Terrorists attack the Pentagon
At 8:20 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2011, air traffic controllers cleared American Airlines Flight 77 for take-off to Los Angeles. At 8:50 a.m. the pilot reported cruising at 34,000 ft. over the Ohio-Kentucky border to an Indianapolis County air traffic controller. After that, the controller lost contact with the plane. No one outside the plane knew that it had reversed direction and was heading back east.
The attack on the first World Trade Tower came at 8:46 a.m. and the second at 9:03 a.m. American Airlines ordered all its planes grounded.
At 9:32 a.m., an air traffic controller at Dulles International Airport noted an unidentified blip on her radar. There was no way to make contact. The controllers held their breaths as they watched the blip move directly toward the no-fly zone over the nation’s Capitol, then make a southerly 330-degree circle directly for the Pentagon.
At 9:38 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2011, American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon building in Arlington, Va. at 530 mph. The Boeing 757 was carrying enough jet fuel to create an explosive force of one-half ton of TNT.
The plane came in so low it clipped off light posts. It entered the building between the fourth and fifth corridors. The impact created an explosion that sent a fireball 450 feet up into the clear blue sky, followed by a plume of black smoke The force sent debris into piles in the building, spraying them with jet fuel and starting multiple fires inside.
El Dorado Hills resident Bill Delaney was a Major in the U.S. Army on that day, assigned to the Pentagon. He was in office 1D142, on the first floor, when the plane hit his section.
Ten years later, from his office at Sierra Nevada Corporation in Folsom, Delaney recalled the trauma of the day. He said he has not talked about it until now. Here is his story, in his own words:
“Essentially, I was in the right place at the wrong time on Sept. 11, 2001.
“At 9 a.m. I walked into our Director’s office in the Pentagon and noticed one of the World Trade Center towers burning on the news display. I asked Capt. Darrell Oliver to adjust the volume and we listened to news reporters speculating about an accident in New York City. Other staff members including Col. Jerry Dickerson joined us in the office. Shortly, we were stunned when a dark plane deliberately careened into the second WTC tower at causing a horrific orange ball of fire. We all instantly knew it was no accident.
“We returned to our offices and sent emails to family, friends and co-workers urging them to tune in to the news and pray for the people in New York. (His brother Mike was working in a Congressional office in the 6th corridor.) I called my wife, Bertie, and told her we would probably be working late, something terrible had happened and I thought it meant war. Suddenly, I was knocked to the ground by the tremendous force of the explosion caused by American Airlines Flight 77 crashing though our sector in the Pentagon.
“The plane crashed into the building near the fourth corridor and careened through the building taking out everything in its path just a hundred yards or so down the hallway. The people in our section were knocked to the floor by the concussion as ceiling tiles and fluorescent lamps crashed down from the ceiling with a huge blast. It was the loudest noise and hardest shock I experienced in 26 years of Army service. We did not know it then, but 189 people had tragically lost their lives, including many of our co-workers.
“As our team recovered from the initial shock, adrenaline and training took over. Through the darkness we saw two beams of bright light and we realized we had a way out. The light came from small windows on the external doors of the fifth corridor, about fifty yards away. Normally the fifth corridor doors could not be seen from our office, but with the ceilings and several walls gone, I could see them standing on my desk.
“Looking in the direction of the fourth corridor, there was nothing but acrid black smoke, bellowing from a jet fuel fire; in the other direction, two bright beams of light. The choice was easy–take everyone out toward the fifth corridor. We worked for about 15 minutes to find everyone we could in the rubble and direct them out of the building through the fifth corridor doors. There were a lot of injuries, mostly burns, cuts and bruises.
“In our outer office, Ms. Leigh Newman had a large gash across her leg, which was bleeding, but she refused to exit or receive treatment and she stayed to help others exit the building. Mr. Danny Jamison had been blown with the wall in front of him into the hallway and was just regaining consciousness. As he clung to a large bundle of orange Internet cables hanging from the crawl space above, he said he thought he was holding a static line for a parachute jump in Vietnam. Leigh helped Danny find his way out.
