REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- An Army Materiel Command employee remembers his experience on Sept. 11, 2001, like it was yesterday, knowing that it is by chance he is alive today to share his story.
Kirk Hamlet serves as AMC’s division chief for information management in the deputy chief of staff G-2/6. He joined the Army at 17, retired in 1998 and worked as a contractor supporting the government until 2006, when he became an Army Civilian.
“I take on every single day as though, ‘what can I do to make it better?’ … 9/11 just gave me a new sense of purpose in life. In reality, I shouldn’t be here,” he said about his lifetime of service.
Hamlet said the details of the day are still clear in his head: his walk to work, how the weather was cooler, the crystal blue sky and the clothes he was wearing.
He was in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. in New York City. His division chief shared the news, and Hamlet and his colleagues made comments about how something must have gone wrong with air traffic control, unaware of what was to come.
Covering a 9 a.m. meeting for his supervisor, Hamlet joined the conference room with about 34 other people. He remembers arriving a little late, sitting between budget analysts Donna Bowen and Molly McKenzie, and across from Antionette Sherman, the Program Objective Memorandums budget analyst.
During, a phone call alerted everyone of a second plane crash, which struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. Suspecting terrorism was the reason for the attacks, the meeting’s chair left to check to see if everyone needed to report back to their workspaces or if the meeting could continue.
As they waited for news, Hamlet decided to grab coffee from the cafeteria, a move he said was unusual for him.
“I guess it was my angels talking to me, but something told me I just really needed to get out and go get that cup of coffee, and that’s what I did,” he said.
On his way back, he stopped by the restroom and the next thing he knew, he was crumpled up on top of the bathroom sinks. Finding himself in complete darkness and quiet.
“After what seemed like an eternity later, which I think was only a matter of seconds or minutes, you started hearing people crying, and then crying turned to screaming, and screaming turned into people running in the hallway outside where I was,” Hamlet said.
At first glance, the damage was minimal, ceiling damage with wires and pipes broken loose, but he would later find out from investigators that if he left the bathroom and headed down the staircase, he would have been met by a 3,800-degree fireball.
He started making his way through the building, toward light, when two Pentagon police officers said they needed help, he went with them, making his way out of the building.
At this point, he did not know that American Airlines Flight 77 had struck the Pentagon. Hamlet said that only once they were outside could he get a visual of what had happened. He joined others in making their way past fires to the windows, helping people climb out of the building to safety as others climbed in to search for survivors.
“I don’t see that I did anything special that day,” he said. “I just was there and I had the opportunity to help, and I think everyone who was there that had the opportunity to help, helped.”
He helped pull Sherman from the rubble, not recognizing her at the time due to her injuries, and getting her to emergency response teams for treatment. She later died in a hospital, but her family was able to see her again to say goodbye.
Hamlet stayed on the scene until midnight, walking away with a concussion, cuts and bruises. He continued helping recovery efforts for about two weeks. It was several weeks before he learned that everyone who was in the conference room that morning died in the attack, including Bowen and McKenzie.
“I had years of PTSD. I didn’t even know what PTSD was. It was just racking my brain,” he said. “Nowadays, we know what that stuff is and we know I needed more than medical treatment. I needed psychological counseling as well to help me deal with the emotions of not only what happened to me, but what I actually saw in the rescue scene.”
After the attack, Hamlet shared his experience with counseling groups and helped form the 9/11 Survivors Association. He said he has coped with his survivor’s guilt by talking about his experience.
“It’s about finding hope and strength to carry on,” he said.
He has attended wreath laying ceremonies and memorial events for the past 20 years in Washington D.C., except for 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic impacted them. As he thinks back, he said he thanks God that he went for that cup of coffee the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“It wasn’t my destiny to die that day, it was my destiny to help,” he said.
He still thinks about the three women he was sitting by and how much their children have grown.
“All that time has gone by without their mom, and anytime I get to talk to them, I always tell them, ‘you just can’t imagine how wonderful your mom was.’”