"Vulnerable"

Personal narrative 
by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Susan Henson

Born on September 18, 1965, to a Korean War veteran who had served in both the Army and the Air Force, Susan Henson grew up wanting to join the military and ultimately enlisted in the Navy when she was nineteen. On September 11, 2001, Lieutenant Junior Grade Henson was assigned to CHINFO (Chief of Naval Information) at the Pentagon. Miraculously, despite the fact that the plane that crashed into the Pentagon stopped just twenty feet from her office, Henson emerged unscathed. But the psychological trauma of the disaster and the images she witnessed of people dying stayed with her long after the terrorist attack, and, for her own emotional well-bring, she started putting her recollections down on paper. The following narrative, which Henson began to write in October 2001, begins at the instant American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at more than 500 miles an hour. -- Andrew Carroll

"What the hell was that?!?" someone yelled as people looked around startled. I immediately turned to look out the window behind me. The normal view of the "C" ring was completely obliterated now by flying concrete and billowing, gray clouds of dust and smoke.

"There is an emergency in the building. Please evacuate the building," the new warning system mechanically instructed us, as a high-pitched, whooping alarm shrieked throughout the corridors. We dutifully obeyed. Since we had moved to the newly renovated section, or wedge, of the building six months before, we had participated in a few evacuation drills. People seemed to treat it like a drill, moving toward the center courtyard outside at a quick, orderly pace with the type of low crowd chatter heard from people filing out of a theater after a dramatic movie.

Before leaving my desk, I gathered my personal belongings, including my cell phone. Later, I was thankful I did that, because many people went home that day without keys, wallets, and many other important items, some of which were never seen again.

I saw an office co-worker on the stairs as we left. A normally upbeat woman with a bubbly personality, she was now ashen gray. I asked if she was OK. Only a stammering reply tumbled out of her mouth. She was shaking as she tried her best to tell me that while speaking on the phone with her husband, she'd seen the plane coming straight at us. She saw it as it was happening, and there wasn't a thing she could do to stop it. I tried to calm her down as we got outside to the courtyard, not even stopping to consider that we'd just walked away from a terrorist attack. I still had no idea how close we were.

Upon reaching the courtyard, I immediately reached for my cell phone but the lines were all busy. I wanted to call loved ones and friends, like every other person evacuating the Pentagon that day--worker bees like me. But also admirals and generals, service secretaries, contractors, vendors, visitors on tour, and people applying for jobs. Most walked out or were carried out. Some were trapped until rescue crews dug out their remains. Some of those people I knew.

There was a lot of confusion in the courtyard. Offices tried to account for people, but no one knew exactly where to go. We wandered around the inner courtyard of the Pentagon looking for co-workers so we could account for everyone as the black mass of smoke expanded up and out like a spreading cancer. The thick smell of burning fuel and debris filled the air. I knew what had happened, but I didn't know how bad it was. Someone ran group-to-group asking for people with CPR qualifications and medical training. I had just renewed my CPR qualification two months earlier at a class held in the Pentagon. I didn't think, I simply shoved my belongings into the hands of a co-worker and followed the volunteer group to the triage area in the courtyard.

Those of us who volunteered to help with the triage did what we could. Everyone else was told to leave as quickly as possible. Evacuating the building never crossed my mind--seventeen years of Navy training prepared me for this day.

I started off trying to calm people who were injured and in shock. Many people were wandering in a fog of incomprehension. Some were missing shoes; some had debris matted in their hair. Some wore the remains of crisp business clothes that were now ripped or shredded. Some were horribly injured by falling rubble, and some were bleeding from wounds suffered while trying to save co-workers. Some were in need of immediate medical attention or they'd probably die. The Pentagon medical clinic staff quickly set up, and we followed the directions of those with formal medical training, regardless of rank.

The people I saw ranged from late teens to mid-50s. The younger ones were almost all in Army and Navy uniforms, which made sense because they were nearest to the section that had mostly Navy and Army offices.

One Army senior enlisted man--a master sergeant, I think--was bleeding on the upper right side of his head. He had bits of concrete still embedded in his sparse, gray hair line and he was covered with white-gray dust. He obviously needed medical attention, but he refused it. Coughing as he fought to expel the foreign debris that had filled his lungs, he sat down on a bench insisting that those who were more badly wounded be treated first.

Many people were like the master sergeant, covered with dust and debris hacking and coughing, some barely able to breathe. They came like stragglers, wandering aimlessly one-by-one out of the wreckage. One female Army sergeant in her early 30s staggered into the triage area. Her panty hose were ripped, and her shins were scraped and bleeding. She was coughing and crying hysterically. But she didn't want medical attention--she wanted help for someone else. She had left her boss "in there," but it was pitch black and she couldn't find him. He had been walking right behind her when the plane hit, but afterwards she screamed and screamed for him, with no answer. Like many others, she was in shock. We tried to calm everyone as best we could.

