I was working in the District of Columbia on September 11, 2001, when the note on my Blackberry said simply: “Explosion at the Pentagon.”
Loading my cameras into the passenger seat of my Jeep Wrangler, which had the top down because of the warm weather on that day, I headed across the Potomac River to cover the story.
But the 14th Street Bridge was closed and I could see smoke coming out of the area of the Pentagon. I headed over to the vicinity of the Washington Navy Yard to cross the river and take an alternate route.
At a stoplight, waiting to go up the ramp to the bridge, I saw heavier than normal activity at the Navy Yard. Marines wielding M-16s had the gate locked down. I pulled up one of my camera and shot some photos before the light changed and headed up the ramp. It took nearly 45 minutes to reach the Pentagon.
I parked alongside Columbia Pike, grabbed my cameras and bag and started up the rise to get a good view of the Pentagon where smoke and flames emerged from a large hole in the side of the building near the structure’s helipad.
A man sat on the ground, crying. He said he saw a large commercial jet fly low over the road, knock down a light pole down onto a taxicab and crash into the Pentagon. I wrote down his name, took some photos of him and climbed up to a good spot on top of the rise to start shooting the madness of the scene.
At that time, I did not know two other commercial jets had flown into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, I did not know another jet, headed for Washington, would crash in Pennsylvania because of brave actions of passengers who wanted to stop the madness.
Larry Dowling of Reuters also shot from the ridge. Our employers sent over runners with extra batteries and compact flash cards. This was the early days of digital newspaper photography and we both used Nikon D1 cameras.
I photographed the damage, Pentagon employees running from the building — many helping others — and firefighters and rescue workers. I photographed part of a landing gear on the ground just in front of the massive gap in the the huge building.
Another photographer stopped shooting and asked: “What the hell is that smell?”
It was the odors of aviation fuel and burning flesh, something I had smelled before at another time, another place and something I had hoped I would never smell again.
At one point, a Pentagon police officer told us to leave and find shelter. Another plane was reported heading to Washington with intentions unknown. He also told us about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center,
After working through the day and most of the night, another photographer relieved me and I headed home to our condo in Arlington for a few hours of sleep. I found a card in the door from special agent John Ryan of the Naval Investigative Service with a request that I all him the next day.
At first I laughed and thought it was a joke. John (Jack) Ryan was the lead character of Tom Clancy’s novels about the CIA.
After a couple of hours of sleep and with several cups of coffee in me, I called the number on the card. It was the NIS office at the Navy Yard and Special Agent Ryan did exist.
“I have some questions,” he said. “Were you, by any chance, in the vicinity of the Washington Navy Yard on 11 September?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And what was your purpose there?”
“I was at a stop light before heading across the river en route to the Pentagon.”
“Did you do anything else while waiting in your vehicle?”
“Yes, I took some photos of the Marines locking down the Navy Yard.”
“What was your purpose for taking those photographs.”
“It is what I do for a living,” I said. “There was something going on. I did not know what at the time but it appeared important.”
“Is there anyway I can confirm this?”
I told him that he could check the media lists with government agencies. I had press credentials for several. I also suggested he check the photos in the day’s papers.
I heard him turn the pages of a newspaper.
“Yes,” he said, “I see someone your photos here. Were you at any other military installations on that day?”
I tried no to laugh.
“Yes,” I said, “I was at the Pentagon.”
“And what was your purpose there?”
Again, a stifled laugh,
“There was a big hole in the side of the building and there was smoke and fire visible.”
He asked for my date of birth and my Social Security number and said he would contact me again if he needed anything else. He never called again.
Later that day I was back at the Pentagon and related the story for another photographer.
“Something tells me that the world as we know it will change,” he said.
It already had.
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