Thursday, September 17, 2009

Operation Recovery

By Katherine McIntire Peters Government Executive September 1, 2002 Faith, friendship and duty carried Army employees out of the burning Pentagon and are helping them restore their lives and work.

Like so many whose lives were turned upside down on Sept. 11, 2001, Martha Carden looks back on that Tuesday morning in terrible awe. A decision to reschedule a meeting or pass up another cup of coffee or linger in conversation at a colleague's desk would have unimaginable consequences for Carden and her colleagues in the Army's personnel office. The most mundane things - a visit to the restroom, a missed medical appointment, or even an impromptu conversation in the hallway - would determine life and death that day.

But early on that Tuesday morning, all that was still to come. Before terrorists armed with box cutters and an apocalyptic vision hijacked four commercial airliners and galvanized the nation for war, what struck Carden was the weather. It was brilliantly clear, cool and sunny, a glorious late summer morning in Northern Virginia.

Carden was busy at work on the final details of a retirement party the staff planned to throw for Sgt. Maj. Larry Strickland. Strickland had been the right-hand man for the last six Army personnel chiefs, most recently for Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, Carden's boss. She dreaded losing her office mate of 11 years; for her, his retirement was going to be bittersweet.

Workdays begin early at the Pentagon. By the time Carden left her desk in Gen. Maude's second-floor executive suite for a 9 a.m. meeting in the conference room across the hall, most of the people scheduled to attend had already been at work for hours. The meeting for the personnel office's executive officers should have been held the previous Tuesday, but the Labor Day holiday had thrown things off schedule. Nobody at the meeting had heard the news that 15 minutes earlier, a plane had flown into the World Trade Center's north tower in lower Manhattan. When a second plane struck the south tower at 9:03 a.m., the meeting already was under way.

Most of the staff had just moved into newly renovated office space on the western side of the Pentagon, and discussion at the meeting was lively. "We were having a great old time," remembers Lt. Col. Regina Grant. Colleagues teased Carden and Lt. Col. Robert Grunewald about a few minor administrative issues. Grunewald, the executive officer in charge of technology, and Carden, a civil servant with 30 years of experience and a well-known aversion to new technology, made unlikely friends. It was a close-knit staff, with many long-serving members.

When Max Beilke left around 9:30 a.m.for another meeting with Maude and several others in the executive offices across the hall, nobody gave it much thought. Beilke was an Army legend. The 69-year-old deputy chief of retirement services was a retired master sergeant who fought in Korea and was the last U.S. combat soldier to leave Vietnam in 1973.

Regina Grant couldn't help making eye contact with Lt. Col. Dennis Johnson throughout the meeting. Johnson sat across the table from her and was a good friend. "Col. Johnson just has such a warm face. His eyes and my eyes were always meeting - it was kind of funny. I don't know why, really. He was the management support officer and the guy you needed to know to make your job easier," she says. A couple of seats away sat Lois Stevens, whose 17 years in the personnel office gave her an institutional knowledge few could begin to approach. For Stevens, most of those around the conference table and in the surrounding offices had become a second family.


While staff inside the conference room were oblivious to what was happening in New York, those outside had begun to hear the news. But they weren't any better prepared for what would come next. In the large cubicle complex just outside the conference room, security officer John Yates stood watching the spectacle in New York on television when President Bush cut short a school visit in Sarasota, Fla., at 9:30 a.m. to say that the country was under a terrorist attack. The televised images from New York were especially horrifying to Yates. Since childhood, he'd been afraid of dying in a fire. Yates called his new wife at her office to tell her what was happening. She joked that he might want to consider working under his desk for the rest of the day.

Nearby, Tracy Webb worked at her desk. She had planned to walk down to the Starbucks kiosk in the cafeteria for a cup of coffee with Odessa Morris and Dalisay Olaes a few minutes earlier, but something had come up and she asked them to wait for her. Morris, who planned to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary that evening, left for the restroom while Webb finished what she was doing. Olaes heard about the attack in New York, and called her husband to tell him. Then she took down the rosary she kept on a plastic hook on her computer terminal and began to pray. Across the aisle, Sgt. 1st Class Jose Calderon-Olmeda hung up the phone after talking to his boss, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Julia Lyons, who was just then pulling into a parking lot on the south side of the Pentagon.

