“It’s September 11, 2001.
0846 hours. Flight 11 hits the World Trade Center North Tower.
0903 hours. Flight 173 hits the World Trade Center South Tower.
0931 hours. Classified phone ringing at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Washington DC:
‘Regional Assessments Asia; Lieutenant Colonel Flett’
Caller: ‘There’s an inbound to DC’.
Me: ‘Roger. ETA?’
Caller: ‘Approximately 2 Mikes.’
Me: ‘Any targets ID’d?’
Me: ‘Roger, Out.’
Dialing: ‘Sir, this is LTC Flett, there’s an inbound to D.C.’
DIA Senior: ‘What’s your source?’
Me: ‘My husband in the Pentagon.’
0937 hours. Flight 77 Crashes into the Pentagon
My husband and I spoke for the first time about our 9/11 experience to a class of Homeland Security High School students in New Jersey. I’ve done a lot of public speaking and we both are used to talking to large crowds. This was harder. It was raw, and cathartic, a relief and a burden. Harder for my husband. For so long we didn’t talk about it. Every year I would post the exchange above as my connection to that date, and every year the story we would cover, the details, with our determination to not face the events of that day.
The day was as you remember: clear, crisp with blue skies and puffy clouds. My husband couldn’t see the sky that morning. He reported to work 6 p.m. the night before the attack at his post in the Army’s Command bunker. We used to joke that Steve’s job was ‘briefer to the stars.’ He was on the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Watch and worked with a team to prepare the morning intelligence briefings for the key Army leaders at the Pentagon. I was the Deputy Office Chief for an office at the Defense Intelligence Agency. My ‘Office’ was responsible for providing intelligence analysis of strategic issues pertinent to a set group of countries. Pretty significant countries in terms of world consequence. One of our smaller ‘accounts’ was Afghanistan.
I could see the Pentagon across the water from my office. A point that would be of more angst than comfort as the day unfolded. I was 32 weeks pregnant with our fourth son and 41 years old. The other three boys, yes, all boys, were under the age of five. It wasn’t easy to make a dual military career work with such small children, but we were doing okay. We’d made the shift to a nanny recently, so we didn’t have to worry about pick-ups and drop offs.
After the first plane hit, my Senior Intelligence Officer was in my office. My boss was on extended medical leave and Cathy and I were the leadership of the 100+ analysts that we worked with. When the second plane hit, I looked at Cathy and said, ‘Cathy, this isn’t an accident.’ She said something to the effect of, ‘No, it is not,’ as she rushed from my office. The phones started ringing and the process of getting our analytical arms around the events was in motion.
Then I got my husband’s phone call that started this story. Others were in my office now, as word had spread of the inbound to DC and within what seemed like seconds I looked up and saw the reporting of the attack on the Pentagon.
Everyone was talking at once and then it struck us – all at the same time – that my husband was in that building. They didn’t seem to say a word to coordinate, but they all quieted and left me alone. The phone started screaming; family and friends frantically calling to find out about Steven. I don’t remember many of the calls, but I do remember saying to my niece Kristin, ‘Kristin, there is nothing I can do for him right now.’ It is a soldier’s nature to rush to the sound of the fight. But we also know how to pick our fights and when we are not a force multiplier in one spot, we learn to impact things in another. After a couple of minutes of quiet, I stood up, looked out the window of my office and said out loud, ‘Okay hon, I know if you’re alive, you’ll make it out. We’ve both got work to do.’
The Army’s bunker is deep underground and Steve did get out of the Pentagon. But it was much later that afternoon when a call came from the Capitol Hill Sergeant at Arms. They needed someone to brief the Senators and since the majority of intelligence seniors were at a conference and now grounded elsewhere due to the ‘no fly’ order, that duty fell to Steve. ‘I’ve got a car’ someone said; so around 5 p.m. my husband and a reserve officer who was a policeman as a civilian left the bunker.
