This is a personal reflection of an event that altered world history. If you are already overwhelmed by other stories and coverage of the event, please forgive me, read something else and come back to Atomic Insights later.
In July 2001, I was transferred from my job as the Associate Chairman of the Weapons and Systems Engineering Department at the US Naval Academy to a Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) organization called Assistant for Administration, Undersecretary of the Navy (AAUSN). My specific part of that organization was called the Office of Process, Technology and Information (OPTI). Two of our major functions were to provide computer network services and training for the 2,500 people who worked in various Secretary of the Navy organizations located in about at least a half a dozen different buildings in Washington. Our office, servers and most of the technical support staff were housed in the Washington Navy Yard.
On September 11, 2001, I was still in the early stages of learning my new job and meeting all of the people I needed to know in order to do that job. I was learning my way around DC and trying to determine the best way to get from Annapolis to the Navy Yard, a trip that is not made any easier by the way that I-295 southbound does not connect to I-395 southbound. One thing I had figured out was that it was easier to get to work if I planned to arrive in the Yard by 6:00 am and spend some time in the gym before normal business hours.
I had just about stopped sweating after a good workout when Andy Cameron, an often excitable young lieutenant commander, poked his head into my Navy Yard office door – “A freaking plane just hit the World Trade Center.” Andy was our operations officer for the Department of the Navy Headquarters Network (DNHN) and one of the most talented “geeks” I have ever known. I am not sure to this day how he found out so quickly about the first attack; it was not yet 9:00 am when he made his breathless statement.
The office where I worked was an “open store secret” space, so we did not have any cable television, but we had a TV that we used for some training videos. Like many 2001 era TVs, ours had the right connectors on the back for an old-fashioned antenna, but we did not have any rabbit ears. That did not stop Andy or any of the other technical folks I worked with. Within minutes, they had cut some available wires to a reasonably correct length to serve as an antenna for the local TV stations and dangled those wires out of our 6th floor office. (Our building was one of the old industrial brick buildings in the Washington Navy Yard; without an antenna, there was no reception at all.)
By the time Andy had the TV working, the news had already been released that a second plane had struck the World Trade Center. About the same time that we turned on the TV, Andy got a call on his operations officer cell phone from one of his technicians who had been dispatched on a trouble call to the Navy Annex, also known as Federal Office Building 2 – FOB-2. The technician told Andy “A huge, f—ing plane just flew right over my head and hit the Pentagon.”
Aside: The Navy Annex is the really ugly series of buildings about a half a mile up the hill from the Pentagon that are visible from I-395 and sandwiched Columbia Pike and the Arlington National Cemetery. Today, the North end of the complex, where the 8th wing used to be, houses the Air Force Memorial. I would end up working in the Annex for 5 out of the next 9 years. End Aside.
The national news programs initially described the plane that hit the Pentagon as a small plane. We felt like we had some inside information that needed to be shared, but could not figure out who to call. That misconception did not last long, there were plenty of other witnesses who could correct it. Once the Pentagon was hit, I knew we would be getting very busy, so I sent a brief email to my wife’s work email account to let her know what had happened and where I was. Since many DNHN users were “in The Building”, I visited the Pentagon as part of my job several times per week. Unfortunately, she had already stopped checking her work email and was anxiously waiting for me to call her. I did not get around to that until late in the day. Needless to say, she was not happy with me.
Most of the rest of the day is a big blur. We held several meetings, tried to plan how we would be recovering the damaged parts of our network, worried about the people we knew in the building, and ascertained the location of all of our technicians. Like most of the rest of the people in the country, we huddled around the TV and tried to grasp the magnitude of what had happened. We were informed that we were being “locked down” in the Yard and could not leave until given the go-ahead. As I recall, that came sometime in the early to mid afternoon, but I still had things that had to be done, so I did not leave the office until about 5:00.
The last memory of the day – before those challenging conversations with my wife about not calling – was looking out from the parking garage at the Yard and seeing the smoke billowing up from the Pentagon. That sight did not change much for the next several days. Many other aspects of my life, and the lives of millions of others, changed rather substantially as a result of those tense minutes between 08:50 and 09:50 am.
I cannot end this without mentioning a recent development related to 9-11 that has been bugging me for the past week. I found out on Saturday, September 3, during a tailgate party at Navy’s opening game against Delaware, that an old friend was at risk of going to jail as a result of the heroic actions that he took on 9-11. Chuck was stationed in the Pentagon ten years ago and had an office close to the impact. On his way out the first time, he was injured. He went back in and helped several people leave. He was injured again. He was awarded a Purple Heart for his heroism. Like many of my classmates, Chuck is a stubborn, lifelong athlete and trained warrior who has learned that sometimes you have to be able to “play hurt.”
As part of his personal rehabilitation program, he got himself in good enough shape to run the New York City Marathon in November 2001. He had qualified and registered to run long before 9-11. It was an activity that he had enjoyed before his injuries. His time during that race was an hour longer than his previous personal best, but he was proud that he had been able to finish, despite the pain. He also played a little lacrosse with his old friends and children, even though that also hurt. Chuck was on the varsity lacrosse team while we were midshipmen; the sport was a part of his life and he did not want to admit that actions by criminals had taken it away from him. He still limps and he winces in pain when greeted by someone who hugs or backslaps with too much enthusiasm.
The reason that he may end up going to jail was that he filed a disability claim with the 9-11 Victim’s fund and received a modest amount of money. He was accused of fraud by a former business partner with whom he had had a falling out (that part of the story has never been published). For some reason, prosecutors wanted to make the charge stick badly enough that they tried three times before finally getting a conviction. Their case rested on the fact that he could not have been as hurt as he claimed since he had been able to complete a marathon and had been able to play some lacrosse.
It is obvious to me that the last judge has never been a competitive athlete or a warrior.