Five Years Later, Memories and Lessons of Sept. 11 Remain Strong
On this morning five years ago, Steven M. Carter Sr. was at work as the assistant building manager for the Pentagon when terrorists slammed a jetliner into the nation's military headquarters. As others sought safety, he stayed in the building to help contain damaged power and water systems.
William Stout , a Defense Department law enforcement officer, had the day off on Sept. 11, 2001. When he learned of the attack, he jumped in his car and headed for the Pentagon -- and into traffic gridlock. He returned home, got a bike and cycled about seven miles to the Pentagon, where he cleared the way for firefighting crews and helped set up a security perimeter.
Carter and Stout that day showed the importance of leadership, experience and training.
"It didn't matter what position you were in or how many stars were on your shoulder at that point. The people looked to the ones they had faith in," Carter said.
Stout found that "to be an effective leader in that environment, you had to have credibility with your people."
Their memories of 9/11 -- the sequence of events, the confusion, the danger and fear of another attack -- have not faded. In a recent joint interview, they looked back at incidents and training exercises that helped prepare them for catastrophe.
Three weeks before the attack, for example, a Pentagon laundry room caught on fire, putting Carter's building maintenance and operations staff through an emergency drill. "When the plane hit, that was so fresh in everybody's mind that they immediately started those same steps again. When an event happens, it kind of takes your footing out from underneath you. You start to reach back for something familiar," Carter said.
In his office, Carter had been watching televised coverage of the jetliner that had sliced into the north tower of the World Trade Center. When he saw another plane hit the south tower, he grew uneasy and called his boss to suggest they begin locking down electrical and mechanical rooms in the Pentagon in the event that officials upgraded building security.
"All of a sudden, my room shook," Carter said. About 300 yards away, parts of the Pentagon were in ruins. Fire alarms went off and phones began ringing. Fire and smoke began to spread, and broken pipes dumped water.
Not far from his office, Carter discovered a line of Navy and civilian employees near the Navy command center standing calf-deep in water, handing injured employees through an open space where a wall had once stood. They were in an electrical vault that normally handled 13,800 volts of power, at risk of electrocution. Within minutes, though, an electrician on Carter's team arrived to turn off the power.
Warned that a second attack was possible, Carter pulled most of his staff out of the building. He and six others stayed, climbing down tunnels to turn off water pipes in an effort to contain leaks.
Outside the Pentagon, Stout provided what he called "infrastructure support," escorting fire, rescue, natural gas, telephone and electrical crews to the crash site. The next day, he was named the assistant incident commander, part of a unified command that included Arlington County law enforcement and emergency response personnel.
Stout was on duty every day for seven months, overseeing security for the collection of evidence and for building stabilization efforts. The military, National Guard and local police approached the crash site with different priorities, and, Stout said, "to get the job done with the least amount of friction, that was a leadership challenge."
Stout, a lieutenant in 2001, was promoted to major this year and is a deputy division commander with the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. Carter now serves as the Pentagon liaison for the building's renovation project and was put in charge of expediting repairs to areas damaged in the terrorist attack.
Since the attack, the Pentagon has replaced its decades-old manual controls for power and water with automated systems, and Carter has reviewed procedures to minimize "putting people in harm's way" in the event of another catastrophe.
It took four days to get the fires from the jetliner crash extinguished, and Carter is especially proud that "my building" never closed because of the attack.
The terrorists, he said, "bruised us but didn't shut us down."
Stephen Barr's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.