Then, everything changed.

Whether there was a low rumble or a loud bang depends on who you ask, but most people remember that the floor shook and the ceiling started to crumble. Grunewald felt the conference room explode. "The corner of the room behind Martha just erupted into a fireball," he says. "The walls started to fracture. We had one of these drop ceilings and it exploded into a billion little Styrofoam pieces. And then the room went dark."

Col. Philip McNair, who was conducting the meeting, yelled for everyone to get down. Some people remember Grunewald shouting, "Where's Martha?" and others remember him saying, "Martha, I'll get you." Everyone remembers him leaping onto the table and crawling the length of it to reach her.

The conference room had two doors. The logical exit was the door that led into the E-Ring corridor, which was between the conference room and the executive offices, but someone tried to open it and couldn't. By now, they all were on their hands and knees, gasping and groping in the dark, trying to escape the thick smoke that was filling the room. The other door led through a small interior room and out to the cubicles where many of the 240 people assigned to the personnel office worked. People began to feel their way out of the room. Remarkably, hardly anyone panicked. At some point, someone quietly began to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven." Across the room, voices could be heard: "Over here" and "Follow me."

"There were a lot of people calmly helping a lot of other people," Grunewald says. Two sounds would become lodged in the minds of those who were there. The first was the Pentagon alarm system, which droned on and on and on: "A fire emergency has been determined. Please evacuate. A fire emergency has been determined. Please evacuate." When the alarm sounds today, it sends chills through anyone who was there on Sept. 11. But the other noise that played in the background was far worse: "You could hear the fire burning above you," Grunewald says. "You couldn't see it, but you heard it burning and you sensed things coming down all around you. And that's all you hear, and you can't see a thing."


Grunewald found Carden and told her to hang onto his belt. He then began to crawl out of the conference room and across the floor of the area the staff called the "cubicle farm," looking for a way out. By now, the smoke was thick, and without knowing where the fire was or what had happened, finding the way to safety was a matter of guesswork. The building's sprinkler system began to work, offering some intermittent relief from the heat and smoke. "You're crawling through water and you're pushing things out of the way - chairs, tables, desks. And the fire is all you hear. You can't see, and there is this smell and you're choking, because the smoke is very low to the ground. The jet fuel is burning as well as all the other stuff. And you're not doing well," Grunewald says.

As he and Carden made their way across the floor on hands and knees in the choking smoke, Carden clung to Grunewald's belt and her glasses. "My thinking and reasoning powers totally shut down and I was just totally focused on Rob. He was my lifesaver. If I stayed with him and focused on that, that's how I was going to get out," she says.

Others were taking a different route. When Regina Grant crawled out of the conference room and into the cubicle farm, she saw John Yates. "It sounds strange. You couldn't see a thing. It was total darkness, but somehow I saw John. All I could think was he looked like he had been blown out of a cannon - you know, like you see in cartoons." Grant would look back and regard Yates as a guardian angel.

Still on her hands and knees, Grant saw a pair of feet in front of her - Yates' feet, she believed - and began to follow them through the maze of desks and chairs and partitions and filing cabinets that covered the floor of the huge room. Others were doing the same. At some point, Grant heard her friend, Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills, and Lois Stevens behind her. Stevens, a tiny woman, got tangled up in the legs of a chair, but she worked herself free and was able to keep going. Crawling was rough. Grant paused for a moment and then realized the feet in front of her were no longer there. She also couldn't hear Wills and Stevens behind her. Overwhelmed by smoke and confused, she put her head down. "My husband doesn't like to hear this, but I thought that was it," she says. "I just stopped and prayed and I thought of my husband. And I was at peace with that."

Tracy Webb had no idea what was happening. She was still at her desk when she heard a loud bang and the floor came up and the ceiling began to fall. Her head hurt and she stood up to see what was going on, but everything went black. She heard Grunewald's voice coming from the conference room behind her and somebody yelled to get down. She reflexively opened her cabinet to get her purse. "All this time my head was on fire," she says. Her chest hurt too, and it was hard to breathe. In the cubicle beside her, Dalisay Olaes panicked. "Tracy and I were holding hands and then everything went dark. I don't know what happened but all of a sudden she wasn't there." Olaes, who is called Day by her friends, screamed for help as she huddled in the corner of her cubicle. From the other side of her cubicle, Spc. Michael Petrovich called to her, trying to calm her down. "He said 'Day, just keep screaming and I'll find you,'" Olaes says. Petrovich groped his way to her and told her to hold his belt and follow him as he tried to find a way out.

