Escape from the Pentagon

Ann-2016On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Ann Parham arrived early at the Pentagon, like she always did.   As Chief of the Army Library Program, she was responsible for establishing policy for Army Libraries around the world.  She had been stationed in Korea, Germany and the United States.   At fifty-eight, she was at the apex of her 35-year career.  Her beige linen dress, purple silk jacket, and low-heeled beige pumps were professional and practical, well suited to her trim athletic build.

pentagon layoutAnn’s office was in a newly renovated wedge of the Pentagon, iconic home of the Department of Defense. The five-sided Pentagon was made up of five concentric, separated rings and five floors.  The center courtyard was a park-like setting, providing a short cut from one side of the building to the other.  Ten corridors intersected the five rings like spokes on a bicycle wheel.  From the air, the Pentagon looked like a target, with the courtyard as its bulls-eye.  Ironically, September 11 was the 50th anniversary of the initial groundbreaking ceremony for the Pentagon.

pentagon layour colored.jpg

The sky was a bright blue and the air was clear and crisp.  Ann was working at her desk in the open bay, that she jokingly referred to as Dilbertville, after the cartoon strip.  She heard people talking in the cubicle next to her.

“A plane has hit the World Trade Center Tower!”

Curious, she left her desk and joined four or five of her co-workers who were watching the TV at Marian Serva’s desk.  As they watched the news, a camera panned to a second plane flying directly into the second tower.

“We are at ground zero,” said Marian, a member of the Congressional Liaison group.  Ann would learn later than Marian was burned during the plane crash and died at her desk.

Pentagon-damaged wall“This is war,” replied Ann, as she stood with her back to the D-Ring offices and the outer most E-Ring. Being this close to the outer-ring makes me nervous. She decided to return to her desk.

She remained at her desk a few minutes to gather up some papers she needed to fax to Fort Benning, Georgia.  Returning down the aisle of cubicles from the fax machine, she had reached the support pillar at the end of the aisle near her desk when she felt the building shake.  A plane’s hit the Pentagon.  It was 9:37 a.m. when the plane struck the outer ring on Pentagon’s west side.

pentagon--area of impact           The force of the impact knocked her to the floor amidst falling pieces of ceiling tile. We are under attack.  The concussion blast knocked out the lights and turned on the sprinklers.   Ceiling tile hit her on the head—she would find some of it later in her jacket pocket.  She smelled burning hair.  Her face, eyes and the backs of her hands felt burned, but it was too dark to see them.  She put her hand protectively on the top of her head.  She realized that her hair, short brown, with red highlights, was singed.  Her hair was wet and smelled like kerosene.  Some of the drops fell on the front of her beige dress. Wonder what this is?  Later, she would discover they were a mixture of jet fuel and sprinkler water.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw flames in the north-east corner of the room along the E ring wall.  The heat was intense, burning her right ear.  Oxygen was being sucked out of the air.  If I don’t move I will be burned or suffocate.  My mother will not be happy to get that news so I better get out of here.  Thoughts of her mother motivated her to keep moving.

   Beige dress with fuel and water marks.  Blue jacket with burn marks

Ann's remaining shoe Ann felt her way out of the room, running her hand along the cubicle desks and inching through the white haze. This seems like I’m in a fog.   She hobbled along wearing one shoe. She had somehow lost her left pump and the little toe on her right foot hurt.  Her pantyhose had shredded when she fell.   Should I remove my shoe?  No!  Is this where I will die?  Need to keep moving.

                                                                                             Ann’s remaining beige pump

 Although there had been people in the open bay before the plane crashed, where is everyone?    I feel alone.    Patrick was just at his desk.

Patrick was a civilian information specialist whose cubicle was next to Ann’s.  He was in his late forties and a former Army officer.

“Patrick,” she called as she stumbled.  The silhouette of a military officer beckoned to her.  It seems like a light at the end of a tunnel.