“We pulled 13 trapped co-workers over the wall from the main office area into our space and directed them to the fifth corridor. About that time, a janitorial staff member came running into our area from the opposite direction. Frightened and panicked, he climbed up on a desk and attempted to climb over the wall into the space we had just evacuated. He was headed in the direction of the fire. We grabbed him, told him he was OK and escorted him toward back the fifth corridor doors.
“It was then we realized no one had seen Ms. Desaree Ducket, the Director’s Administrative Assistant. Dez, as we called her, worked in the area we had just evacuated. Immediately Capt. Oliver climbed back into the smoke-filled area to look for Dez. He found her under a conference table in the Director’s office and anxiously asked her, ‘Are you all right?’ We were cupping our ears and leaning into the darkness over the wall to hear her response when she loudly said, ‘Am I all right? Am I all right? I just got blown through a wall and you’re asking me if I am all right?’ It was a comical moment in an otherwise tense situation and we still laugh about it to this day. Dez was all right.
“Within a very few minutes, the smoke was filling the spaces we were working in. By then there were only three of us left in the area, Maj, John Schotzko, Maj. Rob Warring and myself. We called out into the darkness to see if anyone else needed help. It was eerily quiet. It was getting hard to breathe and we had to duck to get air as we moved around in the darkness looking for people. The offices across the hall were completely gone. I heard later that seven people died there. About that time, Maj. David King came walking out of the smoke from the direction of the fire. As he limped toward us with his shredded uniform and skin hanging from his burns, completely covered in a white ash, he looked like a ghost. Dave shared an office with Jerry Dickerson and Staff Sgt. White. Tragically both were killed in the impact, but miraculously Dave had survived. Dave had burns on 70 percent of his body and would endure many months of recovery before he returned to duty.
“By now we could hear a roaring sound as a thick blanket of black smoke grew lower. It’s hard to forget the smell of burning jet fuel. We were having a hard time getting air. No one answered our calls. We decided it was time to leave and we made our way toward the doors. While we were moving toward the corridor, we thought we heard a voice back in the smoke and tried to go back in, but by now the smoke was so thick you could not see two feet or breathe at all. It was time to go.
“As we reached the doors, an Arlington fireman in full gear with a large ax, an oxygen tank and mask was coming in. We pointed back into the black wall of smoke and told him we thought we heard someone calling out. He immediately walked in that direction and disappeared into the smoke.
“Once outside, we saw a line of wounded people lying on the green grass near Highway 110. We began to comfort and treat the wounded with help from the medical staff from the Pentagon Clinic. Soon ambulances arrived and later a helicopter to evacuate the worst cases. I saw Maj. Dave King; he asked me to write his social security number and wife’s phone number on his shirt as they placed him in the ambulance.
“There was wreckage from the plane scattered all about and a large hole filled with flames in the wall of the Pentagon. Above the hole, a large plume of black smoke rose into the clear blue September sky. I knew at that moment, the world and all of our lives had profoundly changed.”
Delaney said that looking into the hole the plane made when it pierced the wall of the Pentagon was like looking into the fires of hell. The hole only lasted about 20-30 minutes, before the walls caved into a V formation, but enough time to let survivors get out.
Coming out of the building, he said it seemed like a nightmare, like it really never happened.
He stayed outside with others who were physically able, helping take care of the injured until 8:30 p.m., when an Infantry unit came to relieve them.
The cell phones were all dead after the crash. When he got home to his family, his three children had been sent home from school and were waiting, not knowing what had happened to him.
Daughter Kathleen was 18. She went on to graduate from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., marry a program manager, and become the mother of Delaney’s grandson Witten Sawyer, 1.
Jennifer was 16. She married her high school sweetheart, who is now a lieutenant in the Marines, serving in Okinawa.
William, Jr. was 12. He is now a Lance Cpl. in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving his second tour in Afghanistan.
