. It was Ed Roeder, a Washington journalist of long acquaintance. “The Trade Center’s been hit,” he said, “You’re full of it,” I replied, “No, go look!” I walked over to the office TV, my Air Force colleagues staring at the screen dumbfounded at smoke pouring out of the buildings. My first job after grad school had been in 2 World Trade Center, I knew the area well. Hurrying back to my desk I called a classmate with New York connections. As we talked, a sudden loud bang reverberated through the building, he heard it through the phone, “Gotta go, we’ve been hit.” I hung up, closed my briefcase, put on my jacket, and left. Everyone was strangely calm. In the hallway I ran into one of our lieutenants who had been in the ladies’, thinking we were next, when the plane hit. “I don’t have my purse,” she said. “Forget it, we’re outta here.” We got down to the concourse as smoke rolled down the A ring corridor. Seeing a Pentagon cop I said, “It’s filling with smoke, get them out of there!” We exited under the building through what had been the old bus depot. Coming into the daylight a plume of black smoke was rising on our far right as secondary explosions went off. Thinking nukes I said, “We’ve got to get out of here as fast and as far as we can.” I glanced at two Arab-looking men walking toward the Pentagon, pointing them out to the cops I instinctively ordered: “Follow them!” All traffic into Washington on Route 395 was being turned south. Cops were putting evacuees into every available vehicle. An Air Force couple who had seen the plane go in gave us a lift to my place. I drove the lieutenant to her apartment, came home, and walked over to Ramparts, my neighborhood saloon. Calls were coming in on my cell and landline from people I hadn’t spoken to in ages asking if I was alright. Later that day I called the Army operations center and offered my help. “We have enough sir,” said the NCO answering the phone. It was a couple of days before I reported back to work.

Photographs provided by author

Several weeks before the attack, bored with my assignment where nothing was ever going to happen, and needing a promotable slot, I had transferred from the DC Army National Guard’s 360th Military Police Command where I was the S5 Civil Affairs, Disaster Coordination Officer, and liaison to the DC Metropolitan Police to the 352nd Civil Affairs Command, Army Reserve. At the 352 I joined the G3 (operations and plans) Special Functions Team as the archives and monuments man. As 352 specialized in the Middle East and Central Asia I figured it would give me a chance to travel, did it ever. Over the next several months I was on and off active duty preparing and supervising areas studies of Central Asia, revising refugee plans for Iraq, and attending numerous meetings including one at ARCENT (Army Central Command). Finding the ARCENT paper on the Iraqi oil industry inadequate, I dug deeper into that strategic question for Col. Stahl, the G3 producing a substantive and comprehensive revision. In the recesses of my mind, I remember him saying that I would be in the advance party into theatre if the balloon went up. I should have listened more closely. 

Photographs provided by author

On the first or second of December my office phone rang, if I hadn’t picked up would the caller have gone to the next name on the list? It was 352: the advance party was mobilizing; I was in it. We were to report to Ft. Bragg in two weeks, December 13th, to train for onward movement to Kuwait. “Two weeks!! What happened to thirty days?” “Two weeks” the voice on the line repeated.  A few minutes later my boss, Skip Daley, came out of his office fax in hand: “Does this mean what I think it does?” he asked. “I’ll see you in two years,” I replied.  At that, I closed out my assignments and left. For the next fourteen days, I jumped through hoops getting personal and my army affairs in order. I would not set foot in my office again until October 2004.


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