I was in the Pentagon on September 11 …
“What did it sound like? What did it feel like?... It felt and sounded like a plane hitting a building at 500 mph.”
By JONATHAN JAMES
Special to Allegany Magazine
Allegany Magazine wishes to thank Jonathan James for his honesty and his candor in relaying this most personal story to us. We thank him not only for the following article detailing his experience in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 but also for his service
I joined the Marine Corp about 10 days after high school. I graduated from Fort Hill in 1998. I was with the Marines about four and a half years. I had a year in Japan and then after Japan, the Marines sent me to Quantico for a day and then assigned me to the Pentagon. There was some confusion as to my duties and where I should be but I stayed at the Pentagon after everything was ironed out.
I was assigned to the Pentagon in January, 2001. It’s hard to believe now looking back that it has been 20 years since the day I will never forget. September 11.
The night before – on Monday, September 10, I had been working late. I went to the Navy Command Center right down the hall from my office to send a classified Fax. It was an office that was literally right down the hall from me. The next morning, 35 of the 42 people who worked in that office—the office I had just been in the night before – were killed in the attack.
The majority of our office was in a conference in California for that week. A handful of us stayed at the Pentagon. And it was only a handful of us in the office that day. If everyone had been there, I think I would have known a lot more people who died that day.
I always had the radio on in the office. We listened to DC101 in the morning. And the morning guy there was never serious. And this morning he was very serious. We put the TV on in the office and watched the news that was happening in New York. We watched the coverage of the first plane hitting the towers. I turned to the guy in the office next to me and said “This might not be the safest place to be right now.” And not more than a minute after I said that, we heard this loud explosion and our walls just shook. We felt it. I was sitting on a couch and the couch moved. We felt it and heard it and the same time.
People always ask me – “what did it sound like? What did it feel like?” It felt and sounded like a plane hitting a building at 500 mph.
The building filled with smoke immediately. It ended up the nose of the plane stopped literally 100 feet from where I had been sitting on that couch.
The Pentagon had been remodeled, and renovated and parts of the exterior reinforced just before that and that is where the plane struck – on that part of that building that was actually built to be a lot stronger. If it had not been that strong, that day would have been a lot worse for everyone inside. If that plane would have been 10 more feet in the air, I would have been killed. I know that for sure.
It got tricky trying to get out. There was smoke and it smelled. People were coughing and running everywhere/ The door to the room where we were was controlled by a sensor and by our key codes and our passes and nothing was working. It would not open and we were inside in a room filling with smoke. It took the weight of three Marines to force that door open so we could get out. Then there were emergency fire doors closing that had to be reopen to get people out. Our door went out into a hallway and there was even more smoke out there. I just remember at that time all the smoke.
There was some confusion too. There’s 25,000 people who work in that building – or more – on any given day. And they were all trying to find their way outside. I made my way down the stairs and into a center courtyward. There were people everywhere. Just running around everywhere. I went through the courtyard and made my way into the parking lot. Once outside, I saw people getting out of the building and dropping to the ground to get their breath or from the shock of all of it.
I found the people who had been in my office with me and we did a head count. Then I reached my car. I had this habit of locking myself out of my car and so at that time, I always kept a spare key to my car in a magnetic box under my bumper and so I was able to start my car. If that key had not been there, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. Everything else was left behind in the building.
A Navy Petty officer came up to me and asked me if I could take her to Quantico because her husband worked there.
I used the $10 worth of cash I had in my pocket for lunch and got gas and we went to Quantico. I will never forget the fighter jets flying over I-95 that day.
I called the commander who was with the office staff on that trip to California and told him what was going on. And the Petty Officer got to see her husband. I called the general and the admiral and told them we had been hit. They already knew.
My uncle – who lives in Frostburg now – was living outside D.C. at the time and I then drove to my uncle’s house. I felt like I had to see family and check in with my family. My mom was a school nurse at Fort Hill at the time and one of her students had told her a plane had hit the Pentagon and Mom knew I was in there. She took that pretty hard.