Steve compares the hallway they walked through to a cloud you fly through. They couldn’t see anything into the cloud, so they felt their way down the hallway of the Pentagon, through the smoke and the debris; counting the doorways, feeling the concrete bumps with their hand and the little ridge between the concrete blocks keeping them straight; until they reached the stairwells to ascend and leave. Count the steps, landing, turn, count the steps, landing, turn. After a drive on empty streets and seeing police guarding every intersection, Steve reported to the Capitol guard shack rubbing shoulders with Senators as they squeezed past beside him. Remember the images of the Senate singing on the steps? Steve was just off camera. They didn’t want him in the shot for fear of lending a military being too early to the issue. In hindsight, they were right.
When he was done, Steve found a ride back through the empty roads of DC. He doesn’t remember how nor does he know from whom. While others were still evacuating their things from the Pentagon and firefighters were working to quiet the active fire at the impact site; Steve – that man I love and officer I respect, who had now been on duty for more than 24 hours – felt his way back to his post. He could see when he first entered the building but as he got closer to the bunker the smoke, ‘the cloud’ grew more dense. Steve found his stair well and descended, counting the steps down this time; landing turn, count, landing, turn, count and repeat. He felt the stairwell exit he couldn’t see; stepping over debris that threatened to trip him and reconnected his hand with the concrete bumps and lines down the hallway to lead him back to his post.
The morning just before the initial attack in DC, Steve made one call before he called me. It was to our home. He told the nanny to leave the TV off and to stay put. She soon found out, way after the Pentagon was hit. Intelligence showed there was a second inbound to DC. We didn’t know the heroes on flight 93 would crash in the field in Pennsylvania saving lives in our Capitol.
When Steve recently talked to someone about that day they said, ‘You were anxious because you thought there was another plane headed to DC?’ He said, ‘No I was anxious because I knew there was another plane headed to DC. I just didn’t know where it would hit.’
Welcome to the world of intelligence. Where the monster under your bed is real.
Our oldest son Jake was 5 and at home with our nanny. While the nanny showed diligence in keeping the images off the screen, Jake did see some initial reports. ‘Is Daddy’s shirt ripped?,’ he asked her as he saw people streaming out of ‘Daddy’s Pentagon’ as he called it.
Seventeen years later, we are just now dealing with the suppressed feelings of panic Steve couldn’t/wouldn’t acknowledge while walking down those smoke-filled corridors after the attacks. ‘Is daddy’s shirt ripped?’
‘No honey, but a piece of him is torn forever.’
After the initial report and the CNN scenes, I didn’t see many of the images that day, and it would be about 3 weeks before I saw and talked to my husband. We were working the intelligence at both duty locations with me 32 weeks pregnant sometimes getting to work at 3 a.m. and getting home 20 hours later. Steve often just slept on the floor in the bunker or he’d come home for two hours to sleep in our bed. I could smell the smoke from his uniform.
As I age, I realize the pure fury we all felt by the attack on 9/11. The sense of invasion and the feel of the sucker punch at the start of the fight. No soldiers deal well with a sucker punch. The name itself describes the act of a coward. On September 12th, there were many who did not come to work in the nation’s capital and I get it. There was fear, sadness and a sense of loss across the nation. But the Pentagon, the military, our police, fire, FBI units and our intelligence agencies were serving in force. Our response to our sadness was a show of resolve.
When you are military and work in DC, you wear the military equivalent of a suit. We called it our Class A uniform. On September 12th by order of our leadership, all military in the capital region reported to duty in our battle dress uniforms or BDUs. We were manning our posts for a fight.
I’ve come to understand we are a part of history. We are one of the stories from ‘The Other Ground Zero’ and for the sake of generations raised after 9/11, these stories are of value to share.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Dianna L. Flett of Virginia. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more powerful stories remembering Sept. 11:
‘I mustered up courage to ask where he was on 9/11. ‘The 47th floor of the North Tower’, the museum worker said.’: Young woman’s chance encounter with September 11 survivor makes her ‘proud to be an American’
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