Sept. 11, 2001, has been forever engrained in American’s minds as one of most tragic days for the nation, where thousands of lives were lost.
The impact is still felt 14 years later. White Sands Missile Range employees who found themselves near the area or in critical roles at that time have shared their stories that still affect them to this day.
WSMR Safety and Nuclear Surety Director Randy Grunow was a Chief Warrant Officer at the time and worked at the Pentagon as a senior program analyst and operation safety advisor for the Army. Grunow said he had just finished giving a brief to his boss near the impact area where the plane hit and left at around 9:15 a.m. He then proceeded to his office to look over files for another brief he was set to give at 9:30 a.m. A co-worker had gone into his office to ask if he had heard about a jet hitting one of the twin towers. At that very moment Grunow said he felt a rumbling that almost took him down to the floor. The second tower and the Pentagon had been hit at nearly the same time.
“I had my briefing book and I was standing at my desk, just reviewing the slides, and the hit almost took me off my feet,” Grunow said. “I thought a missile had hit the building.”
Grunow said he later realized it was basically like a missile had hit the Pentagon, since the plane was full of fuel.
Immediately after the Pentagon was hit, Grunow said the alarms went off and all personnel headed towards the center court of the Pentagon. Grunow said he remembers exiting his office and being met by a sea of people streaming down the hall shoulder-to-shoulder. He said it wasn’t panic and mayhem as you see in the movies, except when accordion like doors closed up and several people thought they were trapped. However, the doors were merely a safety feature and personnel could open them and close them on their own.
Grunow said that when he finally made his way to the center court he saw a green piece of metal the size of a plate on the ground.
“The lime green was my first indication that a plane had hit the Pentagon,” Grunow said.
Grunow, who specialized in aviation, said he remembered the distinct lime green color as the inside of an aircraft fuel tank. After making their way to the center court, everyone was moved to the south parking lot. Grunow said he saw an FBI agent panicking shortly after the agent had asked all personnel to evacuate the area, and immediately began to panic himself. Grunow later found out that the agent had just been informed that another aircraft that had left Pennsylvania was headed towards Washington.
Grunow said it wasn’t until lunchtime that they were allowed to go home. For security reasons, the metro was only headed south into Springfield, where Grunow had left his car. So, Grunow had to give some employees rides home once they reached Springfield.
“It was very somber in the Metro,” Grunow said.
After being home for only a half hour, Grunow said he was asked to return to the Pentagon to assist with an accountability count. He said he worked all night and through the morning when he finally took time to breathe. While he was working there, firemen were still working on the roof to control the flames. As he was walking down the halls he said the area looked as if people had just evaporated. Trays and food were still out, stores were still open, and maintenance cars were left with keys inside.
Grunow said the terrorist’s lack of flight experience may have saved his life. He said the plane had gotten so low to the ground that it took out a light pole on the way down and bounced off a landing pad and upwards into the Pentagon.
“From outside of my office you could see a perfect circle with everything collapsed around it,” Grunow said. “That’s what really saved a lot of people.”
He said the area of the building where the main impact was felt was not heavily populated because it was just newly renovated and people were in the process of moving back in. Grunow said since that day he has learned to never to take a second for granted.
“I just count my blessings every day. It could have been a lot different. I feel very fortunate,” Grunow said. “I try to live every day as my last, because you just never know what’s around the corner.”
WSMR Employee Assistance Program counselor and Drug and Alcohol Prevention coordinator Arthur Longoria was a captain in the Army at the time and served as a professor at West Point. He said they were about to start class when the first jet hit the first tower. He didn’t find out about the second tower until after class.
“We were all watching it on television, then we carried on with class. A lot of people were just stunned, shocked. My big concern was the likelihood of more attacks,” Longoria said.
The path the jet took went directly over West Point. Longoria said he knew West Point could be a target and there was a nuclear reactor just across the river that he feared could also be a target.
“I was pretty concerned over the next few days,” Longoria said. “After that first day it was a really somber mood among the faculty and staff.”
WSMR Deputy Fire Chief Marc Davis was serving as a fire inspector at Fort Huachuca, Arizona at the time. Davis said he remembers it was very difficult to get to work that day. He said he had heard of the attacks and assumed the attacks had taken place at the military installation. He turned around and returned home and turned on the news to see what was happening. He then returned to work later in the day. “It literally took me two or three hours (in line) to get on base. The entire day was somber,” Davis said.
He said the events that occurred that day created a new guidance for emergency response firefighters. When he first started as a firefighter, Davis said his natural instinct was to enter a burning building. “Now we take a little more precaution,” Davis said. “We’re more aware of our surroundings and we know what other potentials could erupt.”
Although there was a lot of discussion after the events arguing that the New York City firefighters should have stayed behind until all was clear, Davis said he understands why the firefighters did what they did.
“This is just what we do, we grow up in this field and we instinctively want to help people,” Davis said. “They did what their natural instinct told them to do, which was to go in and help.”
Davis did not know any of the firemen whose lives were lost that day, but he was friends with a New York City fireman who had since retired.
“I would go home and just watch the news, it became a routine until I realized what I was doing, and decided to stop,” Davis said.
Davis said public perception of firefighters developed into an admiration of the profession after Sept. 11, 2001.
“The public treated us like heroes. Firefighters could do no wrong. Everybody wanted to become a firefighter and it was the same for the military,” he said.
WSMR Executive Director Paul Mann was attending Defense Acquisition University at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he was studying to become a program manager. He worked as the lead for Task Force I during Sept. 11, 2001. His operations officer, Lt. Commander Robert Elseth, had Reserve duty that day at the Pentagon. Elseth was standing watch in the Navy Command Operations, where the main strike occurred and died instantly.
Shortly after receiving the news of the attacks Fort Belvoir was evacuated and Mann went on to take his three children out of school. The next morning they were ordered to continue with the course and graduated in December. After graduation, Mann was assigned to be the technical director for the Aegis Class of Ships technical division and began preparing the fleet for war.