Reflections on Sept. 11, A Day of Terror
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 11, 2002 Sept. 11, 2001, was a helluva welcome to the Pentagon, Army Spc. John W. Hoffman, 26, recalls today.
It was his second day on his new job, he said, when he and two civilian co-workers were knocked to the floor by a huge explosion. An airliner had slammed into the building about 100 feet from their new office.
Pieces of the ceiling fell on them as they struggled to compose themselves and find a way out of the devastated area.
"Luckily, we weren't injured," said Hoffman, as he sat in the stands with his friend, Christina M. Berardelli, 36. The two were in audience bleachers hours early and waiting for the "United in Freedom" program to start in observance of the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
"It took us about 20 minutes to find our way out through all the smoke and debris in the hallways," Hoffman continued. "We got lost about three times inside the new office spaces we were about to move into. We finally found our way into one of the unfinished corridors where we heard a voice calling for someone, to see if they were OK. We followed the voice until we got out onto the loading docks."
He said the horrifying experience made him more cautious. But after a year, he noted, "It seems like you should live life more fully and try to do more things. We should try not to let this rattle us as it did the first few months after the attack."
A multimedia illustrator in the graphics shop for the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, Hoffman said the first anniversary ceremony "brings back a lot of emotions, but I have someone here today who is going to help me deal with them," Hoffman said, smiling at Berardelli. "It's a step toward moving on, getting on with life, and getting back to work and doing my job."
A sales representative for Hallmark, Berardelli said she was in her Baltimore office on Sept. 11. "We knew the twin towers were hit by airplanes, but everyone was under the belief that the Pentagon was hit by a bomb and not an airplane," she said.
Her initial reaction was, "Horror! It was terrible!" she exclaimed.
Berardelli said she accompanied Hoffman to the first anniversary ceremony at the Pentagon "to pay tribute to everyone who lost their lives in the unnecessary way they did. So it's very important to be here to celebrate those lost and move forward."
She said the incident had a profound effect on her life. "I live more the way I should," she said. "I don't worry about things as much as I used to. That definitely proved that life is too short."
DeEarcie Gaddy and her co-workers were glued to the TV screen in their deep basement Pentagon office last year as they watched in horror as two airplanes flew into the the World Trade Center in New York.
"We were concerned about what was going on there and wondering what was going to happen next," said Gaddy, who works in the Air Force Pentagon Communications Agency. "The next thing we knew, the major ran in yelling, 'Evacuate! Evacuate!'
"We still didn't know what really happened," she said. Her first reaction, though, was to call her husband, Michael, a special agent at the Environment Protection Agency, she added. She left a message on his answering machine.
"All the folks I work with met in the parking lot, but we really didn't know what happened," Gaddy continued. "We saw the smoke and someone had a radio on and it said a plane had hit the Pentagon. We didn't feel anything, like the building shake, because we're down in the basement."
"My next concern was, if planes are falling out of the sky, we need to get out of that parking lot because of all the cars, gasoline," she said.
Reflecting back on the incident, Gaddy said Sept. 11 changed her life because "you don't know if you're going to be here today and gone tomorrow. So you try to live every day to its fullest.
"It could have been me! Could have been me!" Gaddy exclaimed as she reflected on all the people who were killed on Sept. 11.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Tony Vets was stationed at Camp Zama, Japan, but was on leave in Louisiana on Sept. 11. "When the plane hit the Pentagon, it was obvious that it was a planned terrorist attack," said Vets, who is now assigned to the Army Visual Information Center in the Pentagon.
"When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, you thought it was a tragic accident. But as the events unfolded, it was obvious to everyone that it was a planned attack," he said. Vets recalled his feelings at the time being "they" not only hit America, "they" hit the U.S. military.
"I knew we were going to be taking quick action," said Vets, who quickly called his unit at Camp Zama. "But all flights were grounded temporarily, so I wasn't going to be able to get back to my post right away."
The tragedy of Sept. 11 has also changed the way Vets looks at life. "You've always tried to live life as best you can. But now you need to take advantage of opportunities to be with your family and to reflect back on what you have and how quickly you can lose what you have."
Air Force Master Sgt. Wesley L. Harvin, a beneficiary counseling assistance coordinator at the TRICARE Management Activity in Falls Church, Va., was attending a training class at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington when the plane hit the Pentagon.