Delaney’s sister Kathleen Kathleen served in the Air Force as a Medical Service Officer and was awarded the Army’s Meritorious Service Medal for her work evacuating casualties during the first Gulf War. Younger brother Patrick was a career Army Artillery Officer who fought served in the 18th Corps Field Artillery during the first Gulf War for which he received a Bronze Star. They too were unaware of his fate, knowing he was in the area of attack.
For days after the attack, Delaney coughed up black jet smoke. He said he experienced survivor’s guilt. He went through a period of despondency, questioning why it happened. “This doesn’t happen by accident,” he said. “This was a terrorist attack. This meant war.”
On Oct. 4, 2011, Delaney received an Army certificate for the U.S. Army Commendation Medal, for actions evacuating fellow workers and treating casualties in the aftermath of the 911 attack on the Pentagon.
A military life
Delaney grew up in the military and has made friends around the world. His father was a Colonel in the U. S. Air Force. His mother is Puerto Rican. He spent his young years in Spain and speaks the language fluently. The family also lived in Japan.
His father told him that to have a successful career in the military, he should be a line officer, a commanding officer. In the Air Force, that meant being a pilot. Delaney’s eyes were not strong enough. But he loved tanks. The Army had tank commands. Following high school, in April 1975, he enlisted in the Army and trained at Ft. Polk, La. He was assigned to The Old Guard at Fort Myer, Va., where he was accepted as a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
He spent a year in a West Point preparatory school, then four years at West Point, earning a B.S. in Engineering. Later he obtained an MBA from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
At the Pentagon, Delaney was assigned to the Quadrennial Defense Review. The Quadrennial Defense Review is a legislatively-mandated review of Department of Defense strategy and priorities. It sets a long-term course for the Department of Defense, assessing the threats and challenges that the nation faces and re-balancing the department’s strategies, capabilities and forces to address today’s conflicts and tomorrow’s threats. Delaney said a lot of what they came up with was prescient.
He retired from the Army in 2005 as a Lt. Col. after a career of fascinating assignments.
The Pentagon building design reduced fatalities
The building is one of the largest in the world, with 6.5 million square feet, and 3.7 million square feet of office space, housing 23,000 military and civilian employees. The five-floors above ground, five-ring design proved strong. The exploding airplane did not get past all the rings, nor beyond the fourth and fifth corridors.
The number of people who died from the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York has been set at 2753. Later investigation of the buildings revealed several design flaws.
The Pentagon was different. The death toll was 189–five hijackers, 59 passengers and crew, and 125 Pentagon employees.
Construction on the Pentagon started Sept. 11, 1941, exactly 60 years before the attack. It’s original double-reinforced concrete columns and beams were designed to dissipate the force of a blast. Following the Oklahoma City attack, the building was undergoing upgrades to protect against a terrorist attack. The area where the plane struck had recently received an improved sprinkler system, which operated as required. The windows had been replaced with blast-proof glass that did not blow out. A large section of the building near the attack site had been evacuated for remodeling and those employees were working offsite.
The Pentagon is a symbol of the United States military strength. The building has been healed, but human psyches haven’t. The building was completely repaired within a year. A landscaped two-acre memorial to the 184 victims opened Sept. 11, 2008.
Delaney now believes that if the United States had responded to earlier terrorist attacks–he cited the 1993 bombing in the garage of the World Trade Center–the attacks on 9/11 might have been prevented. “Let other countries know that there would be a tremendous price to pay,” he said.
Asked how one gets over such a horrific experience, the answer is one never really does. Delaney has tried to understand how such an act could happen. He has studied Islam, researched Al-Qaeda, read the Quran and delved into Middle Eastern history and cultures. His love and pride for his country is soul-deep. He said, “I spent 30 years defending the American dream. I honestly believe we’ll turn this around. The American people will turn this around.”
In the meantime, Bill Delaney is director of business development at Sierra Nevada Corporation, which makes protective gear that his son is carrying in Afghanistan.