Normalcy returns to Pentagon following days of tragedy

By Kathy-Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   Lt. Col. Stephen A. Clark of the U.S. Air Force was busily at work in his office inside the Pentagon on Sept. 11 when the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred.
   "We were getting ready for a meeting on the other side of the Pentagon when we were notified that an aircraft had just flown into the World Trade Center," he said via e-mail.
   "We immediately turned on the office TV and began to discuss that it was highly improbable that this was an accident. The second aircraft impacting the other tower removed any doubt."
   Clark, whose grandparents are Ruby Clark and the late Thomas Clark of Elizabethton, called down to the office where the meeting was to be held to confirm that it was canceled. Because both offices are involved in Special Operations, they now had a host of other issues to deal with.
   "As we continued to discuss the extent of what had happened and what actions we could anticipate being required to support ... we heard a soft 'boom' and the windows shook from a small concussion wave.
   "Our immediate thoughts were that a bomb had gone off somewhere in town, or something else caused the vibration," he said.
   The wife of an office mate called in to tell her husband that she had heard a loud explosion at their house, located more than 20 miles from the Pentagon.
   "Things weren't making any sense until the Pentagon evacuation alarm was sounded minutes later," he said. "Almost on queue my wife, Cynthia, called to see if I was all right and to tell me a third aircraft had hit the Pentagon."
   He reassured her and advised her that he was in the process of getting out and had to go.
   "We gathered our 'fly-away' kits that would allow us to keep functioning from an alternate location and quickly proceeded down to the Pentagon river entrance and out to the north parking lot.
   "The extent of what had happened -- that we had in fact been attacked -- didn't register until we got outside and saw the smoke billowing over top of the Pentagon. People with injuries were being evacuated and given first-aid under the trees. The Pentagon child-care center was also being evacuated and we stopped to help move the children and cribs to a more secure and consolidated location," he said.
   "For everything that was happening -- the shock, injuries, smoke and uncertainty -- people were moving and working together to take care of what needed to be done. From generals to privates and civilian contractors, it didn't matter. They all pitched in and took care of each other," he said.
   According to Clark, emergency responders were "absolutely phenomenal. If you know any of these people, you should be extremely proud."
   After conducting a quick head count to make sure everyone in the office made it out, members of Clark's office walked to a nearby apartment belonging to one of their co-workers. It took more than an hour to get to the apartment located less than a mile away.
   "Shortly after arriving we had to evacuate again because there was a report that a fourth aircraft was inbound to Washington," he said.
   It took Clark four hours to work his way home and almost as long to get a phone line out to call his family due to overloaded phone lines. Finally, he was able to get one call out. A college friend from Nashville was able to get through to Clark's wife and then relayed to the rest of the family that he was all right.
   While Clark was still trying to get home, many of his neighbors stopped by to see his wife and inquire whether he was OK. The also checked to see whether she needed anything. The Clarks continued to receive phone calls and e-mails throughout the evening from friends, family and associates. Their experience was not unique. The same thing was occurring throughout the country.
   Clark is no novice when it comes to military action. He piloted an AC-130 Spectre Gunship as a member of the 16 Special Operations Wing from 1992 to 1997, flying operations in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti. From 1997 to 1999, he was executive officer to the Commander at Headquarters, Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla. From 2000 to present, he is assigned to headquarters, U.S. Air Force, DCS, Air and Space Operations, Special Operations Division in Washington, D.C.
   His most enduring memory following the Sept. 11 attack may well be the day after, he said, when the Pentagon went back to work.
   "Thousands of people -- military and civilian -- lined up at security checkpoints to enter a building that was still burning. It was an unreal image that defied normalcy, but we had to show the world that we as a country could not be shaken by such a diabolical act of cowardice," he said.
   "As I walked across the parking lot, smoke was still pouring from the building. It had that acidic smell of an electrical fire, the kind that stays in your nostrils for hours or even days."
   Large tents were being set up in the parking lot to provide food and temporary shelter for the armies of rescue workers called in to assist in the emergency. Food was being grilled and heavy machinery was being trucked in from all over northern Virginia, he said.
   "I waited in line more than 45 minutes to clear security. As I made my way to the office, I noticed every wall locker that had held a fire hose was empty. The halls of the Pentagon reeked with the smell of burning jet fuel and insulation. Soot covered the floors and you could see the footprints of the firefighters that had made their way through the building the night before.
   "We didn't get a lot of work done that day, as over half of the offices in the Pentagon were inaccessible. However, the people were there, taking stock of the situation and accounting for all of their friends and associates.
   "Today, more people say good morning, smile, and say thank you. We count our blessings, get on with life, and down to the business at hand," he said.
   Clark's role in the events that unfolded Sept. 11 was that of an evacuee, he said. His office, which is located directly opposite the impact site, was hardly affected.
   "Had the aircraft missed high, or impacted from the other direction, things would have been significantly different. But it didn't, and for that, my family and I are extremely fortunate.
   "Go Vols and God bless America," he said.