Pentagon survivors tell their stories

By Bernard W. Tate, USACEAugust 20, 2012

John Hoffman, USACE Employee
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Karen Baker, USACE employee
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Roberta Crissy, USACE employee
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Tesia Williams, USACE employee
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2011 -- Only a few people can tell us what really happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks that day affected everyone in America, but only a relative few were actually at the sites when the attacks occurred.

The Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93 are often overshadowed by the raw drama of two airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers' collapse, and the sheer number of casualties. But there were about 22,000 people in the Pentagon on 9-11, and four of them now work in the Headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

For them, 9-11 is more than just the biggest news story in recent history. It is part of their lives.


Like everyone else in America, Sept. 11, 2001 began like any other day.

"I'm almost positive I was running late that day," said Karen Baker, assistant director of Military Programs. On 9-11, she was a public affairs specialist in the Media Relations Division of the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs. "I remember being a little rushed, like any day commuting in (Washington) D.C."

"That was my first day of work in the Pentagon, and I was really excited to be there," said John Hoffman, a visual information specialist. At the time he was an Army specialist multimedia illustrator assigned to the Graphics Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Intelligence. "At the time, our offices were in Arlington, Va., and we were waiting for the renovation of Wedge One so we could move back into the Pentagon.

"So on Sept. 11 I drove to the Huntington Metro Station and went to the Pentagon," Hoffman said. "I met Jim and Gene, the two civilians I was working with, and we went to the conference room to set up plasma-screen TVs and equipment for video teleconferencing."

Roberta Crissy was a lieutenant colonel working for the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel. She was in charge of the officer command and school boards.

"I came to work and, first thing, my senior supervisor needed to see me," said Crissy, now chief of Military Personnel. "Colonel Knoblock called me in and said that Lieutenant General (Timothy) Maude wanted to see us that afternoon, and we needed to get on his calendar. I told him I had staff call with my boss, and after that I would schedule us on his calendar."

Maude was the deputy chief of staff for personnel, and the highest ranking military officer killed on 9-11.


The three women found out about the 9-11 attacks the same way everyone else did. They saw it on television.

"I was working media relations, so the national news was constantly running on monitors in our office," Baker said. "Suddenly people were drawn to the TV when the first plane hit the Twin Towers, and there was lot of speculation about whether this was an accident. I might have had my head down working on something, but there was a very audible reaction when the second plane hit, and we realized this was something big."

"I worked with a warrant officer, and he came in and said the Twin Towers had been hit by a plane," Crissy said. "He was always a joker and I said, 'Bill, that's not funny.' And he said 'No, it's true.' So my coworker, Karen Wagner, and I went to our general's office, because he had a TV, and we watched for a few minutes to see what was happening."


About 35 minutes elapsed between the time that the second jetliner struck the World Trade Center and American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon. Baker, Hoffman and Crissy remember exactly what they did as the minutes ran out.

"We watched TV for a few minutes to see what was happening with the Twin Towers," Crissy said. "I told Karen, 'I have a lot of work to do. I'm going back to my desk.' So we went back to our desks and we were working. Our boss, Phil Smith, said that the Army Operations Center was standing up, and he told Maj. Linda Herbert to go to the AOC.

"I said 'I need a classified document from there, and if it gets too busy I'll never be able to get it. So I'll come with you," Crissy said. "So we left our desks, and I ran into Colonel Knoblock. I said, 'Sir, I still need to see Lieutenant General Maude and get on his calendar.' He said, 'Don't worry; I've already done that. We'll see him at 3:30 (p.m.) this afternoon.' So Linda and I left for the Army Operations Center."

"We realized this was going to be a busy news day for us," Baker said. "One of my closest friends, Elaine Kanellis, worked a few desks away. We looked at each other and said, 'Well, time to go get some coffee. We need to steel ourselves for the day.'"

"I was going to take a break, go out to the courtyard and have an early-morning cigarette," Hoffman said. "My friend Jim said, 'Wait a moment and we'll get a donut and some coffee and go to the courtyard together.' I think that's the single most important moment of my life. If I had left then, if I had gone the way I planned, I wouldn't be here."


