Remembering the Pentagon attack

  • 11 September 2011
  • From the section US & Canada
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File picture of the scene of the attack on the Pentagon, 11 September 2001
The attack on the Pentagon killed 59 plane passengers and 125 people in the building

What I remember most was the smoke. It was so very brown - a thick column gushing out of the side of Pentagon.

Funny how smoke doesn't gracefully billow when there's that much of it. It pours out, angrily, aggressively and if uglily were an adverb it would do that too.

I was in a taxi on my way to the bureau when my editor called my mobile, on what must have been one of the last calls to get through that day, and told me he could see smoke coming out of the Pentagon and I should go there instead.

I crossed the river to Virginia and got to the Pentagon 20 minutes after the hijacked plane burst a hole in the South West side of the building.

As everyone who was here remembers it was an incongruously beautiful September morning and the lawns which surround the Pentagon were already crowded with young men and women.

With the bright blue sky and warm autumn sun, for a bizarre moment I remember thinking it looked more like a scene from a college brochure than the evacuation of a building under attack.

Most of the soldiers I interviewed that morning were calm and determined to focus on doing what they could to help. A couple though were visibly shaking, stunned, as we all were by the enormity of what had just happened.

One man told he was still in his car when he heard the roar of the plane just overhead. He thought at the time it was strange that a plane should be flying that low.

Evacuating babies

I left the Pentagon to walk back into DC to the office. There were no taxis by then, only gridlock.

The route took me across the Washington Mall where under some trees I found a group of babies lying their cots, gurgling contentedly up at the leaves.

On the side of each cot was taped a sign with the words "Evacuation crib." The infants had been evacuated from the creche of a nearby federal office building.

Those babies were probably the only humans in Washington that day who didn't know what had just happened.

You slip into professional gear at times like that. It's easier to be a reporter than face the terror of being a parent.

It was only when I got home at midnight and lay on the bed with my sleeping five-year-old daughter that the tension of the day gave way to fear of what was to come.

There were Humvees in our neighbourhood, military jets flying overhead and the prospect of dirty bombs made us particularly anxious. Should we get the kids out of town and if so how and where?

It seems sort of silly today, but we looked around the house and wondered which room would be easiest to seal off if something poisonous was released into the air.

The following week the children returned to school and apart from a minute's silence and a morning spent learning the words to America the Beautiful, their lives were remarkably unchanged. If only that were true for everybody else.