When Flight 77 struck

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

The morn­ing of Sept. 11, 2001, I was in my of­fice at the Pen­tagon on the “E Ring,” next to the sec­ond corridor fac­ing the south park­ing lot. Ter­ror­ist-hi­jacked Amer­i­can Air­lines Flight 77 slammed into the build­ing around the south­west cor­ner from the third corridor — it sounded and felt like the dull thud of a large bomb, the build­ing shud­dered and I grabbed my desk.

Know­ing right away that it was an at­tack of some kind (we were watch­ing the Twin Tow­ers on TV) we quickly evac­u­ated the build­ing into the smoke-filled hall­way and then spilled into the Pen­tagon’s south park­ing lot. We could see the build­ing was on fire — I heard sev­eral peo­ple say an air­plane had hit the build­ing.

I was in shock, as were most of us. Dazed, I walked home quickly (for­tu­nately, not far) to check on my fam­ily as no cell phones were work­ing. My young daugh­ter had been dis­missed from school, my wife had picked her up and both had re­turned home. I asked my wife to take me back and drop me off near the Pen­tagon. I was there for the next 36 hours, then brought peo­ple from the of­fice home to spend the night in our guest room and on the liv­ing room couch. The build­ing con­tin­ued to burn for the next few days. The clothes I wore that week wreaked of acrid smoke and had to be thrown away.

Like a lot of my friends and col­leagues, I knew peo­ple who were killed that day in the Pen­tagon, at the Twin Tow­ers, and even on Flight 77. The small court­yard in the cen­ter of the Pen­tagon — what we called “Ground Zero” dur­ing the Cold War — was just that, serv­ing as a re­cov­ery stag­ing area and a tem­po­rary morgue. It was a bizarre sight, es­pe­cially at night, when it re­sem­bled an Army MASH.

The day was a blur, but I re­mem­ber enough of it and the few days that fol­lowed to re­al­ize we didn’t know much about what to do. So much so that I kept a di­ary that I called “1941,” not be­cause of the sim­i­lar­i­ties of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack, but be­cause of the John Belushi movie with the same name that spoofed the hys­te­ria on the West Coast af­ter the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor.

I at­tended lots of high-level meet­ings as we strug­gled to deal with the sit­u­a­tion. The first thing that was ob­vi­ous was that no­body knew much about any­thing — the chaos in “1941” was a good ref­er­ence for the fuzzy think­ing. Lots of de­ci­sions were made with very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion, just be­cause some­one imag­ined an aw­ful sce­nario: Usu­ally a “what if” hy­po­thet­i­cal of some­thing hor­ri­ble hap­pen­ing in Wash­ing­ton D.C.

And, we were ob­sessed with Wash­ing­ton, D.C., as if there were no other parts of the coun­try we had to worry about — the fact was we didn’t know much about the rest of the coun­try (be­cause we had no way of know­ing) and the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties there, so we wor­ried about the ones we could iden­tify with. How­ever, we fret­ted con­tin­u­ously about civil­ian nu­clear power sites: No one knew how well or poorly they were pro­tected be­cause it was the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the in­di­vid­ual civil­ian site op­er­a­tors as part of the li­cense they had with the Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion.

We had no real ex­pe­ri­ence with mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in the United States, so when we wor­ried about what would hap­pen if a sol­dier shot a Stinger mis­sile at an air­plane that had been taken over by ter­ror­ists, we had to think about where the air­plane might fall. Then, we were re­minded that if we de­cided to de­ploy Stingers in and around the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tal Area, the as­sump­tion would have to be that the Army Air De­fense units con­trolled the airspace. Of course they didn’t, be­cause we typ­i­cally had hun­dreds civil­ian air­planes in the air — un­less we grounded civil avi­a­tion near the Capi­tol, which we did for a while af­ter the at­tack.

Ul­ti­mately, a plan was ap­proved that as­sumed the hi­jacked air­plane was on an ap­proach to Wash­ing­ton Na­tional (Rea­gan) Air­port and that the de­bris would (hope­fully) fall into the Po­tomac River — this plan was nec­es­sary to open Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Air­port. If that turned out not to be the sce­nario, we would have to deal with it at the time — and some young sol­dier with a Stinger would hope­fully be told what to do, pre­sum­ably by some­one who made the cor­rect de­ci­sion.

I at­tended lots of brief­ings on the ef­fects of a nu­clear weapon det­o­na­tion in the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Area; the to­pog­ra­phy and pre­vail­ing winds made it clear that most of the ca­su­al­ties due to blast and fall­out would be on the Mary­land side — and peo­ple breathed a sigh of re­lief if they lived in Vir­ginia. I re­mem­ber an­other brief­ing that dealt with the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties from var­i­ous water­borne threats — again to the Na­tional Cap­i­tal area — this one noted that Alexan­dria, Va., was par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble. A high-rank­ing of­fi­cial said at the meet­ing, “Hey, that’s where I live” as if to say— be­fore he caught him­self — that it should some­how have a higher pri­or­ity.

Most ig­nored the re­mark; how­ever, every­one wor­ried about the safety of their own fam­i­lies — to the ex­tent that it had to af­fect one’s work. I tried to sep­a­rate the two but could not — so, I sent my wife and daugh­ter to my wife’s home­town in the Mid­west, where they stayed un­til af­ter Thanks­giv­ing. This was the only way I could do jus­tice to my job and not worry about the safety of my fam­ily.

Some­how we got through it — and, for­tu­nately, we were not at­tacked again, as many feared that we might be — and, even­tu­ally the right groups were formed as we be­gan to deal with the more com­plex is­sues and prob­lems of de­fend­ing our home­land and do­ing post-at­tack re­cov­ery op­er­a­tions. Do we have it right? No — wit­ness the fi­asco in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. But we are much bet­ter organized, have a more re­al­is­tic mil­i­tary com­mand struc­ture (al­beit not yet truly in­te­grated), a na­tion­wide home­land se­cu­rity per­spec­tive and are able to fit the re­ally hard prob­lems into a much more re­spon­sive de­ci­sion-mak­ing frame­work — as demon­strated in the re­cent prepa­ra­tions for and re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Gus­tav. Nev­er­the­less, “1941” was an ac­cu­rate name for my di­ary, be­cause we were mostly clue­less on yet an­other “day of in­famy” — 60 years later. Daniel Galling­ton served in se­nior po­si­tions at the De­fense and Jus­tice de­part­ments and as gen­eral coun­sel for the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

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