ARLINGTON, Va. — This weekend marks 20 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
For many, images of the towers in New York crumbling into a mountain of debris, or the sight of black smoke billowing from the Pentagon, a symbol of America’s military strength, may conjure up memories like it was yesterday -- especially for those who lived every minute of the attack.
Although 9/11 is remembered for the tragic events that occurred, it all started like any another Tuesday morning at the Pentagon, survivors told reporters Wednesday.
The typical hustle and bustle was well-underway. Over 23,000 service members and civilians quickly filled up the parking lots, hurried throughout corridors and halls, checked schedules, planned meetings and settled into desks spread out across 3.7 million square feet of office space.
One of those service members, retired Col. Marilyn Wills, was among the many Soldiers inside the building that September morning.
Despite living 16 miles from work, Wills was on the road before the sun was up. It was a rushed morning for her. In a break in tradition, Wills didn’t get to pray with her family or see her two daughters off to school.
“You know in the Army, if you’re [on time], you’re late,” she said during a media event. “So I got there at least 15 minutes early. It’s always cold in the building to me, so I went back to my office on the second floor and grabbed my Army sweater.”
Around this time, Mark Lewis, who is currently the senior official performing the duties of the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, was also starting his day. In those days, Lewis was an Army colonel and the director of plans and resources for the Army G-1.
With year-end resources and manpower on his mind, then-Col. Lewis hoped to meet with Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, the Army deputy chief of staff of personnel.
But according to Lewis, Debbie Ramsaur, Maude’s secretary, said the general was on a tight schedule, but would try to fit Lewis and a colleague in later that morning. This was around 9:15 a.m., he said.
With the general backed up with work, Lewis said he left the G-1’s office.
As Lewis walked down a hallway, the building jolted. Fumes of jet fuel filled the corridor. It was American Airlines Flight 77, a jetliner hijacked by five Saudi men affiliated with al-Qaeda. It was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon.
Moments later, “people were running around,” Lewis said. “They were coming downstairs, which was also on fire; grabbing people on the neck, [but] they weren’t particularly shrieking or crying that I can remember.”
Instead, they were trying to find a way to safety. Many were directed to the end of corridor four, where it connects to the A-ring of the building, which “just happened to be my office,” Lewis said.
The office space Lewis worked in had a double-door that opened to the A-ring, then lead outside of the Pentagon.
He helped wedge the doors open and “started shoving people through those offices that could get out of corridor four and into A-ring,” he said. “Then, of course, away from the fire and out of the building.”
One of Lewis’s coworkers, Roy Wallace, the senior civilian and principal advisor for the Army G-1, was nearby. Wallace had left a meeting with Maude and was roughly 50 feet away from AA 77’s path of destruction when it hit.
Within moments, fire pulled the oxygen from the room he was standing in, he said.
The Pentagon attack killed everyone on board the aircraft and 125 people inside the building, including Ramsaur and Maude and 27 other members of the Army G-1.
The general would be the highest-ranking service member killed during the Sept. 11 attacks. “[Lt. Gen. Maude] was the quintessential general in my mind,” Lewis said. “He was smart. He was focused. He was personable, caring and extremely competent.”
Meanwhile, the blast sent Wills flying across a conference table. The room she was in went dark, but she could picture the room in her mind, she said.
The Army officer crawled through the darkness to a nearby door, but when she reached for the handle it was too hot, she said.
Wills turned and crawled toward another door, the one she entered, unaware people were following her.
When she realized she was being followed, she asked: “Who is this? Talk to me, who is this?” It was one of her coworkers, Lois Stevens.
They continued crawling through smoke and flames, down hallways and under cubicles. Everything was destroyed, Wills said. Behind Lois, a line of coworkers followed Wills as she navigated through the darkness.
“I could see nothing,” Wills said. “I could not even see my hand if I touched my nose.”
At one point, Stevens wanted to give up. The heat was melting her clothes onto her skin, the black smoke was filling all their lungs, and according to Wills, Stevens said she could not go on.
The colonel replied, “Oh, yes you can. Just get on my back, I’ll carry you,” she said. Eventually, they made it out of the mayhem through a window. For her actions, she would receive the Soldier’s Medal and a Purple Heart.
Although she helped save lives, including Stevens, some did not survive. “We lost so many that day,” Wills said. “[They were] my friends.”
Around this time, Gerry Kitzhaber, who now serves as deputy principal to the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs for training, readiness and mobilization, witnessed the blast from his office window. By a twist of fate, he discussed the unfolding events in New York City with his wife, which delayed him from attending a scheduled meeting inside the Pentagon directly hit by AA 77, he said.
Kitzhaber made his way to the Pentagon’s south parking lot and was still trying to process what had happened. Outside, he talked to a truck delivery driver who witnessed everything.
“[The driver] said, I was just here to deliver my load, [when] I heard a noise and looked up and I saw the plane coming in,” Kitzhaber told reporters. “Then he said the [pilot] just gunned it. The next thing he said took us by surprise. He said he could see the people in the windows of the airplane as it came in.”
As Kitzhaber processed the news, the other survivors made their way outside the Pentagon. He said watching the F-16 fighter jets screaming across the skies assured him no other planes would fall from the sky.
The survivors shared their memories of that day for multiple reasons but they agreed it was an opportunity to honor colleagues lost on that day. They were individuals who were “serving their country through service, and they were supporting their families in the most honorable way,” Lewis said. “They are in their place in history.”