Webb got to her knees and started to grope her way around, following voices. Somewhere along the way she lost her shoes. Her head hurt unbelievably and her knees burned. "I heard a voice say 'Help me' and then I didn't hear anything," Webb says. "I couldn't tell where I was. I stood up, and that's when it really hit me. I knew I was going to die and I got down on my knees and I prayed to the Lord to give my mother the strength to take care of my kids."

For some reason, Grant turned around. She saw Tracy Webb behind her. "I saw Tracy stand up and she was holding her head. I grabbed her skirt and pulled her down. Seeing Tracy gave me strength," Grant says. Grant hollered for help as loud as she could in the choking smoke. To her astonishment, someone called to them. They crawled towards the voice and a door leading into the 4th Corridor, a wide hallway flanking the office that ran through the Pentagon from the outermost ring of offices to the Pentagon's five-acre, open-air Center Courtyard and its welcome grass, trees and, most of all, fresh air. Once Grant and Webb made it to the corridor, they found people holding open the fire doors, which close automatically to prevent fire from spreading. "I never would have known how to get through that fire door if someone hadn't been there," Grant says.

John Yates doesn't remember much about his trip through hell, just that everything he touched seemed to be burning: "In my mind, I hear somebody saying go out through the DMPM door," one of the doors that led from the cubicle farm into the 4th Corridor. I knew I was going in the right direction because I could feel water. I distinctly remember standing up and walking out toward the Center Courtyard."

Carden and Grunewald made their own circuitous journey across the office and then across the 4th Corridor and into a cafeteria before they figured out where they were. They then crawled back into the corridor, when they ran into Grant and Webb. "Regina and I literally held each other up," says Carden. Others helped the three women into the Center Courtyard. Grunewald returned to the office to look for more survivors, but thick smoke and intense heat prevented him from getting very far. He returned without finding anybody.

Grant was frantic about losing track of Marilyn Wills and Lois Stevens, who had been crawling behind her at one point. Finally, as she was searching for them among the others pouring into the courtyard, someone brought word that they and several others had jumped from a window on the second floor onto a service road known as A and E Drive, which flanks the eastern edge of the personnel office inside the Pentagon. Rescuers moved the injured into the courtyard to receive medical care and that's where Carden eventually found Lois Stevens sitting down, propped up against a tree. "I was just so happy to see Lois, I can't even tell you," Carden recalls. Carden, whose passion for shoes is known to her friends, joked with Stevens that her new Ferragamo pumps might have to be replaced. They both laughed, and then they noticed that Stevens didn't have any shoes. Carden is embarrassed by the thought now. "We had no idea the enormity of what had happened."

When Tracy Webb reached the courtyard she collapsed and started vomiting and coughing up black fluid. Yates was nearby, where medics were cutting off his clothing and attending to his burns. "I could tell he was in far worse shape than I was in. But John looked at me and said 'Are you all right?' He was concerned about me. It was just terrible," says Webb. Yates looked at his hands and noticed the skin was falling off.


When terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, the plane tore through the building's western face like a huge missile. The lower outside offices, including the Army personnel office's second-floor executive suite, were immediately obliterated. The plane's wings sheared off on impact before the body of the plane plowed through first-floor offices, directly underneath the personnel office's cubicle farm and conference room, through three of the Pentagon's five concentric rings of offices. The area instantly became an inferno fed by jet fuel and paper. The first-floor offices, including the Army's budget office and the Navy Command Center, were decimated. Very few people there survived. At 10:10 a.m., 27 minutes after Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, the section of the building holding the second-floor personnel offices collapsed. It would take firefighters days to put out the fire.

One hundred and twenty-five people working in the Pentagon died in the attack, along with 53 passengers and six crew members aboard the jet and the five hijackers. The Army personnel office lost 24 of its 240 staff members. Of the 11 people in the conference room when the plane hit, two were killed: Lt. Col. Dennis Johnson and Maj. Steve Long, a decorated combat veteran who worked in another building and was only at the Pentagon to attend the meeting. All those in the executive suite were killed instantly, including Strickland, Beilke and Maude.

