Shortly thereafter I got bored with watching the talking heads fill up air time with their uninformed opinions and so I headed back into my office to get some work done. I sent my co-worker to run an errand to an office on the fifth floor directly above where the AA flight 77 would soon crash into the Pentagon while I shuffled papers in the office. It soon occurred to me that my boss might need some additional information about what was clearly a terrorist attack in New York City, so I decided to visit the Navy Command Center to see what the Intelligence Watch might have. I locked my door and walked down the 3rd corridor towards the A-ring. As I approached the escalators (a new feature in the now-refurbished "wedge" of the Pentagon!) located at the confluence of the 3rd and 4th corridors at the A ring, I heard the sound of metal crashing. I looked up the 4th corridor and saw smoke and a very astonished Air Force major. I also vividly remember seeing small pieces of pressboard spinning in the air like confetti. Although the sound initially resembled a bunch of metal trays being dropped from one of the forklifts that use the utility ramps running between floors, within a split second I knew exactly what it was.
What I did not know was WHERE it was. People often ask me whether the whole building shook and how loud it was, but even though I was directly inboard from the impact and probably less than 150 yards (and three floors up) from impact, the sound was just not that overwhelming from where I stood and no vibrations reached my location. Because of this, I thought that the impact was farther from my location than it actually was, and it was not until I saw the list of the dead and missing the next morning that I realized that it hit the very location where I was headed. Given that I was no more than 90 seconds from reaching the Navy Command Center I now understand that if the terrorists had gained control over the aircraft 45 seconds later than they did then I would have been on that list. Most of my survivor's guilt over the next several weeks involved not being aware of where the plane hit so that I might have helped the survivors escape.
As it was, I completely lacked situational awareness, but I soon hooked up with a co-worker who was evacuating the building. As I joined him I began borrowing cell phones to try to reach my family, which lived in Virginia Beach while I "geo-bachelored" to DC during the work week. Unfortunately all cell phones circuits were busy, so by the time I reached my wife about an hour later she was hysterical. Having been stationed in London during an IRA bombing campaign there I feared a second bomb in the parking lot. So my friend and I hooked up with a small group of people who walked under the I-395 to Pentagon City. This was not a very bright move as it turns out because shortly after that the DC police cordoned off the Pentagon and so we were unable to return to make contact with our co-workers. Thus, I was on the list of missing people until I was able to contact my office mate several hours later. I was gratified to hear that she survived the blast, and over the next several days she shared with me how she had escaped while the building maintained structural integrity for approximately 15 minutes after the attack before collapsing into the wreckage. Many of my other friends and co-workers were not so fortunate, and I can remember the names and faces of my fallen comrades to this day.