Around 4 that day, I started to watch the news and I became aware of everything that happened that day. When you are right in the middle of it, you aren’t really thinking about it. It hits you later. I finally then was able to call my parents in Cumberland and let them know I was okay.
Later our office – the one I had been sitting in – I heard caught on fire.
That night, I got in my car and I drove straight up to Frostburg. Friends of mine were going to the university and I couldn’t help it. I asked them to take me out drinking.
A good friend of mine – my roommate in D.C. was in the Pentagon that day too. And I didn’t know where he was. I couldn’t reach him. His cellphone had been left behind in the office and I later learned was melted. I didn’t know if he was okay for four days.
I went back to D.C. that Sunday and we went back into the Pentagon on Monday to clean up our offices and basically shred anything that was left. When we got back to the offices, we saw spraypaint all over the burned out walls. It had been painted there by the FBI to let us know they had conducted a search of the building.
Out of our actual office there were no victims but I know personally six people who died that day.
We were all moved after that to a temp office in Crystal City, Virginia while the Pentagon was repaired. The general I worked for – just a cool guy – I will never forget him – when we moved into that temp office, he asked me what desk I wanted and I pointed to the one by the window that overlooked the Potomac. He gave it to me and said I had more than earned it.
On October 11, one month after – there was a Memorial Service at the Pentagon and President Bush spoke. I remember this guy came up to us and thanked us for our service. And it was Attorney General Ashcroft.
It took about five months to get the Pentagon open again. It was really amazing how fast they got that back together. And then we all moved back into the Pentagon.
My roommate in D.C. and I shared an apartment nearby that actually overlooked the Pentagon. And for five months, we could see out the living room as the Pentagon was repaired. Everyday, we had a view of that hole in the side of the building. There was no way to get away from it for a very long time.
That April, my time in the service was up and I got out of the Marines. I was out about seven months and was living in North Carolina at the time when I got a registered letter and I knew what it was. We were at war and I was being recalled back into the Marines.
My first day recalled back, I ran into that general from the Pentagon and he gave me a job with him and I did that for about five months and then I was eligible to be discharged for good. And after what I had experienced, it was time to go.
I have to be honest, I actually used to get pissed at all the conspiracy theories about 911 – because I was there. But I had to let that go. That day gave me my own struggles that have stayed with me. PTSD for sure. And some substance abuse issues which I dealt with. It was a struggle I won’t lie. When people want to talk about it, I used to just walk away
After my time in the service, I moved to Wilmington for awhile to cope with stuff. And I wasn’t coping. My dad came and moved me back to Cumberland and helped me get on a better path. I was in Cumberland from 2005 to about 2017. I was working at the federal prison there and transferred out to Colorado. Now I am living in Colorado where I am an OSHA inspector. While working in the prison system, I saw some gory things and at times, those things took me back to what I saw on September 11. There is a lot that triggers those memories still.
I learned that day there are people in this world who just want to do bad things to us for no other reason other than being an American. I sometimes wonder if we are loosening our grip. I wonder sometimes if we have started to forget what happened that day. We were attacked on September 11 and on September 12, you couldn’t find an American flag anywhere. And now the American flag is offensive to some people.
Over the years, I have tried to avoid the news and the TV on that day and with this year being the 20th anniversary, I am sure the news will be all over it and it will be a sh***y day. I haven’t actually sat down to tell my story until now but I figured after 20 years it was time to share my experience.
September 11 is a day I will never forget. Once I figured out the weight of the day and what happened, I realized how lucky I was to have survived it. But I still that survivor’s guilt – everyday. I probably think about that day everyday. Every single day. I have occasional nightmares about it still and sleepless nights. Something like that stays with you your whole life I think.
It has been an interesting 20 years and I am still alive, which is actually kind of amazing.
Photos in this story courtesy of U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, the Pentagon, the Associated Press, Cumberland Times-News Archives and from Jonathan James