Patrick approached, taking her right arm.  They continued toward the door together.   Patrick’s white dress shirt, dark pants and tie were covered in liquid.  His arms were red and burned.

Later Patrick would tell her “Ann, I saw you silhouetted against the flames when you called me and I turned back.”

From the E-ring, they walked the length of the open bay (the equivalent of the D and C rings –about the length of twenty 6-foot wide cubicles.)  Making a dogleg turn to the right, they entered the fourth corridor for about twenty feet.  As they exited into the corridor, they quickly passed an officer lying face down under a fire hydrant.  A few people stood around the officer.

After they passed the downed officer, the two turned left into the second bay that took them to the A-ring, the Pentagon’s shortest way around.   I feel more relieved away from that fire.

“Patrick, my face, eyes, and hands are burning so badly that I want to go to the restroom to wash.”

“We need to keep walking.  We have to get out of the building.”  He made no mention of his own burned arms.

Pentagon--overhead view of the damage“Let’s not go to the courtyard.  I’m afraid there might be a second plane that could hit us.”   Patrick agreed.

They started to walk toward the Mall entrance, but it was packed with dozens of people. Nobody was running in panic; people were walking with a purpose.  Some people were burnt and tattered like Ann and Patrick.  Some of these people look like it’s just a fire drill.

“This crowd of people is making me claustrophobic,” she said.  “Let’s try the River Entrance.”  The River Entrance was on the north-east side of the Pentagon, which was opposite from where the plane had hit..

“I’m never going back in that building.”  By now they had walked almost half way around the Pentagon, about one half mile.

pentagon--people outsideAs they walked through the River entrance, Ann did not want to look at people.  Seeing them react to the way I look would scare me even more.  She could hear people talking, but did not catch anything they actually said. The back of her purple jacket was scorched and torn.  Patricks’ white shirt was wet from the sprinklers and torn; his arms were red with burns. They continued across the parade ground on the Potomac River side, down to the road.  Cars were parked haphazardly.

Ann did not remember who directed her and Patrick toward the Defense Protective Service, which was the Pentagon police force.  One of the police officers tried to find them an ambulance.  When he could not find one, he put them into his Defense Protective Service car and drove them to Alexandria Hospital.  The Pentagon was about 6 miles north of the hospital, along Interstate 395.  Ann used to live near the Hospital and tried to give the officer directions.  I am so agitated right now, those directions aren’t right.  This is taking too long.

As soon as they got to the hospital, she sprung open the door and ran into the hospital Emergency RoomPatrick followed her at a walk.

“We’re from the Pentagon,” she said.  The emergency room personnel took one look at the two of them, smelled the jet fuel, and sent them to the decontamination showers.  My DoD identification badge has curled from the fire. My eyesight is almost normal as soot washed out of her eyes.  She found out she had second degree burns on her face and hands.  Her little toe was broken and she had a gash on the top of her foot.  Her ear was badly burned and she had lost a two inch patch of hair on her head.

It was now about 9:45 a.m. and they were the first people from the Pentagon to arrive at the hospital.


16 thoughts on “Escape from the Pentagon”

  1. This was beautifully written. I read it several times to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything. I can’t begin to imagine the feeling of disorientation and fear during those crucial moments when the world was crashing down. She was remarkably fortunate.


  2. What a fantastic story. There were so many heroes on that day, too many to name them all. We must never forget. I still think about the passengers who sacrificed their lives to crash the third jet by attacking the hijackers. And all the police, firemen, and other first responders, many who died in their earlier rescue attempts. As a dog lover, I think about those K9s and their handlers tirelessly searching for survivors and the dead for weeks, at great self-detriment.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Amen, DC. I was in Washington, DC when that happened and knew several people (including Ann Parham) who escaped from the Pentagon. They all credited the military training of those assigned to the Pentagon for keeping casualties and death comparatively low. Once that training kicked in, the panic was minimized which saved lives.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.