Paul Raggio | September 11, Revisited: I Was There

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It was a spectacular day in our nation’s capital. Crystal-clear blue sky, low humidity, a morning chill, but you could feel the heat coming on. I was on my third assignment at the Pentagon, well into my sixth year of wandering those miles of hallways. 

I was chief of the Programs Division in the Army’s Legislative Liaison Office. I had a team of 15 -— thirteen legislative liaison officers, and two support staff. My group advocated the Army’s interests on Capitol Hill. We interfaced with members of Congress and their professional and personal staff daily, educating them on Army programs and responding to their inquiries.  

The Pentagon, above ground, is five stories high, with five concentric rings. 

“A” ring is the most inner, and the “E” ring the most outer. Five corridors fan out from the Pentagon’s inner, outdoor court, like the spokes on a bicycle wheel. 

The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building with more than 17 miles of hallways housing 30,000 office workers. Any major defense issue our nation encounters is worked on and resolved in this building. It is the No. 1 target on any adversary’s list, never attacked, until Sept. 11, 2001.  

My office was on the third floor, D ring, off the third corridor. The E ring is where all the senior service and civilian defense leaders’ offices are. 

As a routine, we watched C-SPAN and CNN on the televisions in our office space. We needed to monitor current events closely, never knowing when we may get inquiries from members of Congress. On that Tuesday morning at 8:45, my team and I watched in disbelief and horror when the first American Airlines plane hit one of the twin towers in the World Trade Center complex. News broadcasters were speculating on what had happened, then 18 minutes later, the second of four American Airlines planes attacked the second tower. My team remained glued to the TV monitors, chattering and speculating on what had happened. 

At about 9:40, I got up to use the restroom located in the third corridor adjacent to the D ring. Then it happened. 

At 9:45, the third American Airlines plane attacked and struck the west side of the Pentagon. It sounded like a sonic boom, and it felt like one of the sharpest California earthquakes I ever experienced. 

I ran back to my office. 

Meanwhile, triggered fire alarms rang out, lights flickered, smoke and dust rolled in, and the shouts and screams penetrated all other sounds. 

I ordered my team to evacuate. We had a predetermined rally point outside the River Entrance of the Pentagon. We, as well as others, were running through the hallways to exit the building. 

I accounted for all my team except one. Lt. Col. Paul “Ted” Anderson was at another office close to the attack site. I found out after the attack Ted ran into the collapsing area of the Pentagon to save others. He subsequently was awarded the Soldier’s Medal, our nation’s highest recognition for bravery in peacetime. 

Outside, I was standing next to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, our defense chief, and saw him pick up a jagged-edged piece of metal, looking at it quizzically, while the rest of us were staring at the smoldering, gaping hole in the west side of the Pentagon. The metal Secretary Rumsfeld held in his hand was part of the American Airlines plane. 

Washington, D.C., shut down. It was gridlocked — no movement in and no movement out. Cell phones were on their way to prevalence, but coverage was nonexistent in the hours that followed. 

I was in the 24th year of my Army career, achieved the rank of colonel, and had just commanded a paratrooper brigade at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, before my last assignment at the Pentagon. By all accounts, I was an experienced soldier, had fought in two wars, witnessed death and unbelievable destruction, and been on several overseas deployments to some nasty places. Not much rocked my boat anymore, but this day indeed did. 

I still reflect on how surreal a moment for me, and many others, that Tuesday was. It remains etched in my memory and seldom have I talked about it. 

Post-attack, we became a nation united by a cause, to bring those perpetrators of death and destruction upon us to meet justice. We heard rallying cries from our political leaders, and the ranks of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force swelled with patriots volunteering to track down the terrorists who committed these heinous, evil acts. 

We, as a people, were determined to project unity, optimism, determination and resolve in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attack upon our nation. 

On this solemn day, I will be praying for those who continue to suffer from these evil acts. I will also be praying for our country, so divided, to find a way to unite. We each have a stake in this remarkable experiment we call the United States of America, and we each have a responsibility to strengthen this republic for those to come. 

I’ve coached many always to seek ways to be part of the solution, not the problem. Civil discourse, respectful disagreement, and necessary compromise is a start for each of us. Our nation needs our thoughtful engagement, not tomorrow, but today, and every day after that. It is the time!

Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions.

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