Nothing prepares you for the sight of a burn victim. A gentleman in his early to mid 50s wandered out of the rubble. He was wearing what was once a very nice, dark two-piece business suit. It was so covered in dust and debris that I couldn't tell what color it was. But I could tell something was terribly wrong. His pants and shirt sleeves looked like he'd thrown his suit into a shredder before putting it on. But what was more strange was the way he was holding up his hands, like doctors who've just scrubbed for surgery. There was something dangling like streamers from them. I stood there for a couple of seconds before I realized that those streamers where what was left of his skin. The medical team rushed over to him, but he wasn't crying or really even talking much. He was in such shock that the state of his skin didn't even register pain.

Many people had trouble breathing due to the airborne fragments and fumes they had inhaled, and we needed clean water fast. Someone pointed out the closest source was the courtyard restaurant, which we immediately raided for bottles and bottles of water to clean wounds, eyes, and throats. Other people tried to help dress burn injuries or help bring out more survivors as they stumbled from the wreckage. It seems odd that everyone had always called the courtyard restaurant "Ground Zero." Even the Pentagon tour guides used to tell tour groups a story of how the Russians thought that we had stored nuclear weapons there during the Cold War.

It was comforting to see a few people I knew working triage and rescue, but many other people I saw helping that day were faces I knew only in passing while walking down the Pentagon corridors day after day. Rank and status didn't matter.

We were desperate to help in any way we could, and we kept at each task with the fervor of Sailors trying to save a battle-damaged ship. We were there because, like all the others responding to the call, we had to do something. Anything. It somehow helped us cope with the horror of what we were going through.

Still intent on our tasks, the booming voice of a Pentagon security officer stopped us dead in our tracks--there was another plane inbound, they didn't know what its intentions were, and we had to get out now. There we were, this pickup team of volunteers who'd just survived a surprise terrorist attack and stayed behind to help, faced with the warning of imminent danger we'd just unwittingly survived. We looked around at each other, wide-eyed and stunned. This is the most scared I have ever been in my life. We didn't know when the next attack would come or where it would be. We didn't know which way to go, but we knew we had to get everyone out.

We used whatever we had as stretchers and loaded people on. We then grabbed what supplies we could and ran. Despite an overwhelming aversion to returning to the building with the threat of an incoming attack, we had no choice but to go back through it--it was the only way out.

I helped carry a woman who couldn't walk. It took about twelve of us to carry her on a large, flat piece of plywood with wires and nails hanging off it. I punctured my finger on a nail as we half-walked, half-ran down the corridor trying to keep our patient calm enough to get her out of the building as she sobbed with shock the entire way, "Don't make me go back in there; don't make me go back in there!" Another Navy woman wearing a khaki uniform who was helping us carry the "board litter" was in a skirt and heels, which she kicked off to keep up with us. We ran through the eerily dark, empty halls, not knowing if and when that next plane would hit. But we had to do it. And we made it out.

We set up a second triage site out on the grass along the Potomac River. Calls for oxygen, dressings, needles--we needed so much but didn't have enough. I tried to answer every call for help I could, but I felt hopelessly inadequate.

We took down a list of casualties. We dug out flat rocks and branches to stick under the wheels of the emergency equipment to keep it from rolling downhill. My hair, put up neatly that morning, had come down when I lost my barrette. The knees of my uniform pants were stained with grass and dirt. I didn't think about it. I just kept going. I tried to answer questions from scared parents and co-workers. Did so-and-so get out? Do you know where a working phone is? Where are we supposed to go? Do you know where they took the children from the daycare center?

I left the triage site when I heard a yell for someone who knew the way to a hospital. I lived less than three miles from the Pentagon and had passed the hospital in Arlington several times. I jumped in the passenger seat of a man's car with a doctor in the back trying to keep alive a woman in an Army uniform barely able to gasp for air. The doctor yelled, "GO, GO!" and we screamed off toward the hospital, driving like maniacs in a faded silver Subaru station wagon with the makeshift plywood stretcher hanging out of the back.

As we sped off, I realized that this woman, this stranger I couldn't even see the face of, was relying on my memory of the quickest way to the hospital. I suddenly felt the full weight of this one life on my shoulders.

At first, the road was free of traffic because of the police roadblocks, although that didn't keep people from standing in the middle of the highway, mouths gaping in disbelief at what they were seeing. We drove around them. It didn't occur to us to look back as we passed the burning wreckage. The mission was our singular focus. As we quickly passed all the roadblocks, we were immediately stopped by traffic cramming the streets. Columbia Pike was like the Mall of America parking lot during the height of the Christmas rush, but much less orderly. Our driver blasted the horn as I hung the upper half of my body out the passenger window waving my arms frantically and screaming for people to get out of the way. We made fitful progress through the traffic. The entire way the doctor kept alternating between pleading with the woman to hold on and demanding from me how much farther we had to go. Just a few more blocks until the next turn...

