Between my schooling in journalism and eight years in Army public affairs, I have nearly a decade of writing experience. I’ve had assignments where I’ve had to search for an interesting angle that will make the reader want to go beyond the first line. I’ve had interviews where I’ve had to really work to get the interviewee to open up in order to get something that was worthy of print. I’ve had to attend countless cookie-cutter ceremonies to cover what seemed to be a repeat of one that happened the week before.
I’ve always been able to grind through these and get the article in on deadline. I’ve even managed to make the seemingly boring stories interesting—I hope. Writing should be easy for me, right? Not this time. But maybe it’s because this time it is so personal. It is about me … and September 11. I’ve sat down countless times over the 13 years since that fateful day to try to write down my disjointed thoughts of what happened, if not for an article, at least as a type of journal entry so that one day my great-grandchildren can have a personal connection with what will then seem like ancient history.
I’ve never been able to do it—to actually put all my experiences down. It ended up being a stream of conscience-type of writing that wouldn’t make sense to anyone except me. I was approached months ago about writing this article and at first, I balked. There was no way I could I do it. But I swallowed hard, agreed and here I am, at the 11th hour, forcing myself to do something I haven’t been able to do in more than a decade. Why has it been so difficult to write? It’s most likely because I don’t have a heroic tale to tell, but maybe it’s also because some of the things that happened to me that day would seem farfetched.
So, here goes.
It was a little after 7 a.m. that Tuesday morning, as I drove to the Pentagon. It was an absolutely gorgeous day with the sun shining brilliantly on the Washington Monument. I was on a temporary assignment from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to serve as a traveling photojournalist for the secretary of the Army.
I had promised myself that I wouldn’t take one moment of that 90-day duty for granted. Every morning I drove in to the office, I would catch my breath at the beauty of the city. It was my first day in the office that week since our team returned late the previous Sunday from a trip to visit troops in Germany, Bosnia and Kosovo. I had a laundry list of things to do—process my film, write a few articles, file travel paperwork, but there were a few moments of peace and quiet before the day officially started. My thoughts were broken by the lyrics of the song playing on my CD player.
The artist was singing about how we build fortresses on shifting sand and how they could all crumble around us. That’s what the Pentagon has always reminded me of—a five-sided fortress. It struck me that here I was, working in the bastion of military might, assuming that I was safe and sound, but were we really invincible?
The first of the twin towers had been hit as the staff meeting in the secretary’s office began; the second one was struck as we were briefing the executive officer. Clearly this wasn’t an accident. As my colonel and I were returning to our office, I mentioned that we may be a target since clearly the people behind it knew what they were doing. A shiver ran down my spine. I made a phone call to my family at Fort Bragg.
“I know I’m being a worry wart,” I said. “But just in case something happens, I wanted to tell you I love you.”
I hung up and went to watch the television coverage with a co-worker. It was then that we felt and heard the reverberations of something exploding nearby.
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
We locked eyes. “What was that?” We had a sinking feeling we already knew. It was the sound of American Airlines Flight 77 penetrating the three outermost rings of the building. I grabbed my camera from my desk as we evacuated the building.
With controlled fear, everyone in our hallway quickly filed out of the building. We stepped through the doors into the bright sunlight, but what was that raining down on us? Bits of the plane.
The next few hours—seeming like mere minutes—passed in a blur. The viewfinder of my camera gave me something to focus on, something to keep the adrenaline under control and scary thoughts at bay. At the end of one roll, my shaky hands threaded film from a new roll into the camera.
“This is not a time to screw up something so simple,” I thought.
I had no idea of what I was truly capturing until hours later. Images of grim determination as the defense secretary first surveyed the aftermath, images of emergency personnel dashing to safety as the outer wall of the building crumbled down in a dusty heap of debris, images of incredible heroism as service members grabbed litters and merged on the building to pull the victims out of the rubble, images of my co-workers holding IV bags as a horrifically burned man received medical assistance.
“Hurry! Get away! Run! Another plane is coming!” a police officer yelled. He was on the shared radio frequency with other first responders who were apparently learning about the fourth hi-jacked plane. I started awkwardly scrambling over the concrete barriers dividing the lanes of the highway running alongside the Pentagon when I heard it—the sound of another plane overhead. In slow motion, I gasped as I turned my face upward. There was no way I was going to be able to outrun a plane. I was sure I was about to meet that death head on.
I have never in my life been so happy to see a fighter jet in my entire life. The Air Force. had arrived. We were safe.
By this time I was standing with other onlookers on the other side of the highway. I continued to take photographs as I moved further away. In an attempt to get to a phone, I moved toward the gas station near what was then the Navy Annex. Every phone booth was occupied by a reporter calling the story of the century in to their organization. I continued up the hill trying to find an open storefront where I could use a phone. They were all shut down.
There was no way I could get to my car. And there was no way I could get back to my office or co-workers. A kind stranger pulled to the side of the street as I walked up the sidewalk. Abraham was his name. I have no idea why I got in the car with him, but on that day, it seemed everyone dropped their guards and helped each other—and trusted each other.
We were all one. We were all in shock. And we were all Americans.
The lanes of the interstate leading into the city were shut down as this kind stranger gave me a ride to my apartment several miles away. Traffic leaving the city was minimal as well. It was eerie. I was finally able to call my parents who had anxiously been waiting by the phone for hours.
Their house was crammed full of family, church members and those who were praying for my safety. My mom says that my voice was the sweetest one she’s ever heard when she picked up the phone that afternoon. My dad, the strong, silent type, had to step out of the room to let the tears flow. I was safe.
Our offices were cordoned off for nearly a week because we were so close to the impact. When we were briefly allowed to access our desks, I grabbed the rolls of film from the trip I had made with the secretary. It seemed like ages ago. Although rather pointless in light of the current events, I decided to take them to the Pentagon’s photo lab for processing.
New to the building, any time I had to go to a new office or location, I had to write down the office number and start on an adventurous trek to navigate the 19 miles of corridors that sometimes ended up in dead ends or areas blocked by construction. I welcomed the opportunity to learn new routes that took me by historic portraits and other military memorabilia that lined most of the hallways. On the morning of September 11th, I had planned to go through a newly renovated section that had just been reopened. But on that morning a few weeks after the attacks, I had to circumvent the building to access the photo lab. As I neared the door, I saw yellow crime tape on the other side.
It was then that it dawned on me. Had I not made that phone call on September 11th—the one where I called myself a worry wart—I would have been in that section of the building. I would have been in the path of complete destruction. My knees buckled as the realization hit me. I had to grab the wall to keep myself from falling. Had it not been for that phone call, I would be dead.
Years have passed and we have all healed, to some degree, from the horrors of that day. As strange as this may sound, I can find beauty in the ashes. I personally witnessed countless acts of heroism and kindness in the days following, both at the Pentagon and at New York’s ground zero.
Americans put others first. My faith in humanity was restored because of this tragic event. My faith in myself grew as well. God gave me the strength to make it through this in such a way that I grew both personally and professionally. This is the lesson I want my children to remember—God can use tragedy to build our character and make us better people, if we let Him.
Then-Army Sergeant Carmen L. Burgess was one of the first photographers on the scene at the Pentagon on September 11. Today, Carmen Love Hill is a chef.