There seemed to be almost no thought that the Pentagon might be a target.

"There was no inkling whatsoever in our group that the Pentagon would be hit," Crissy said. "We were still shocked that someone would fly into the World Trade Center."

"We were clueless," Hoffman said. "We didn't have a radio or TV in the conference room where we were working. So we didn't know about the attacks on the World Trade Center."

"Elaine was nine months pregnant, and on our way out her team leader said, 'You need to get out of here,'" Baker said. "And we thought that was hysterical. We said, 'We're in the safest building in the world, and it's going to be a busy day. Why should we leave? We're just going to get coffee and get back to work.' So we just laughed that off."

Then the jetliner struck.


"It felt like the Pentagon had been bombed," Crissy said. "The ceiling fell, and the windows were breaking, and it got pitch-black. Linda and I got down flat on the floor and laid there for a few seconds. Then someone yelled, 'Get out of the building!'"

"So we got up, and we were trying to find a way out because it was pitch-black," Crissy said. "The whole way out Linda was repeating the Lord's Prayer. We were hand-in-hand, and it was dark, and other people were trying to get out, too. We hit a wall. I guess one of those firewalls that close automatically in the Pentagon. So we turned around and went downstairs and got out to Ground Zero, the center court of the Pentagon."

Later Crissy learned what happened in the office she had left moments before.

"The airplane came in right under our office," she said. "The whole floor buckled, all the furniture fell over, and it was pitch-black. We had two doors, and the primary door was blocked but the back door was clear. One of my coworkers made it to the back door. He could hear Karen and Bill, and he tried to direct them out. But eventually he didn't hear them any more."

Hoffman and his coworkers were about 100 feet from the point of impact.

"We were putting equipment into this big rack, probably 1,500 pounds of equipment," Hoffman said. "I was standing behind the rack, holding a drawer as Jim screwed it in from the other side, and there was a massive explosion. You felt it more than you heard it. It slammed right through you. The room went dark and the ceiling tiles and frame fell down on us. It was chaotic, like a bomb went off."

"We were walking back from the coffee shop talking, and we heard this very loud noise," Baker said. "To me, it sounded like a thud. We really didn't grasp the seriousness at first because there were carts driving through the Pentagon all the time, and I thought somebody had hit a wall. Then we realized the noise wasn't stopping, and we thought it was a bomb. We found out later that what we heard was probably a wing of the jetliner ripping through the building. We immediately dumped everything in our hands and started moving."

"It was scary, but people didn't panic," Baker said. "That's one of the great things about working with the military. When something like that happens, they just start moving."

"We were watching the news in the Media Relations Division, and it sounded as if a bomb hit the Pentagon," said Tesia Williams, a public affairs specialist in Headquarters. On 9-11 she was a public affairs intern finishing her Pentagon rotation. "We looked around in shock. We were close enough to the impact to hear a loud boom, and there was some vibration. Ceiling tiles didn't fall, but there was vibration.

"So we gathered our belongings and left," Williams said. "I don't remember any kind of alarm. There was definitely no loud ringing or lights flashing or any type of warning that I would think we'd have in the Pentagon. But, of course, we knew to evacuate."


All four people left by different routes and came out in different places.

"We were in the center courtyard for a few minutes, and we could see the huge cloud of smoke," Crissy said. "Then someone said 'There's another plane coming toward the Pentagon. We have to get out of here.'"

"So we left Ground Zero, ran through the Pentagon, and out into the parking lot," Crissy said. "Then the police told us, 'You have to go to the other side of I-395 because it's not safe here.' So we crossed I-395, and everyone started toward the Residence Inn. Most of that afternoon I sat in the Residence Inn with a lot of other people. The hotel staff brought in phones so we could call our families and let them know we were OK."

"A friend picked me up and drove me home about two that afternoon," Crissy said. "So I got home and started getting phone calls. People in my office were missing and their family members were asking, 'I haven't heard from Bill,' or 'I haven't heard from Karen.'"

"I told them, 'It's a confusing day, people are scattered. I don't know where they are, but I'm sure they're OK.'"

