The attack

Like countless others, Sept. 11, 2001, changed my life. As a Navy officer working in the Pentagon at the time of the attack, my memory was indelibly imprinted by what happened when a group of people decided to show the world how much they hated Americans. Thousands died in the attacks, including nearly 200 people at the Pentagon, but my colleagues and I were unharmed — which felt like a miracle because the plane stopped just 20 feet from our office. After 20 years of reflection, I realize that the miracle was not walking away unharmed from a terrorist attack. It was seeing what happened afterward.

It was a clear and gorgeous Tuesday with a blue sky specked with puffy clouds. When news started coming in about a plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, my colleagues and I watched the TV reports in horror. As we speculated on the cause, we watched live with the rest of the world as a second plane hit. We knew that couldn’t have been a coincidence but didn’t know what it meant or what was to come.

With the news reports on the crashes in New York City playing in the background, I returned to my desk. The Pentagon is headquarters for the U.S. military, so it felt like one of the safest places in the world right then. Then suddenly the entire office jolted, like a boxer landing a vicious gut punch on an off-guard opponent. The Pentagon had just physically MOVED.

I snapped my head 180 degrees to the window. The normal view of the building’s “C” ring was completely obliterated by flying concrete and billowing, gray clouds of dust and smoke. “What the hell was that?!?” a coworker yelled as people looked around startled. Someone yelled back, “I don’t know, but I’m getting outta here!”

The new emergency system mechanically announced, “There is an emergency in the building. Please evacuate the building,” followed by a whooping alarm. Since our office had just moved to the newly renovated section of the building six months before, we’d participated in several evacuation drills. Now, despite the chaos going on around us, people were following the drill procedures, moving toward the center courtyard outside at a orderly pace with the type of quiet crowd chatter often heard after watching a dramatic movie.

Before leaving, I gathered my personal belongings and started for the stairs, where I saw an office friend. A woman with a bubbly personality, she was now ashen gray. I asked if she was OK. Her stammering words tumbled out of her mouth. Visibly shaking, she said that while talking on the phone with her husband as she looked out the window. She’d seen the plane coming straight at us, and there wasn’t a thing she could do. I tried to calm her as we got outside to the courtyard, not even stopping to consider we’d just walked away from a terrorist attack.

Triage at “Ground Zero” Cafe

The center courtyard — the designated evacuation place for offices near the center of the building — was a blur of confusion packed with people. I immediately reached for my cell phone to notify family and friends I was OK, but the network was jammed with all the calls to loved ones and friends by thousands of people who were at the Pentagon that day.

In those first moments in the courtyard, unable to reach the outside world, we wandered around trying to account for coworkers as a black mass of heavy smoke billowed up and out into that brilliant blue sky. The thick, sickening smell of burning fuel and debris filled the air. Because of my friend, I knew a plane had hit the building but didn’t know the extent of the damage. Amid the confusion, someone ran group-to-group looking for people with CPR qualifications and medical training. Having just renewed my CPR qualification, I didn’t hesitate. I shoved my belongings into the hands of a colleague and ran to join the volunteer group setting up a triage area. At the same time, everyone was being told to leave as fast as possible, but evacuating the building never crossed my mind.

The Pentagon medical clinic staff had quickly set up, so the triage volunteers readily followed their directions. All military formality was tossed aside.

We first calmed those who were injured and in shock. Many people had trouble breathing due to the dust, debris and fumes they had inhaled, and we needed clean water fast. The closest source was the courtyard café, which we immediately raided, taking as much as we could carry to clean wounds, eyes and throats. Others helped dress burns and aided survivors as they stumbled out of the wreckage. It seems odd now that everyone had always called the courtyard cafe “Ground Zero.” Pentagon tour guides often told visitors a story of how the Russians thought we stored nuclear weapons there during the Cold War. In this moment, the name was horribly fitting.

They came like stragglers, wandering aimlessly one-by-one out of the wreckage. After a while, fewer victims trickled into the courtyard triage area. And that’s when a gentleman in his 50s wandered out of the rubble. Nothing prepares you for the sight of a new burn victim. He was wearing what was once a very nice, dark two-piece business suit, so covered in dust and debris that the color was obscured. But something else was terribly wrong. His pants and shirt sleeves looked like he’d thrown his suit into a shredder before putting it on. What was stranger was the way he was holding up his hands like a doctor who has just scrubbed for surgery. There was something dangling like streamers from them. I stared for a couple of seconds before realizing that those streamers were what was left of his skin. The medical team rushed over to him. He was in such shock that his body didn’t register what must have been the immense pain he was feeling.

