I was in the Pentagon that day. It’s been 20 years, but I still remember friends lost.
It started as a beautiful day: a clear blue, cloudless sky free of humidity or haze. But what was then known as the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management (ACSIM) lost two employees, and one was badly burned.
Fortunately, the ACSIM, Deputy ACSIM, XO, and one secretary were out of the building, on leave, or out of harm’s way within the Pentagon. The remaining three, however, were in harm’s way.
The ACSIM’s secretary, Cheryl Sincock, was at her desk, hard at work as usual, having arrived early as she always did at 0-Dark-30, to keep up with the rigors of life in the Pentagon. She was efficient, diligent, and considerate of others.
Likewise, our Staff Action Control Officer, Sandy Taylor, was in Deputy DACSIM Jan Menig’s office, watching the horrors unfold on a TV monitor. Sandy was a free spirit, happy to be working at the Pentagon, especially in the front office. But on that day, with a wall separating Menig’s office from the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel’s (DCSPER) office, she and Cheryl didn’t stand a chance.
I will also always remember a colleague in the Congressional Affairs Contact Office (CACO), DESPER’s Marian Serva; and DCSPER Sgt. Major Larry Strickland. I didn’t know him at the time, but his wife, Command Sgt. Major Debra Strickland, would later join the ACSIM team as the ACSIM’s senior enlisted advisor. DCSPER’s office suffered many losses, including these two.
Also, on that day, Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, DACSIM Menig’s XO, left his second floor office, directly under our current third-floor front office, to go to the restroom, having already drunk a can of Coca-Cola on that otherwise beautiful, clear, sunny day.
Before he could return to his desk outside of DACSIM Menig’s office, the plane struck the building, exploding underneath him, the fiery blast coming up through the elevator shaft blowing him to the floor and burning him nearly to death.
He believed his spoken words would be his last: “Lord Jesus, take me home; I’m ready to die,” as his burning flesh illuminated the hallway around him. But God had other plans, as above him, the sprinkler system in newly renovated Pentagon wedge began to shower water on him, saving his life.
With burns over 60% of his body, he is now a senator in the Texas Legislature, serving the 22nd district. He and his wife Mel founded Face the Fire Ministries to serve critical burn survivors and wounded service members and their families.
This brings me to my own story of survival, and it opens the age-old question of why do some survive while others do not survive tragedies. In my case, I was running late to the Pentagon (what else is new?) and very hungry.
In the Pentagon, on my way to the front office to pick up the day’s CACO taskers, I stopped at the snack bar for a V-8 juice. However, I felt too unprofessional to walk in carrying my briefcase and a bottle of juice. So I bypassed the front office (where most likely I would have sat down in DACSIM Menig’s office to watch the TV with Sandy) and instead walked down to the old ACSIM first-floor offices near the Mall Entrance.
I no sooner sat down than my wife, Marcia, called me to tell me what was happening. She was worried that the terrorists might hit the Pentagon but kept that thought to herself—nor did she offer any advice on what to do, for fear of possibly taking me out of safety into danger. So that is how I found out that terrorists had flown planes into the twin towers.
I turned to Shirley Ogburn, working in the CACO office, and said, “You have to be concerned about other targets at a time like this.” She asked, “What do you mean?”
And in less than a minute, after I replied that the terrorists might hit the Pentagon, too, the plane struck.
The sounds I heard that day I will never forget, nor will I ever hear them again (I pray). There was the deep, building-jarring impact, which I describe as if several heavy safes were dropped, ceiling to floor, at once. And then came the sound of air pushing its way around the E Ring, away from the impact, first an over-pressure, then a vacuum, then over-pressure again as the powerful air wave whooshed in, paused, then sucked out, through all the cracks under doors and air vents everywhere.
Although I knew at once that I was not injured, the same was not true for all the families of us in the Pentagon that day. They, like my wife, did not know whether their loved ones were alive, injured, or had perished. So I realized that every day could be our last. And this is true always, not just in dramatic events such as 9/11.
Our days are numbered. Don’t waste them. Get right with God.