"I called Colonel Knoblock to tell him I was OK and that people were asking me a lot of questions," Crissy said. "He said, 'Roberta, don't say anything, because a lot of people have been killed.' And I realized, 'Oh my God. We were right there.'"

"So that was 9-11 for me," Crissy said. "I spent a lot of that afternoon and evening talking to my family, telling them I was OK."

"After we grabbed our things, no one ran; just a brisk walk," Williams said. "We exited through the River Entrance of the Pentagon. Once we crossed the throughway, we could see the smoke over the Pentagon. We were all wondering what happened, because at that point we weren't sure. Then we started piecing things together. We saw fuselage on the ground, we saw injured people running down the throughway, we saw the smoke, and we had seen planes hit the World Trade Center. So we pieced together what happened."

"We were standing not far from the Pentagon, near a tree by the throughway," Williams said. "A couple of minutes later we saw folks running down the road, and we wondered why they were running. And then they started waving at us, telling us to run. Apparently, there was word that another plane was coming."

"And so we began to run," Williams said. "To be honest, I don't know where we were running to. It wasn't as if there was a place to find cover. So we just ran. Once we realized nothing was going to happen, we stood in place and began to ensure that everyone was safe."

"A little while after that, we were told go home," Williams said. "So I and Connie Gillette and another intern walked to the Metro Station at Arlington National Cemetery. The Metro came, and it was packed full of people. The passengers were in shock. They were staring at us, we were staring at them. We pushed our way onto the Metro, but it was totally quiet -- eerily quiet for the Metro."

"Before I got off, Connie hugged me and said, 'Everything's going to be alright. We're going to get through this,'" Williams said. "I finally got home that afternoon, just exhausted. I talked to my parents and let them know I was safe."

"I had a book of matches in my pocket, and I pulled it out and struck a match so Jim and Gene could find their tool kits," Hoffman said. "They got their flashlights, and that's how we were able to see.

"I guess I was more commanding than normal," Hoffman said. "I said 'OK, let's go. I don't know what happened, but let's just get out of here.' We grabbed our gear, and we first tried to go out the main entrance to our conference room but we couldn't because the ceiling was on the floor, literally."

"We got lost three times trying to get out of Wedge One," Hoffman said. "We kept running into doors that were locked from the other side. You needed a key to get out that way, but we only had access through our conference room. Eventually we had to come all the way back and through our conference room to get out."

"We were in the hallway on the E Ring heading toward the second corridor," Hoffman said. "It was horrible. We could feel the heat from the fire, and the hallway was filled with thick, black smoke. We couldn't see, we couldn't breathe. We got down on the floor and crawled. I had my beret covering my mouth and Jim and Gene had their handkerchiefs so we could breathe."

"Then we heard voices," Hoffman said. "We heard somebody calling, 'Is anybody in there?' So we followed those voices, and they walked us down to the loading dock. We jumped off the loading dock, and circled around to where the plane hit, and that's when we saw the damage and the smoke billowing over the Pentagon. We ran into a very nice lady who told us about the attacks on the World Trade Center, and that's how the three of us finally found out about the terrorist attacks."

"We were in a huge throng of people, and the security guards didn't want us near the Pentagon," Hoffman said. "So they herded us through the pedestrian tunnel under I-395 to the Pentagon Mall. I was there about 15 minutes before my office called. The cell phones were all jammed, but they got through somehow. They asked how we were doing, and I gave them a quick report on what happened to us. Then I asked, 'What do you want me to do?' And they said 'Go home.'"

"So I'm thumbing a ride trying to get back to Huntington Metro Station in Alexandria," Hoffman said. "I met a woman pulled over to the side of the road, so distraught she couldn't drive. She agreed to give me a ride because she was going the same way, and I took over driving because she was crying so much she couldn't drive. Then we ran into two NCOs (noncommissioned officers) who needed a ride to the same place."

"Then we all sat in seven hours of traffic," Hoffman said. "At one point, another jetliner came flying toward the city. When it came into view, people panicked. Car doors flew open and people jumped out of their cars in the middle of Jefferson Davis Highway."