Because he had been watching television, Yates guessed that a third plane had struck the Pentagon. But many others still had no idea what had happened. Some suspected a bizarre construction accident, others a bomb. Soon after Yates found safety in the courtyard, word came that another plane was 20 minutes away and emergency personnel began evacuating people to an area near the river. "I was scared. That was when I understood what had happened," he says. That was also about the time he remembers a medic looking at him and telling someone, "Get him out of here now."

For families, the agony was excruciating. When she heard the Pentagon had been hit, Ellen Yates tried to call her husband but couldn't get through. Hours later, a Navy chaplain called her. Yates wasn't familiar with military protocol, but she was sure a call from a military chaplain wasn't good news. He told her he had prayed with her husband, but could tell her nothing about John's condition or even where he was. It was worse than not having any information. It would be hours more before she would track him down at Arlington Hospital in Virginia.

Remarkably, Martha Carden was uninjured, but reaching her husband proved difficult. Her husband, retired Army Col. Gil Gilchrist, had jury duty at the Fairfax County Courthouse that morning. She couldn't get him directly, but finally left a message at his office. When Gilchrist learned what was happening and saw on television where the Pentagon was hit, he knew Martha's offices were destroyed. "I really thought I lost her," he says, the grief from that day still apparent in his voice. His heart told him to go to the Pentagon, but his head told him to go home and wait. It didn't occur to him to check his office for messages until much later. He was at the couple's home in Springfield when the dogs started barking about 2:45 p.m. He went to the door to see the normally meticulous Martha getting out of a colleague's car. She was soaking wet, her clothes were askew, and she was filthy and covered with scrapes. "It was the prettiest site I'd ever seen," he says, unable to hold back tears.

The phone rang all night. A lifetime's worth of colleagues, friends, relatives and old acquaintances from all over the world tracked Carden down - not easy, since the phone is in her husband's name. The outpouring was enormously gratifying, and recounting her experiences proved therapeutic. "I told my sister I felt like I attended my own funeral - and it was good," she says.

But there were other calls, the calls telling her who was missing, who wasn't accounted for. When Debra Strickland called late that night to ask if she knew anything about her husband Larry, it broke Martha's heart. "When I heard her voice, I just knew."

The following day was awful as the euphoria of survival wore off and reality hit home. "Sept. 11 was terrible, but Sept. 12 was the darkest day," Carden says. "That's when I learned that all these truly outstanding people were gone. My little staff, all sitting at their desks doing their jobs, doing what they were supposed to be doing. How I wish they had been goofing off down on the concourse. They were good people. Murdered because they were Americans."


Many who escaped from the second-floor personnel office have no idea how they did it. Among themselves, they've told their stories hundreds of times, and still there are many gaps. Propelled by faith and friendship and duty, they helped each other. "There were angels there guiding us," says Lois Stevens. "Time and space didn't exist."

The randomness of survival remains a heavy burden for many.

Tracy Webb suffered second- and third-degree burns to her head and arms, but the injury that has been hardest to cope with is the loss of her dear friend Odessa Morris, who had gone to the restroom while waiting to go for a cup of coffee with Webb. Her co-worker and friend Day Olaes, who also was waiting for Webb that morning, severely broke her leg when she jumped from a second floor window to escape the fire. Olaes walks with a limp now and takes sleeping pills to get through the night. She's afraid to return to work at the Pentagon, so she works out of another Army office in Alexandria, Va. "I've asked myself a thousand times over what if I'd just told them to go on to the cafeteria without me," says Webb. "Odessa, Day and I, we all three were close. Odessa was retiring this year. She was looking forward to that and spending time with her grandchild." Webb sometimes takes the subway over to Olaes' office and they have lunch, but it's not the same. When she hears planes flying overhead, Webb sometimes calls Olaes to talk through the fear that still grips her.

Sometimes Regina Grant sees Lt. Col. Dennis Johnson walking down the hall at the Pentagon before she catches herself and remembers that he died on Sept. 11. "He was such a wonderful man. Everyone who knew him thought so," she says.