During this time, I saw a few people I knew working triage and rescue. Many others helping that day were familiar faces I’d passed during my days at the Pentagon. Rank, service, status, gender, ethnicity — none of it mattered that day. We worked together to do whatever was needed. We assisted with triage and looked for survivors. We ran in and out of the building grabbing every fire extinguisher we could find, going farther and farther each time. But the fires were so intense that all the extinguishers we could find still weren’t enough to do any good.

There’s another plane inbound …”

Amid all this orderly chaos in the courtyard, the booming voice of a Pentagon security officer stopped us all dead in our tracks – there was “another plane inbound,” they didn’t know “what its intentions” were, and we had to “get out now.”

Those words hung heavy in the air as we looked around at each other, wide-eyed and stunned. There we were, this pickup team who’d just survived a terrorist attack, faced with the warning of another attack. We didn’t know if or when the next attack would come, or which way to go, but we knew we had to get everyone out.

Scrambling, we grabbed whatever we could for stretchers, loaded people on, snatched up what supplies we could, and ran.

It took 12 of us to carry a woman who couldn’t walk on a large, heavy piece of plywood with wires and nails hanging off of it. We half-walked, half-ran down the corridor trying to keep her calm and on the makeshift stretcher as she sobbed and rocked with shock the entire way out. Another Navy woman helping carry this patient was in a skirt and kicked off her heels to keep up. She preferred to go barefoot than to let go of that board. That’s how we all felt — we weren’t leaving anybody behind.

Triage site #2

We set up another triage site on the grass along the Potomac River. Calls for oxygen, dressings, needles -- we needed so much but didn’t have nearly enough. While we tried to answer every call for help, the need was massive.

As my hair fell down and uniform pants got stained with grass and dirt, I kept going.

We tried to answer every question. Did such-and-such get out? Where’s a working phone is? Where did they take the kids from the daycare center?

Eventually someone yelled if anyone knew the way to the closest hospital; I yelled back, “YES!” I lived close to the Pentagon and had passed Arlington Hospital several times. As I jumped in the passenger seat of a man’s older Subaru, I saw a doctor in the back trying to keep a woman in an Army uniform alive, barely able to gasp for air. The doctor yelled, “GO, GO!” and the driver floored the faded silver station wagon, the hatchback bobbing and a makeshift plywood stretcher hanging off the tailgate.

The fight for one stranger’s life

As we sped off, I realized that this woman struggling to live, a stranger whose face I couldn’t even see, was relying on my memory of the quickest way to a hospital I’d noticed in passing but had never been to. I suddenly felt the full weight of her life on my shoulders.

At first, the road was free of vehicle traffic because of police roadblocks, although those didn’t keep people from standing in the road, staring at the destruction at the Pentagon, mouths gaping in disbelief at what they were seeing. We veered around them, horn blaring. It didn’t occur to us to look back as we passed the burning wreckage. This life-saving mission was our singular focus.

Once we passed all the roadblocks, traffic completely crammed the streets. Our driver blasted the horn as I hung my body outside the passenger window, waving my arms frantically and screaming for people to move. We made fitful progress through the traffic. The entire way, the doctor kept alternately pleading with the woman to hold on, then demanding from me how much farther we had to go.

Once we turned onto the road the hospital was on, traffic changed from typical gridlock to four lanes at a complete standstill with raised sidewalks and no shoulders. We kept honking, screaming and waving, fighting for every foot of progress as our patient fought for every breath. I felt if she died, it would be my fault.

So I jumped out of the car and started running down the middle of the two north-bound gridlocked lanes. I went left and right, screaming and banging on cars, startling each driver by the sight of a frantic woman in a dirty uniform. I screamed, banged, and ran over and over and over until I had no strength left. I collapsed on my knees in the median to catch my breath and gather my will, while watching our makeshift ambulance inch fitfully by.

After a couple minutes of my own gasping, a nurse in a small car yelled out if I wanted a ride to the hospital. Strength found. I jumped up and dove in the open passenger window and began to scream and wave while she honked and swerved as we fought to reach the hospital.