"I finally got back to the Huntington Metro Station, got in my car and drove home to the room I was renting," Hoffman said. "I opened a beer, sat in front of the TV and watched it all unfold. It took a while to click that I was almost taken out because I was so close to where the plane hit."

"There was an officer from the Office of Congressional Liaison who said, 'OK people, we're getting out of here,' and he led us out," Baker said. "We walked to the Mall Entrance, but the guards wouldn't let us out. Nobody knew what was going on, and security didn't know where they wanted us to go."

"So we kept moving around the A Ring," Baker said. "The hallway started getting crowded, and Elaine was very visibly pregnant. She was hanging onto me, and to be honest I was hanging onto her! A guy came through with a motorized cart, and a female Navy officer stopped him, threw Elaine on the cart and said, 'Get her out of here!' But Elaine wouldn't let go of me, so she said, 'You get on the cart and go with her!'"

"The cart got us as far as the Pentagon Concourse, and it got so crowded the driver said, 'Ladies, I can't go any further. I have to let you out,'" Baker said. "So we walked to the Metro entrance, and went out that way.

"So my story isn't dramatic," Baker said. "We didn't even realize the Pentagon had been hit by a jetliner. At that point I was thinking bomb. We didn't know until we got out and started to hear the news and saw the smoke billowing."

"There was a lot of confusion," Baker said. "I had my cell phone, which didn't work because the cell system was jammed. But my phone had a walkie-talkie feature. It only worked to talk to my husband, but I finally got through to him. He was relieved to hear from me."

"When people around me heard I was in contact with my husband, I stood there for a while just relaying phone numbers to him and saying 'Call So-and-So's husband and let him know she's alright. Call So-and-So's dad.'"

"We spent a lot of time trying to figure out where to be," Baker said. "The security guards moved us across Army Navy Drive because they were concerned there was another plane coming and they didn't want large crowds. So we were kind of lost, not sure where to go."

"Somewhere in that mess, we ran into Elaine's husband," Baker said. He was relieved that she was OK, and by that time she was exhausted. That was a lot of fast walking for someone nine months pregnant. Sometime in late afternoon, I think about two or three, I was able to take the Metro and get home."

"I got in touch with my office, and they were already launching into 24-7 news operations," Baker said. "I did an interview with People magazine sitting in my home at 11 (p.m.) that night, just because we needed somebody to talk to them. So, for me, that was really all for the events of the day. Not as dramatic as a lot of events later."


For Hoffman, the days immediately following 9-11 were mostly business as usual.

"We all went back to the Presidential Towers," he said. "We couldn't move into the Pentagon because our new offices were so damaged. So just like we had prepared to leave Presidential Towers, we had to put all the stuff back. We stayed there for another year until they finished the reconstruction and we could move into the Pentagon."

For the three women, the days after 9-11 often had more impact than the attack itself as the Pentagon went into round-the-clock operations under difficult circumstances.

"The day of 9-11 wasn't hard on me because I wasn't near the point of impact," Williams said. "We were near enough to know that something had happened, but the time after was actually the toughest."

"We came back to the Pentagon the next day. Major General Larry Gottardi was the chief of Public Affairs, and he talked to us and asked, 'Who's available to work? We're going into 24-hour mode,'" Williams said. "Several of us raised our hands and said we could pull some of those shifts. So later that day I came in for the evening shift at the news media desk."

"Connie and I met at the top of the Metro," Williams said. "Before we reported to work, she said that she wanted to see the impact area. At that time, it was cordoned off, but you could get in there. So we walked down, and as we walked the hallway the smell became very intense. It's a smell you won't forget. Connie asked, 'What's that smell?' I said, 'You know what it is.'"

"So we walked back, and we didn't say a word until we got back to the media desk," Williams said. "And then we just worked, day after day, 12 and 14-hour shifts. Our office had been ruined by the sprinkler system, so they moved the Army Public Affairs Office into a storage room in the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs Office."

"Conditions were tough," Williams said. "There were just two telephones when we started. There were several people in there, but there was just me and Diane Grant, another intern, to take news media queries. We handled more than 100 queries a day."

