The day started like any other.
Lt. Col. Jerry Kitzhaber went to work around 8 a.m. and went for a run.
“It was a beautiful day,” Kitzhaber said. “I was sort of enamored by the sights and the sounds of Washington D.C. that morning.”
Elsewhere, a mother got up and kissed her girls goodbye. Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills sang her way to work during her hour-and-a-half-long commute.
Col. Roy Wallace, an Army G-1 official, was crafting policy with Gen. William Webster.
Sgt. William Wilkins was in the motorpool at nearby Fort Myer.
“[You’d] come to work, have a staff meeting, and after the staff meeting you go straight to work doing the business of the day,” Wallace said. “Everything was normal up until about 9 o’clock.”
And then at 9:37 a.m. American Airlines 77 flew into the Pentagon, striking the fourth corridor.
A total of 184 people were killed, including 125 service members, contractors and civilians, in addition to the 55 women, men and children aboard the flight.
And while Sept. 11, 2001, started like any other autumn day that year, it’s a day that many at the Pentagon will forever carry with them.
The Army hosted a pair of interview panels this week where they shared those experiences in light of the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
The building shifted
Mark Lewis, now an acting assistant Army secretary, was known as Col. Lewis the day the plane hit Washington.
“You can never forget those that serve with you and then die in such an unprogrammed, unforecasted manner, vicious way that they did,” Lewis said. “They were serving their country…supporting their families in a most honorable way.
“And of course, they earned their place in history following that day.”
That day for Lewis meant working with Gen. Timothy Maude, the senior person in the G-1, preparing for the next fiscal year’s resources and working around the general’s busy schedule. And so when Maude’s secretary, Debbie Ramshire, told him to come back at a quarter to ten instead of 9:15 as planned, nothing was unusual for Lewis.
But as he walked back to his office, the plane hit.
Both Gen. Maude and Ramshire were killed in the impact.
“The building jolted,” Lewis said. “Corridor four quickly filled with smoke along with the most prohibitive air to breathe, filled with jet fuel fumes.”
As the building shifted from the plane’s impact and alarms went off, the newly renovated fire doors came down, trapping survivors inside. Lewis now faced fire on one end and a sealed fire door on the other.
“You were in this container of smoke, jet fuel and people running around who were disoriented,” Lewis said.
The current reflective tapes running along the border of Pentagon hallways—an after-action renovation made in the wake of the attacks—were not present at the time. People trapped inside with Lewis were running around frantically trying to get out.
“[People] were coming from downstairs, which was also on fire, grabbing people around the neck,” Lewis recalled. “People weren’t particularly shrieking or crying, but they were asking ‘how do we get out of here?’”
Luckily for Lewis and those with him, his office was down near the end of corridor four where it connected to the A ring, which meant there was an exit out of the building nearby. After wedging the doors open, Lewis and others began shoving people through the offices, away from the fire and out of the building.
“And as people evacuated,” Lewis recalled, “our minds turned to who was in the fire on the side of the corridor and some of the people that were working here in that area.”
Roy Wallace, currently the assistant deputy chief of staff for the G-1, was there that day too. The then-colonel was only about 50 feet away from the plane when it slammed into the Pentagon.
He was in an area referred to as the “cubicle farm” — a wide open area incredibly susceptible to fire because of the amount of oxygen that could exist with no walls to stop its flow.
After Wallace and a few others helped get people out, Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell stumbled out of the smoke and fire, falling right in front of Wallace.
“We had no idea how badly burned he was,” Wallace said. “If you’ve ever taken a match to polyester, you know that it turns into a molten glob.”
Wallace and three others picked up Birdwell and ran to the fire door in A ring that Mark Lewis mentioned in his account. Like Lewis, they had never seen it before, it wasn’t clearly marked and they didn’t know how to get through.
Thankfully, Lt. Col. Bill McKennon was able to get them through a door in the B ring and right out to triage nurses who had come from the DiLorenzo Clinic.
“If it wasn’t for that,” Wallace said, “Brian [Birdwell] would probably not be alive today.”
‘The son of a b*tch gunned the engines’
Dr. Jerry Kitzhaber — then an officer in the Army G-3 — credits his wife with saving his life that day.
He had first called her after learning about the planes that hit the Twin Towers, delaying him from going downstairs to see Gen. Webster.
“Every time I seemed to get waylaid for one reason or another,” Kitzhaber said. “Then as I was just about ready to leave my phone rang [again], and it was my wife.”
They discussed cancelling dinner plans they had made for his birthday that night, and then she asked if he was okay there.
“I said, ‘Well sure, nothing happens here,’” Kitzhaber recalled. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t true.”
Just as he hung up and turned around to leave, the plane hit. Because he had been on the phone instead of walking to Webster’s office, he wasn’t in the section that was struck exactly between their two offices.
After evacuating to the courtyard and then under the Interstate 395 overpass, warnings came down that a second plane was coming. Kitzhaber and some of his colleagues then retreated to the far end of the parking lot.
But for Kitzhaber, getting out of the building wasn’t the only memorable moment from the attack.
Kitzhaber and his boss noticed that a delivery truck was stopped in the lot with them and someone — who Kitzhaber assumed was the driver — was standing there looking shocked.
“We came up and asked him, ‘Are you okay?’ And he said, ‘Well, yeah, I was just here to deliver my load, and I heard a noise and looked up and I saw the plane coming in. The son of a b*tch gunned the engines just before he came in.’” Kitzhaber said.
“And the next thing he said kind of took us by surprise,” Kitzhaber continued. “He said he could see the people in the windows of the airplane as it came in. And we just didn’t know how to process that.”
