Survivor Recalls Memories of Pentagon Attack
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 2, 2008 The emotional trauma caused by memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon have dulled some for survivor Patrick Smith, but the pain will never leave him.
“It’s an image that haunted [me] repeatedly for at least the first couple of years,” he said. “I guess the trauma of it subsides over the years, but it never goes away.”
Smith, an information management specialist for the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, spoke to the Pentagon Channel last week before the seven-year anniversary of the morning hijackers drove American Airlines Flight 77 into a section of the Pentagon next to Smith’s office.
His desk sat in a second-floor office on the western side of the building, in the middle of the Pentagon’s five concentric rings. A nearby coworker watching television informed Smith and his colleagues that an airplane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
The initial confusion crystallized into clear and present danger, as footage appeared showing another plane barreling into the second tower.
“Certainly when the second plane hit, all of us knew this was a terrorist action going on,” he recalled.
Smith, like other coworkers, intermittently checked back at the TV for updates. Around 9:40 a.m., as he approached the TV, he heard a loud crash.
“I could see the top of the wall coming inward,” he recalled. “At the same time, the ceiling tiles started falling from the ceiling, wires were starting to fall. Of course, this seemed like a long period of time. Actually, it was probably fractions of seconds.”
The power shorted. The office fell black. Then a burst of fire ripped through the ceiling toward Smith.
“I could basically hear the hairs on my head, the hairs on my arms, crackling from the intense heat -- prior to any flame ever touching me,” he recalled.
“The fireball starting advancing towards me, and momentarily I was frozen until I really got the sense of what was going on,” he said. “I started to turn and get away, and I noticed one of my coworkers basically inside the fireball, waving her arms.
“I stood there hoping she could keep on coming. I was at a standstill. Do I go in to try and get her? Do I wait for her to come out?” he said. “Unfortunately, she basically went down, and I just couldn’t find her again.”
Smith crawled along the floor until he could feel the sprinkler system spraying him. He evacuated the building and received medical treatment shortly after.
Though Smith survived, the attack would claim the lives of 184 victims, to whom the Pentagon Memorial -- a two-acre park near the point of impact with an illuminated sculptural element and lighted reflecting pool in memory of each person lost -- will be dedicated next week.
Smith, who received the Defense of Freedom Medal, the civilian equivalent of the military's Purple Heart, said the interview was the first time he’d spoken out about his experience.
“It wasn’t until just this past anniversary last year that I did go out to Arlington [National Cemetery] with one of my coworkers who was injured as a result,” he said. “And it was a good feeling to pay tribute to those resting in Arlington right now.”