"The storage room was very intimate, she said. "There were 10 or 12 people in there, and sometimes tempers flared. We all got sick, working in close quarters and using the same phones. And there was the smell of smoke and jet fuel everywhere. For several weeks, every time you blew your nose, you blew out soot."

"At first the news media just asked how many people were injured, how many were deceased, and what would happen next," Williams said. "Then they started asking for first-person accounts. I facilitated interviews, and that's when I heard what really happened on 9-11."

"People talked about losing friends and survivor guilt," Williams recalled. "They talked about standing at the copy machine and a friend just five feet away didn't make it. Some people had their backs turned and didn't know what hit them. Some people were in an office and saw a ball of fire. I heard accounts of trying to rescue people, and the guilt of not reaching them in time. So that was the toughest for me."

"I spent a good part of September 12th trying to find out where to go," Baker said. "I finally got hold of Elaine and learned they had set up a satellite office with Personnel Command in the Hoffman Building in Alexandria, Virginia."

"These were folks who normally deal with casualty assistance, so they were setting up phone lines for people to call and report someone missing, or to report that they were OK," Baker explained. "But the news media was also calling because those were the only numbers being advertised. So we helped the Soldiers manning the phones. We developed a script of what they could say to the news media, and when they said, 'CNN's on the line,' we took those calls."

"I worked there a week or more helping them," Baker said. "Those folks literally left the Pentagon on 9-11 and went to the Hoffman Building. By the time I came on board they were exhausted. I jumped in and helped, and I was glad to do that."

"We finally moved back into temporary offices in the Pentagon," Baker said. "The Army had been the most heavy-hit, so we focused on helping them deal with the news media. My role was to be a liaison for family members, and if necessary their shield. If they wanted to talk to the press, we arranged that. If not, we were their shield."

"That was the most meaningful part of it for me, working with the families and serving them," Baker said. "There were remarkable stories. We had a number of people who were heroes and rescued others, and the news media really wanted to talk to them. I worked with several of those."

In the days after 9-11 Crissy also worked in the Personnel Command offices in the Hoffman Building.

"On September 12th at 6 a.m. Colonel Knoblock called and said, 'We don't have an office, but they've set up space for us at the Hoffman Building. So report to work there,'" Crissy said. "We set up a family assistance operations center because several people from our office had been killed. We worked there from September 12th until after Christmas."

"That whole time we were at the Hoffman Building we were scheduling funerals and attending funerals, Crissy recalled. "And we still did our regular daily work, but all of our records had been destroyed in the Pentagon, so we had to recreate everything."

"Immediately after 9-11 we were so focused on supporting the families of those who were injured or died, and planning and attending funerals, plus our normal mission, I think for a long time we didn't have time to dwell on it," Crissy said. "In early January we moved back into the Pentagon, and that was really emotional because you thought, 'This is where my friends and coworkers died.'"


All four people felt the emotional aftermath of the Pentagon attack, but it was worse for some than others.

"Not all of the memories came back right away," Hoffman said. "Something so crazy, you just put it out of your mind and say, 'I don't want to think about it.' I remember my first panic attack. It was about four months after 9-11, and I was in Nordstrom's in the Pentagon Mall. The Metro runs underneath the building, and the floor shook. Man, I flipped out. I had to get out of there."

"When they renovated Wedge One, we completed our move," Hoffman said. "I was in that conference room daily. I had to go back in there for two and a half years. I got comfortable enough to work there, but that's when the memories started coming back. One time I walked with one of the ladies back to her desk to do something for her. We went into the area where we had gotten lost, and I had to stop. I couldn't go in there. It flooded me with memories of being trapped in that place and not able to get out."

"I started having nightmares about the heat and smoke and debris and chaos," Hoffman said. "The screams of people who you couldn't help. Those still haunt me. After too many sleepless nights and too many nightmares, I sought professional help through the Army."

"It was hard going back to the Pentagon.. The memories were all right there," Baker said. "Every now and then someone would slam a door and you would jump. I don't think any us didn't have some grief, some issues with anger at what happened."