‘I have you, don’t let me go’
Ret. Col. Marilyn Wills — then a lieutenant colonel — was a woman who appreciated the routine of Army life. She got to her 9 a.m. meeting 15 minutes early that day, as always. It was cold in the newly renovated building, so she went back to her office in the C ring and grabbed her black Army sweater.
Wills recalled glancing at her watch during the meeting — she was serving as a congressional affairs contact officer — and thinking about how it was going a bit late; Her routine was normally that she would get to speak at about five minutes past 9 a.m. but it was now around 9:30 a.m. When it was finally her turn to speak, the loudest explosion she had ever heard happened.
“The room went completely dark,” Wills said. “I was on the right side of the table [and then] I was blown to the left side of the table.”
She knew there was another door in the room besides the one she had entered through, but when she reached for the handle after crawling to the door, it was hot, forcing her to crawl back across the room, not knowing that people were behind her.
“As I crawled someone grabbed hold of my belt. ‘And I asked, who is this? Talk to me? Who is this?’ And she said her name was Lois Stevens, and I told Lois, ‘Hold on to me, I have you, don’t let me go — where I go, you go. Hold on to me.’”
Wills, aware of the fact that she was now responsible for someone else’s survival, crawled out of the conference room to the left. Had she decided to crawl to the right, she said, they would likely be dead — the destruction seen in photos of the Pentagon from that day is where Wills and Stevens would have crawled to instead.
As they continued to crawl under cubicles and through the pitch black, Stevens’ nylons were melting to her legs in the heat. Wills remembered encouraging Stevens to keep crawling, even telling her she would carry her if she had to.
“I can’t tell you how long,” Wills said, trying to recall the time they spent crawling to freedom. Three more people were now behind Stevens and so she just kept going, using her black Army sweater to breathe through after wetting it down under a fire sprinkler.
Finally, the daisy chain of crawlers reached some of the Pentagon’s bomb-proof windows.
Wills and a soldier standing to her right found a printer and started throwing it at the window, trying to break it. Wills, the soldier and Col. Philip McNair, kicked at the frame of the window until it finally popped open.
They lowered wounded out first, down to Navy Capt. Craig Powell who was standing below. Wills and McNair then waited on the window ledge, hoping to hear others who might be in the room. They screamed and yelled for others to come toward their voices, but nobody came.
“At that point,” Wills said, “Col. McNair said, ‘You will get out of this window right now.’ It was the only decision in the Army I did not want to obey, because I knew Regina (then-Lt. Col. Grant) was in the building and I knew that Marian Server was in that building.”
Wills waited below the window until Col. McNair made it out, and then she was taken to triage.
“Injuries and medals and all of those things,” she said, “the injuries happen; The medals are not something that you want to be recognized for.”
Grant ultimately survived; Marian Server did not.
‘Not an exercise’
Just outside D.C., Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Wilkins, then a sergeant, was in his unit motorpool at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, when he saw smoke rising in the distance from the direction of the Pentagon, he told Military Times via phone.
Wilkins’ unit — the Military District of Washington Signal Activity, which he said was part of the Pentagon’s quick reaction force — was finishing up vehicle maintenance after a long “Motorpool Monday.”
“We had no idea what it was,” he said. “About 15 minutes after that, our [noncommissioned officer-in-charge] came out, and he told us, ‘Prepare to move out. This is not an exercise.’”
Upon arrival to the Pentagon, Wilkins surveyed the damage as he worked to set up an operations center and control access to the area.
“We…started setting up ‘comms’ directly in front of the [impact] site,” he said. “To this day, I can’t get over the smell.”
‘Resilience of the American people’
While the smell of jet fuel, burning bodies and wires may be some of the more visceral aspects of 9/11 that Pentagon survivors remember, they all had a lot of less tangible take-aways from that day after 20 years.
For Wallace, one takeaway was what this said of Americans in general.
“It was a galvanizing event that happened, and a lot of good things did come out of it in the end,” he said. “I think that’s the message: The resiliency of the American people themselves and that we shouldn’t forget these types of things.”
“I’ve never seen a situation where an event like that, [which] impacts so many people, how close knit everybody on one day seemed like we’re all of one accord,” Wilkins said in a separate interview. “It seemed like the entire United States, regardless of what race, gender, whatever you were — everybody was on one accord for the first time in [my] life.”
Wilkins, in fact, played a part in one of the iconic visual symbols of unity to emerge from the tragedy. He partnered with two other soldiers and firefighters to drape a large American flag over the side of the building during President George W. Bush’s visit to the site on Sept. 12, 2001.
All of the panelists agreed that as a country, Americans must remember what happened; History is doomed to be repeated if people don’t learn from it.
“It’s important that like we are assembled here today to remember those who didn’t survive because we owe it to them to educate the rest of America as to what can happen when you become complacent,” Kitzhaber said.
“Freedom isn’t free,” he said at Wednesday’s panel. “We have to guard it every day and watch for areas that we are missing.”
“Nobody had the imagination that we could have been attacked like that,” Lewis said. “That’s been said before, military targets and civilians the way we were, but in other times in history the unexpected also occurred — Pearl Harbor, sinking of the Maine, Lebanon, Barracks, Khobar Towers. They were all outside the United States, but who would suspect that we’d have something like that inside the United States?
Lewis reflected on the losses suffered from the attacks, both on 9/11 and in the conflicts that followed.
“I think all of us should be glad that combat has ceased,” Lewis said. “It was a 20-year effort with 800,000 some soldiers rotating in and out to Afghanistan in particular…All the servicemen and women did their job well.”
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran and a master's candidate at New York University's Business & Economic Reporting program.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.