A horrible day that changed America

The fire and carnage from the plane that struck the Pentagon on Sept. 1, 2001.

Eighteen years ago, I had just left my car parked near the State Department building in downtown Washington, DC, when my Blackberry vibrated with an two-work, urgent message.

“EXPLOSION! PENTAGON!!” the message read. I ran back to my Wrangler, dropped my cameras in the passenger seat and headed towards 14th Street, NW,to drive over the bridge to the Pentagon.

But police cars blacked the entrance to the bridge and uniformed officer directed vehicles to turn left on Independence Avenue or right into the National Mall  I would see smoke rising from the Pentagon in the distance

I headed into Southwest Washington to take the bridge over to the Virginia side but had to wait for a stoplight right by one of the gates leading into the Washington Navy Yard where Marines in fatigues stood guard in what appeared to be a lockdown of the facility.

One of the jarheads on post was a petite woman whose M-16 with a bayonet was taller than her and I picked up one of my Nikons with a telephoto lens and rattled off about a half dozen shots just before the light changed and I headed across the river to Interstate 295, which would connect with I-395 where I could head back towards DC and the Pentagon.

I parked along Columbia Pike, grabbed my cameras and scampered up the rise and got my first glimpse of the gaping hole in the site of the octagon that housed the staff, officers, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.  I joined Reuters photographer Larry Dowling on the embankment and we shot photos of the fire, part of a commercial jet landing gear.

We shot photos of the carnage, interviewed those who saw the plane crash into the building and had to avoid military police officers who kept trying to force off our vantage point. For most of the day, I didn’t know how or why a commercial airliner sliced into the Pentagon until an Arlington police captain I know stopped by and told us about two jetliners who blew into the World Trade Center and another hijacked one that might be headed to Washington.

“If we get word that plane is near and we tell you to get off this hill and somewhere safe, do it,” the officer said, but the only planes we saw in the air over Washington were fighter jets patrolling the skies.  A couple of hours later, we heard the fourth hijacked crashed in Pennsylvania.

At one point, Dowling lowered his camera and said:  “I think our lives have changed forever on this day.”

I shot photos throughout the day and into the night.  Messengers from our editors brought fresh batteries for our cameras, new compact flash memory cards and collected the ones we shot.

Overloaded phones made it impossible for me to call my wife, but an email from her got through on my Blackberry.

“I see you’re at the Pentagon,” she texted. “Some of your photos were up on MSNBC.”

I worked at the Pentagon site until about 3 a.m. before another shooter relieved me and I headed for our condo about three miles from the Pentagon.  Amy was still up, watching the TV reports that continued through the night.  When I opened the front door, a business card from “Special Agent Jonathan Ryan” of the Naval Intelligence Office at the Navy Yard fell to the floor with a note saying please call me in the morning.”

I smelled of smoke, burning jet fuel and the stench of death when I crawled into the shower but no amount of soap and hot water could make me feel clean.  I slept for less than three hours before getting up.  Before leaving to return to the Pentagon, I called the number of the card left in my door, wondering is this was a joke, since the hero of Tom Clancy’s books is John Patrick Ryan.

Special Agent Jonathan Ryan, however, was all business when he answered the phone.

After I identified myself, he asked if I had been in the vicinity of the Navy Yard on the morning of Sept. 11.  When he said I was, he asked my purpose for being there.

‘Waiting for the light to change, so I could get across the river and a roundabout trip to the Pentagon,” I said.

“What was your business at the Pentagon?”

“I was taking news photos of the major news event in Washington for the day,” I said. “That’s what I do.”

“Can I confirm that?”

“I’m sure you have access to the media list for coverage of the Pentagon and other Washingotn locations.  I have DoD credentials and several of the photos I shot yesterday are in today’s Washington Post and on the news wires,” I added.

I heard what sounded like a newspaper being opened.

“Yes, I see,” he said.  “One of those photos was taken at the Navy Yard.  Are you aware that photographers need to have permission to shoot images at a military facility when it is on lockdown?”

“Yes,” I said, “but I was not sure the Yard was locked down.  I saw the increased military presence but the shot of the small Marine with an M-16 almost taller than her caught my eye.”

“So I see,” he said. He asked a few other questions, asked me to verify my place of birth and the last four digits of my Social Security number and asked “what is your politics?”

“Don’t have any,” I said.  “I’m a political agnostic.”

He thanked me for the call and said he might call if he or his superiors needed any more information, but I never heard from him again.

Those are some memories I have of a day that changed America.

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