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One Day in History
by Sen. Brent “B.R.” Hoffman
The days of media interviews and community club presentations about 9/11 have faded into the past like a long-forgotten photograph in a dusty album.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time people wanted to know about my experience of surviving the attack on the Pentagon. “Where were you?” they’d ask, and then share their own story, of where they were when they heard the news, of how it changed their life. Those days have faded over time, as all memories do…yet I’m going to tell you my story anyway.
September 11th, 2001, began under a beautiful, clear-blue sky in the suburbs of Washington D.C. Even the commute was uncharacteristically pleasant as the metro bus approached the Pentagon, a monolithic mass of concrete and limestone which had held a groundbreaking ceremony exactly 60 years prior. I entered “The Building” on the southeast side, flashed my badge and walked less than a quarter mile of the 17.5 miles of hallways, reporting for work as an Air Force logistics officer in Room 4A264.
At about 9:00, a few coworkers crowded around a television and reported that a plane had hit a building in New York City. We were puzzled by scenes of that first plane, horrified by the second, and completely unaware a third was headed in our direction. About 45 minutes later, a terrorist piloting AA Flight 77 made a 500 mph dive near Arlington National Cemetery, clipping light poles along the roadway, and pancaked into the west wall of the Pentagon. The near-supersonic impact, combined with 9,000 gallons of jet fuel, bored through three layers of limestone, steel and reinforced concrete, instantly snuffing out 184 lives. Along with the unspeakable tragedy of the World Trade Towers, nearly 3,000 were killed on that one day in history.
About 600 feet away from the west wall, we braced ourselves through the deep, earthquake-like shudder of the impact, which was followed by a sense of fear, spreading as quickly through the building as the smell of fire and smoke. After the initial shock, most people exited cautiously through smoke-filled hallways and eventually gathered in the massive parking lot to make some sense of it. Set against the bright blue sky, the Pentagon burned, the outer wall collapsed, and we watched both entranced and horrified, overwhelming grief and an unfocused anger growing within us.
About a week later, we returned to the building with a renewed sense of purpose, eager to bring some payback to those who brought 9/11 upon us. A light film of soot covered folders and staff summary sheets that had once seemed so essential, but we were simply grateful to be alive and in the presence of friends.
Now all these years later, sometimes that day feels like last month, and sometimes it seems like a life in an alternate universe. Cliches like “time flies” and “life happens” come to mind, and it’s still hard to find the words to describe the chaos and tragedy of it all. I served another two years in the Pentagon and my daughter was born not long after. My wife, who was at home with our son on that day in history, was taken by cancer way too young is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I know she would be proud to know our kids are doing well; my son the Marine, and my daughter, the college student. I’d say more, but it would sound like bragging.
I hope I’m not alone in remembering 9/11. Perhaps you also remember where you were, what you were doing, and how time just kept marching forward. I hope this day on the calendar reminds you that life is precious, and we are here for all too brief a time. Make the most of it.
The author served a career in the military, surviving the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. He’s a published author, occasional newspaper columnist and currently serves as a state senator for District 9 in glorious South Dakota.