"The class was terminated and chaos broke out," he said.
On Sept. 12, Harvin was assigned as the TRICARE representative at the family crisis center in Arlington, Va. His job was to assist family members and casualty assistance officers.
"It was pretty emotional," he noted. "It wasn't easy at all. But I found it comforting, based on my faith, to let those folks know we were there for them, if nothing more than to hug them and cry with them."
Noting that he'll never forget Sept. 11, Harvin said seeing family members he helped who were at the ceremony was "very emotional."
"I was there and did what I was charged to do, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to have gone through that with those folks," Harvin said. "But it was tough."
Praying with his wife, Toni, and their 3-year-old daughter, Ebonie, every morning before leaving home has become a ritual for the Harvins.
"We tend to turn to God when things turn bad," he said. "Sept. 11 modified a lot of things I do. I pray with my family whether it's a good day or bad day, because 9-11 last year proved to me that you never know when this is going to be your last day."
Harvin said he doesn't think the terrorists accomplished their objectives. "Even though they touched our country physically and wreaked havoc and chaos temporarily, it made us, as a people, re-evaluate how we treat each other and how we look at each other day to day," he said.
Having traveled around the world and seen the results of different terrorist activities in foreign countries, Harvin said, "Now it's time to contain it. Eradicate it!"
Bishop Carlos E. Harvin (not related to the sergeant) said he attended the Pentagon ceremony "out of patriotism and to show that America is strong. America is the land of faith. As the president says, 'We will get through this.' It unifies us.
"We're of different races and religions, but we're here for a common cause because we lost brothers and sisters -- people we didn't even know, but were connected to them," noted the bishop, of the African American Catholic Church, Kwanzaa Ministries Pro-Cathedral in Washington. "I'm here to honor those people who defend us, in the military particularly. They're ready to give their lives for us. This is the least we can do to show our gratitude for what they've done and will do in the future."
Sept. 11 "absolutely" changed his life, Bishop Harvin said. "It deepened my faith in the presence of God and the need for people of different faiths to talk," he said. "We need to build more bridges. There are too many walls that divide us. There are many, many more bridges that need to be built."
Mariadel Silva was working in American Airlines flight service at Reagan Washington National Airport when she heard the news that American Airlines Flight 77 had been hijacked after takeoff from Washington Dulles International, about 20 miles away.
"I went back to my desk and prayed," said Silva, who was among a large group of American Airlines employees from the Washington metropolitan area who attended the Pentagon ceremony.
"I lost a lot of friends, including my best friend, here," she said. "One of the reasons I'm here is to salute her and all of my friends and co-workers."
Silva said Sept. 11 changed her life. "I'm more aware of my friends and closer to my family and friends," she said. "And I would do anything to help my country."
Sept. 11 also brought the American Airlines staff closer together, Silva noted. "Now it's like a big family," she said. "Every time we see someone from a different office, we get together and give them a hug as say we're here for you."
It was night in the Philippines on Sept. 11, and Philippine Army Brig. Gen. Delfin N. Lorenzana was dozing off to sleep after having gone to bed early. "My wife woke me up and said the twin towers had been hit," he said. "We'd just come from the U.S. I went from Boston to New York, and we went to the Empire State Building instead of the twin towers. We left New York on Sept. 4 and went to Los Angeles and returned to the Philippines on Sept. 9.
"We were shocked!" Lorenzana said. "We were watching live on TV when the second plane hit the second tower. I was shocked because we had a seminar in Boston on international security and one of the topics was terrorism. But nobody thought about terrorists getting hold of an aircraft and ramming it against a building."
He said the incident hasn't changed the way he lives "because the Philippines is very far from the United States. But it changed in that, when we travel now, there is not a lot of fuss about security in the airport."
The Philippine defense attach in Washington, Lorenzana said his country a couple of months later reached agreements for the United States to help it fight terrorism. "American troops came to the Philippines in January and helped us hunt the terrorists down who were holding hostages, including two Americans," the general said.
As to what the terrorists accomplished, he continued, "They're now noticed. They're getting a lot of respect in terms of their capability to inflict damage in the Free World. We didn't give a damn about the al Qaeda before, but now we give a damn about them.
"But what they did united the whole world to fight against them," the general said.