On the way, we passed an ambulance crew in the middle of the road who looked to be administering oxygen to the woman from the Subaru. My hope glimmered that she might live. But there were still other pressing tasks to focus on – like getting this nurse to the hospital to do her job.

Arlington Hospital, at last

We eventually came to a screeching halt in the hospital parking garage. The nurse took off to the emergency room, leaving me to plod out of the garage alone. I realized I had nothing else to do. And also no phone, money, or identification. I didn’t know how long it had been since we were hit, but my family probably knew.

I walked over to a reporter hanging around the emergency room entrance and asked if he had 35 cents so I could call someone to tell them I was OK. He silently offered a handful of change. I picked out the coins and used a hospital pay phone to call a friend’s house. Cell phones still weren’t working and she had gone to work that day, but her pager would beep when she got a message at home. I said, “I’m at Arlington Hospital because I helped evacuate someone here, but I’m not hurt. Please call my parents and tell them.” Within an hour, my friends and family knew I was alive.

I tried to get a ride back to the Pentagon, but the hospital staff asked me to act as a liaison between the military patients they expected and their families. I stayed the rest of the day, but mostly others helped me. A cafeteria worker with a Hispanic accent insisted she buy me something to eat and drink. A medical salesman insisted on giving me cab fare to get home. The taxi driver went out of his way to help me track down my purse with house keys – at no charge. I gave him the cab fare and told him to pay it forward. They were strangers, but Washington’s brusque attitude softened that day as people did things they’d have never thought they’d do. And that was basically my day.

A miracle in the making

For a long time after the attack, I kept second-guessing my split-second choices that day. I carried a mountain of grief and guilt. Yet time has provided me a profound perspective – while I lived through being at the center of one of the sites attacked, I no longer see myself as a survivor, but as a witness. I witnessed history and stunning hate. I also witnessed profound compassion and immense, intense love shared among friends and strangers alike.

Sept. 11 was the worst, most traumatic day of my life, yet I’ve chosen to focus on how it changed my life for the better. It shifted my priorities and definitions of many things — heroes, sacrifice, courage. I found an inner courage and strength to do the unexpected with compassion and love for others. I then witnessed others sharing their compassion and love with me.

Firefighters, police officers and other first responders put their lives in danger to help others. Teams sifted through rubble to find the remains of those lost to give their loved ones closure. Young men and women chose to join the armed forces to stand for the freedom and democracy that had been attacked that day. These and countless other acts show that the most intense hate will never, ever kill compassion, kindness and love as long as people embrace and act on these beliefs. Love wins every single time.

I am so very thankful to have been part of a team that made a difference to one woman, an Army officer and mother of two, whom — I found out a year later through a news article — survived. Many played a part in saving lives that day through split-second decisions: People on Flight 93 who fought the terrorists and chose to die in a Pennsylvania field rather than allow the deaths of more innocent people. First responders in New York, some who gave their lives to save others in the Twin Towers. Such immense compassion and love in action.

We were strangers, civilians and military, but on Sept. 11 and the days that followed, we were all teammates. Anyone who’s been in a terrorist attack knows you don’t survive it alone. You combine your strengths and get through it together. As one team, we are an unstoppable force capable of accomplishing anything, even overcoming suicidal terrorists.

After 20 years of reflection, I now have this unshakable belief — Sept. 11 was a moment of horrible, senseless and tragic loss, yet that day of overwhelming hate still brought people around the world together, if only for a while. What was once my story of surviving a terrorist attack has become a story of witnessing what’s possible when we are united in compassion, kindness and love. For me, the miracle wasn’t walking away unharmed from a terrorist attack. The miracle was seeing what happened afterward.

The full version of this story was first published on Susan D. Henson’s Life Recalculated WordPress site.

Originally from Mobile, Alabama, Susan Henson enlisted a year after high school and spent 26 years serving in the U.S. Navy as an enlisted journalist and later as a commissioned officer in the public affairs community. She was stationed at the Pentagon in late 1999 until October 2001. Upon retirement from the Navy, she has continued her career as a U.S. civil servant, and currently works in Washington, D.C. She has garnered several Navy and Army awards for journalism, public affairs, and exceptional performance as a civilian public affairs specialist. She has lived in three countries outside the U.S. and visited more than 40 countries around the world.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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