Dodging our way in and out of snarled and oncoming traffic, we desperately fought to save one life. I realized that our success with navigating through what would normally be unremarkable D.C. gridlock would make all the difference to that one woman. I realized how precious life is--how short it can be. How it can end so quickly, and how so many daily decisions could end up making such a monumental difference. We fought on.

Once we turned onto George Mason Drive, traffic had changed from the Christmas parking lot to the gridlock reserved for especially foul beltway pileups. It wasn't moving at all. We kept honking, screaming and waving, fighting for every foot of progress as our survivor fought for every single breath. I was so scared she'd die. I felt it would be my fault. That's when I got out of the car and started running down the middle of the two gridlocked lanes. I went left and right, screaming and banging on each car, startling each driver by the sight of such a disheveled crazy woman in a dirty Navy uniform. Some people saw me coming and just moved. Others seemed to be sitting in their cars in a state of shock, probably listening to the news. I screamed, banged, and ran; screamed, banged, and ran until my adrenaline was spent, and I had no strength left.

I watched our makeshift Subaru ambulance pass me as I collapsed in the grass median of the four-lane road to catch my breath and gather my will. After a minute or two of my own gasping, a nurse in a small car stopped and yelled out, asking if I wanted a ride to the hospital. I found my will. I jumped up, ran around her car, and practically dove through the open passenger window. And we started fighting again.

I screamed and waved and she honked our way down the road. On the way we passed an ambulance crew who looked to be administering oxygen to the woman from the Subaru. A moment of hope glimmered that she might live. But there were still other pressing tasks to focus on--like getting this nurse to the emergency room so she could do her job.

We drove like screaming lunatics until we came to an angled, screeching halt in the hospital garage in the first open parking spot. The nurse took off to the emergency room, leaving me to plod alone out of the garage, attempting to gather my wits. As I walked toward the hospital, it hit me that I had nothing else to do. I also had no phone, no money, not even an ID card. No way to call home. I didn't know how long it had been since we were hit, but I knew it had been long enough for my family and friends to know about it.

I saw a reporter hanging around outside the emergency room entrance. He and I were the only people not running around with a life-saving task. I walked over to him and and asked if I could have thirty-five cents to call my parents to tell them I was OK. Without a word, he pulled out a handful of change. I was more grateful than I could express as I picked out the coins. I walked on shaky legs into the emergency room. After assuring the staff members who rushed over to me that I was fine, I went to a pay phone and called a friend's house to leave a message. I knew cell phones weren't working but her pager would beep when she got a message at home. My message was, "I'm OK. 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. It never occurred to me to call my parents collect. Habits and training take the place of thinking when your mind isn't that clear.

I tried to get a ride back to the Pentagon, but the hospital staff asked me to stay and help. They wanted a person in uniform--no matter how dirty--to act as a liaison between the patients who were brought in, their service branch, and family members. I stayed at the hospital the rest of the day helping where I could, but I mostly remember others helping me. A hospital worker who spoke broken English with a heavy Hispanic accent insisted she buy me something to eat and drink. A medical salesman insisted on giving me cab fare so I could get home.

I would later find out that the woman we raced to the hospital survived, but I still wish I'd gone back to the Pentagon that day. I wish I could have helped more, but I try not to dwell on that choice. I did go back to the Pentagon once after the attack to retrieve the last of the personal items off my desk. I and four co-workers waited about an hour for our turn to be escorted into office spaces that just ten days before had been the newest, brightest section of the Pentagon. We dutifully put on protective clothing, plastic gloves, and masks. We carried flashlights and boxes, which we were instructed to not put down anywhere inside. It was dark, dirty and wet. The stench was awful, a mixture of fuel, mildew and rot, and It permeated right through our masks.

The newspaper from September 11 lay untouched on my desk, but now it was covered with a coat of black sooty grime and mold. It seemed odd that it still sat in the same spot I left it, detailing news from what seemed an innocent lifetime ago. After placing in my box the few items I had left on my desk that were safe to take, I steeled myself and went over to the window. I had stood at that window many times looking up at the sky and across the small driveway to "C" ring. The last time I'd looked out that window was just after the plane had hit. Ten days after the blast I stared speechless at that ring. Blast-proof glass was shattered. Burn marks scorched the recently renovated walls. And a huge hole gaped in the steel-reinforced first floor wall. By this time I had seen photographs of the building from above, and it looked like a large burning ax had cracked it open and was left there to remind us of how vulnerable we really were. It was then I knew how close I and my co-workers had been to getting killed.

I was in Washington, D.C., for three more weeks after the attack, and I was amazed at how quickly the city came back to life. The more than 4,000 displaced Pentagon employees found ourselves working wherever we could find a place. My office squeezed fifteen people into a space in the Navy Annex that was usually full with just four. We all tried to do business as best we could, and there was a staggering amount of work to be done. We all moved with a sense of urgency and purpose. We all recognized, as of course did everyone in the country, the enormous significance of what had just happened--and what was about to. For the first time in almost sixty years, the United States of America had been attacked on its on soil. And now, we were going to war.