John first shared his story with a group of our mutual friends at a bonfire. Nearly everyone at the party had children in 6th or 7th grade at Harbor Springs Middle School, and the conversation evolved into a discussion of how the kids were affected by 9/11, an event that occurred while most were still in the womb. Many times when 9/11 is brought up in social situations, the discussion includes memories of where everyone was when they heard of the attacks. We were all sharing our 9/11 stories when John spoke up. “I was in the Pentagon when it was struck.” As you can imagine, the din of conversation quieted and John had everyone’s attention. “I was in the hallway that got hit.”
Captivated, for the next twenty minutes we all listened to John’s story.
John’s 9/11 story begins in the most unlikely of places. Cuba.
John and his father, also John, run a documentary film business called 45 North Communications. In early September 2001, they were filming in Cuba for a non-profit group that builds churches and orphanages worldwide. After traveling all over the Cuban island, they returned to the states. However, instead of flying home to Michigan, they flew to Washington, D.C.
“We were meeting with the Chief of Public Affairs for the Army to discuss a documentary project on Arlington National Cemetery,” John explained as we cruised around Little Traverse Bay in his boat. “My father and I were with a 3-Star Army General named Paul Cerjan, who had set up the meeting. He told us in the morning when we met with him, that the meeting was going to be at the Pentagon. I got excited because I had never been there before. We took the Metro to Alexandria because we were staying in downtown Washington, D.C. We arrived at the Pentagon just after 9 a.m.”
While on the Metro, John overheard people talking about the terrorist attacks in New York. To learn more, he called his wife Margo, who was nine months pregnant with their son Jeep. “At this point the second building had been hit in New York,” John said. “She was afraid because there were still more planes missing and everyone knew it was a terrorist attack. Margo wanted me to go back to the hotel in D.C. when I told her that our meeting was at the Pentagon. She was worried that I wasn’t safe. It’s funny…I have vivid memories of telling her that the Pentagon was the safest building on Earth to be in during an attack on the U.S.”
John, his father, and General Cerjan were escorted to the office of the Chief of Public Affairs, which was on the opposite side of the Pentagon from the Metro Concourse. “Ten minutes after we left the Metro station, we heard this unbelievable deep rumble. We were in the corridor that got hit on the outer ring. Everyone started pouring out of offices. People were screaming in front of us and behind us, because there are crosscutting corridors where the jet fuel went all the way through.”
As shown in the diagram above, the plane struck the middle of the outer ring. John had just rounded the corner into that hallway. What he saw was confusion and chaotic commotion.
John went on…”The hallway filled up immediately with people. Someone told us that a car bomb went off at the helipad. When I heard that, I thought, Is this going to hurt? If it was a car bomb, we didn’t know if we were walking away from the explosion or towards the next one. Oddly, it wasn’t frightening because everything happened so quickly. At one point, I was standing next to a decorated military officer. He turned to me and asked if we were supposed to go out of the building or deeper inside it. I told him that I had no idea. But I was struck by the fact that he was a decorated soldier and I was a guy that had never even been in the Pentagon before. Yet in that moment we were all just human beings trying to survive.”
Two or three minutes after the plane hit, John, his father and General Cerjan made their way out of the Pentagon. “I kept walking, confused and not sure what to do. I noticed my dad was making a beeline towards a set of doors. When he opened it, I saw green grass and I thought going out was the right thing to do. Just as soon as we got outside, my phone rang. It was Margo. She had been watching the events on CNN, like everyone else in America, when she saw a scroll at the bottom that said that smoke was seen at the Pentagon. She called me immediately, which was good thing because as soon as I told her that we were fine and leaving the building, the phone went dead. The government shut off all cellphone communication in an effort to hinder the terrorists from talking to each other.”
John found himself on a stretch of lawn that led out over a parking structure. “We were way out in this field and someone waved us back because there was no way to get out from where we were,” John said. “One of the things that will be forever be emblazoned in my mind was that the sky was so unbelievably blue. It was unreal. I’ve since interviewed people for a 9/11 documentary, including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and they all say the same thing. That they have vivid memories of how blue the sky was that day. While we were there, the smoke was still rising up in a dark cloud. Above it was the bluest blue I have ever seen.”
The men remained and for the next forty-five minutes they simply watched everything unfold. “It was the one time in my life I didn’t have a camera. When I heard we were going to the Pentagon, I was afraid that they would confiscate my equipment. So I left it in the hotel room.”
John found himself amid the wreckage of the plane and building. “I was standing over this little piece of the plane, maybe two feet by two feet large. It had this loose bolt on it. As bad as it sounds, I remember thinking that I should take this bolt home as a souvenir. The only reason I didn’t is because by this time, it was clear it was an airplane that had struck the building. I was worried there might be explosives on the bolt and I thought we were going to flying home two days later. I didn’t want residual explosives on me when I went to the airport.”
With Washington, D.C. locked down, John, his father and General Cerjan walked to Fort Myers. “As we were walking away from the Pentagon we heard this loud boom. The general looked to me and said, ‘That isn’t good.’ We kept walking and heard rumors that a bomb went off at the State Department, but those rumors were of course false. We learned later that what we heard might have been the sonic boom of the fighter jets heading to Pennsylvania to intercept the last plane that was unaccounted for. Although my timing may be off, and it could have been when a section of the Pentagon collapsed.”
Seven years later, the federal government was planning the nation’s first 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon. John got a call at 45 North Communications to produce a documentary on the memorial. It was a year-long production that led John to interview survivors, family members of those killed, President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.
“It is hard to think about how things could have changed dramatically for us. The office I was going to wasn’t hit by the plane, but it was real close. No one was killed in that office, but it is scary to think about how all it takes is a slight deviation by the plane and it would have struck that office or where we were standing in the office. My father says he will never forget the deep rumble and how it seemed to build from inside your bones.”