9-11– The Pentagon Experience
Written by Joe Gradisher ‘79
First, let me set the stage.
Located on the banks of the Potomac River (technically in Virginia, but considered part of Washington, DC), the Pentagon is the world’s largest office building. It has 5 sides (thus the “Pentagon”), 5 floors (the 5th floor on the outside wall has no windows), 5 concentric rings (from outside inward: E-D-C-B-A), and 10 major corridors (numbered 1-10). If you walked around the outside… and added one more side, that is a mile. There are 17.5 miles of corridors. The center, open area of the building, is just over 5 acres in size. On any given (non-COVID) day, there are 25,000 people working in the building.
It is the headquarters for the Department of Defense, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military services (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Space Force).
Prior to World War II, the people assigned to the headquarters for the War Department (Army) and the Navy Department (Navy/Marine) were scattered in various building throughout the area. The idea of the Pentagon was to bring them all together in one building.
They broke ground for the construction on a clear, cool September morning in 1941. Actually, on September 11th… 60 years to the day before another clear, cool September morning when the world changed. They built it in 5 sections, called wedges. They started with wedge 1, and worked their way around. It took them only 18 months to build it.
It was meant to be a temporary office building… and after the war they planned on turning it into a large storage building for archiving. But once in and operating… that would never happen.
A couple of years before the 60th anniversary of the groundbreaking, they started a 10-year renovation project. The building was terribly worn, and needed to modernize. For the project, they completely emptied each section, again starting with wedge 1, stripped everything down to the concrete foundations, and built it back up.
As part of that renovation, they decided to reinforce the outside of the building in case of a truck bomb attack (the building is encircled by highways), learning lessons from the April 1995 truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Among the other upgrades to the outside wall: steel beams, 1 foot apart and blast proof windows held in by Kevlar matting. Inner walls and windows were reinforced or replaced as well.
Captain Joe Gradisher
I entered the Navy on the day I graduated from Michigan (28 April 1979), following completion of my time with the NROTC program. After 4 years on a Navy destroyer, I changed career fields and switched jobs to become a Public Affairs Officer… one of those official Navy spokesman that you see quoted in news media.
By September of 2001, I had risen through the ranks and, as a Navy Captain, I was serving as the Deputy Chief of Information (Deputy CHINFO) for the Navy — the #2 leader in Navy Public Affairs.
Our office (CHINFO), was located on the 4th floor of the Pentagon, B ring, right off the 4th corridor.
We were located in wedge 1 of the renovation project, and were the first Navy office back in that wedge one area at the end of the renovation.
September 11, 2001
That morning was just like any other, until events started happening in New York City, and elsewhere…
In CHINFO, as the Navy’s headquarters public affairs office, we had multiple televisions sets on, monitoring the different news channels/programs. We saw the initial reports from New York, and watched in horror when the second plane impacted the World Trade Center… we knew immediately it was an attack on the United States.
At 9:37 a.m., as my boss (the Chief of Information, a Rear Admiral) and I met in his office to strategize how we would respond to the anticipated media requests for information on the status and readiness of Navy forces to respond, without warning, we were hit.
American Airlines Flight 77, flying out of Dulles Airport, had been high jacked by 5 terrorists over Kansas and aimed for the Pentagon.
The terrorist at the controls brought the plane in wheels up and actually skipped on the ground just before impact, bouncing up enough so that the plane entered the building between the 1st and 2nd floors. Here’s what it looks like when a Boeing 757 hits the building at 530 mph.
The plane penetrated through the outer (E) Ring, went through the D and C Rings, and popped out of the C Ring into an alleyway between the C and B ring (about 30 feet in width). By that point, the only thing left of the plane was the nose cone/front landing gear. This gives you an idea of where the impact occurred and how deep it went.
As I said, we had no warning.
I was standing with my back towards a window in the admiral’s office when we were hit. I felt… and heard… the impact. One big WHAM!!! And the concussion felt like whatever hit us was coming in directly over my shoulder. Out of pure instinct, I ducked.
You’d think your first instinct at that point is to run like hell… Nope. It’s to look out the window to see what is going on. Looking back at the window, I saw that it was violently shaking and bowing in and out. Fortunately, it did not shatter. Though not blast proof like the windows on the outside of the building, they were blast resistant… much stronger than the 60 year old windows they had replaced. Were those old windows still in place, I would have been covered in the shattered glass and shrapnel, and probably would have at least been severely injured. The fireball passed directly over our heads, and that created a vacuum in the alley, so when I looked out, there was dust, debris, smoke and fire engulfing the alleyway.
Then it was our job to get everyone out.
We had about 60 people in the office that day, and we shepherded them out of the building into the South Parking lot… where thousands of cars were parked. The first order of business was to find out who got out and who was missing. That was complicated. The one designated “muster” point for our office was right where the plane hit. So we had to pick a spot and try to find the 60 out of the 10,000 plus that probably came out to the same area.
While that was going on, I walked around to the impact area, still not knowing what had hit us… a plane like in New York? Or a truck bomb like in oklahoma City. Near the hole in the building, aircraft pieces were scattered on the ground.
There was no doubt at that point.
As we were gathering our people together, all the security guards started screaming for everyone to get even further away from the building… there was another plane inbound. We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but that turned out to be the United Airlines Flight 93, which the passengers forced into a crash landing in a field in Pennsylvania.
We evacuated under the nearby highways into another part of Arlington (Crystal City/Pentagon City) and continued to gather our office mates.
Eventually, our leadership team moved up a hill a bit to a Virginia Department of Transportation building that we used to reconstitute a Navy Headquarters, with the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations joining us. We had to establish a 1-800 phone number to try and account for the thousands of Navy personnel in the building, as there was no easy way to account for people.
On the way there, my role as a public affairs officer played as well, as I stopped and briefed members of the news media on what happened in our area of the building.
Complicating any communications that day was the fact that the still relatively-new cell phone network in the area shut down due to the overload.
That made it hard to let my family know I was alive. At that time, my wife, Bonnie, and our two daughters lived in Michigan. Older daughter Becky was a student at Michigan State, while Jenny was in high school. When the attacks became known, they broadcast the TV images throughout the high school… sending Jenny into a panic. The school officials couldn’t figure out why, as we had never really told them where I worked. Bonnie had to go and get her out of school.
It was nearly 4 hours before I could get to a landline and phone Bonnie to let her know I was alive. And at that point, we didn’t know that we were about as close as you can get. It was a couple days later that we noticed in photographs that if that plane had crossed that alley, it would have been underneath us.
I firmly believed that the Pentagon renovation project saved me and all of us in our office that day. The steel beams, reinforced blast proof windows, etc. slowed the momentum of the plane, preventing it from penetrating even further.
Nonetheless, the damage was extensive:
Oh yeah… this picture shows you where I was standing (in red), in relation to the impact area:
It may seem odd to say, but we got lucky that day. Wedge 1 was due to be completed that week… so not everyone had moved back into that section. They were due to start wedge 2 the next week, so many of those offices were already vacated. By shear chance, the plane hit the one spot in the building that had been renovated, and had the fewest number of people in the area.
We lost 184 people that day… 125 in the building (Largely Army and Navy uniformed, civilian and contractor staff) and 59 on the plane (we do not count the 5 terrorists).
Were it not for the renovation project, there would have been hundreds more.
After a number of weeks, the decision was made to tear down the damaged section and rebuild. They called it “Project Phoenix” and the workers vowed to have people back in the offices, fully operational again by 11 September 2002. They beat the deadline by a month!