"I think the part that affected me most was hearing the accounts of what happened," Williams said. "Hearing the stories day after day, you start to feel some post-traumatic stress. So ultimately it wasn't 9-11 that affected me. It was the days and weeks after."

"I had flashbacks when we moved back into the Pentagon, and I had bad dreams routinely," Crissy said. "And survivor guilt, knowing that the two people to my right were both killed. It was tough, thinking that life is short and you never know what's going to happen."

"There was a 9-11 counseling program, and I got into counseling in February 2002 because I wasn't dealing with it well," Crissy said. "I was depressed.I was crying for no reason. The counseling helped a lot. I still sometimes have bad dreams and survivor guilt, but not nearly as much as I did then."


In the 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001, America has worked to heal, to honor the heroes, and to remember those who were lost. Memorials have been built or are under construction at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Penn.

Roberta Crissy, Karen Baker, John Hoffman and Tesia Williams have found their own ways to bring something good out of their experience.

"I know my story could have ended differently," Crissy said. "I had been told to go see Lieutenant General Maude, but I stopped and told my senior supervisor that I hadn't gone yet. That was out of character for me. When you're given an order, you do it. But I talked to Colonel Knoblock, and he said he had taken care of it. I think that a higher power had me stop and talk to him, otherwise, I might have been in the general's office or on my way there when the plane hit."

"If I had been at my desk, maybe I would have been with my coworkers who couldn't get out," Crissy said. "There were opportunities where I could have gone into harm's way but I didn't, and I believe it was because of a higher power. I was blessed that day."

"We were in the renovated part of the Pentagon. It had been reinforced with a steel framework, and there were Kevlar blankets in the walls," Hoffman said. "We found a crack two inches wide in the wall of our conference room from floor to ceiling. If those renovations hadn't been there, I know that explosion would have destroyed us. If I hadn't delayed taking my break, if we hadn't heard those voices that led us out, I wouldn't be here."

"I have a good job today. I have a fiancé, and a family that I adore, including a new son almost one year old. I enjoy riding my motorcycle," Hoffman said. "I wouldn't have any of those things if I hadn't made it out of the Pentagon, or sought counseling. I've been very lucky."

"I had to grow up very fast," Williams said. "I was a 23-year-old intern, and I had to grow up and mature and learn to get the job done. I formed some very close relationships during that time, individuals I worked with, and I've kept up with a lot of them. We share a special bond because we were all experiencing the same thing. We knew how it felt to handle hundreds of media queries and work 12-hour days, and have to be strong through it all."

"To be honest, at that time, I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in federal service," Williams said. "But seeing the reaction of the service members when it happened and their strength, and even the civilians and how they carried through and didn't complain. People talked about how we were a family, how everyone took care of each other. Coworkers attended physical therapy appointments. Leaders sat down with employees and talked. Everyone shared that bond. That's the reason I decided to continue with this career, because you just don't find that often."

"I have a lot of people say, 'Oh, I'm sorry that happened to you!' And I'm sorry too. It was a terrible time," Baker said. "But I think a lot of things came out of 9-11 that we can be thankful for. We were proud to be serving our country, proud that the Pentagon was still standing. There was a lot of fanfare about people coming back to the Pentagon the next day. I think we were all proud to be back and serving."

"There was frustration because we were trying to run an international news media operation with no office and no basic resources like computers and phones," Baker said. "So people were on edge, but we pulled together. People that I know from that time are probably my closest friends. We have a bond, and every September 11th we touch base with each other."

"Elaine had her baby on September 21st after 9-11, and he played on my son's baseball team last spring," Baker said. "There's nothing like watching that kid run bases and thinking, 'Hey, he's OK! We made it out, and we're OK!'"

Related Links:

2011 Patriot Day tri-signed letter (PDF download)

Learn about the National Pentagon Memorial

Nurse recalls 'something terrible' on 9/11 Human Interest News

Patriot Day: Remembering September 11, 2001

STAND-TO!: Patriot Day: A time to remember, a time to prepare

DOD: Remembering Sept. 11, 2001