Grocery shopping at the commissary one day last fall, Julia Lyons thought she saw her supply sergeant, Jose Calderon. She was so startled she dropped a jar, shattering it. Lyons, who manages logistics for the personnel office, had gone to a doctor's appointment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington the morning of Sept. 11 only to discover her appointment was for 9 p.m., not 9 a.m. That mistake probably saved her life. Had she been at her desk, she likely would have died that morning. "I've never made a mistake like that before with a doctor's appointment," she says.

Instead of speaking at Larry Strickland's retirement party, Carden found herself preparing remarks for his funeral. It was the hardest thing she's ever done. "He was as close as a brother. I miss him just horribly. You know, I was just dreading his retirement, because I knew how much I'd miss him. Now I'd give anything to see him retire."

The funerals went on for weeks. "Last fall almost seems like a dream. It was surreal. We went to funeral after funeral," Carden says. "You want so much to make it better for the families but you can't," she says. "Nothing can make it better."


Grunewald suffered serious smoke inhalation and eventually was hospitalized after spending hours helping rescuers and other injured workers. He was released from the hospital on Sept. 12, but didn't rest for long. The next day he began working what turned into months of 16- and 17-hour days and weekends at the Pentagon to get space ready for the Army personnel office to move back into the building. It was hard to be there. "You could smell it, you could see it, you could feel it every day," he says. "One of the hardest things was being able to hear what seemed like nonstop funerals at neighboring Arlington Cemetery. The new offices look directly into the cemetery.

"My wife was very understanding," Grunewald says. "It was a very hard time. I had a lot of people counting on me to get the organization back up and running and I neglected my family. They just accepted it." He'd attend his son's soccer games in his dress uniform so he could leave and go directly to a funeral before returning to work at night. It's difficult for him to talk about that time. Grunewald knew 31 of the people who died at the Pentagon.

The personnel office was temporarily re-established in another office building in Alexandria, but Army leaders were eager to move back into the Pentagon, for both symbolic and practical reasons. "I took my responsibility very seriously. I had a lot of people come to me and say 'Rob, get me back into that building,'" Grunewald says. Coordinating the return to the Pentagon was immensely complicated. Not only was the section affected by the attack off limits, but a substantial amount of office space adjacent to the area had been vacated and stripped prior to Sept. 11 during an ongoing renovation of the 60-year-old building. It was into a portion of this area that the Army offices were returning. Allocating the space, building it out, laying carpet, putting up drywall, installing wiring and everything else required for the new tenants was an enormous task and involved hundreds of people.

"They hung up the pictures of all the people who died, and you walk by them every day. You can't get away from it. Every day we come to the source of the tragedy. There is absolutely no getting away from it," Grunewald says.

Simple tasks, like purchasing supplies, were fraught with emotion. The job of equipping the new offices fell to Julia Lyons, the only person in the management support section not killed or seriously injured. Odessa Morris had managed the budget, but she was dead. Sgt. 1st Class Calderon was authorized to buy equipment with a credit card, but he too was dead, as was the woman in the Army budget office who handled the transactions. "It was so overwhelming," says Lyons.

Last winter, most of the Army personnel staff returned to the Pentagon. In August, they were planning to move again, into the rebuilt offices they had occupied on Sept. 11.

John Yates would spend many weeks in the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center, followed by excruciating daily physical therapy sessions to recover from the second- and third-degree burns he suffered over 35 percent of his body. He counts himself lucky. This spring, he returned to work at the Pentagon, where he is an inspiration to many of his colleagues. Extreme heat and cold bother him, because his sweat glands were destroyed and he no longer has the capacity to regulate his body temperature. He still struggles to maintain his concentration sometimes, and he can't touch his fingers to the palm of his hand or type very fast, but he's getting better. His wife quit her job so she could provide the kind of help he needs at home, and they've just moved into a new house, something they had been planning before Sept. 11.

Yates has good days and bad days. Some mornings when he arrives at the Pentagon, he sits in his car, overwhelmed with a desire to turn around and go back home. But he never does. He waits for the feeling to pass, and then goes to work. Every day in the office he hears planes fly overhead, going to and from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He struggles to maintain his composure when that happens, and he mostly succeeds.

During his first visit to the therapist he sees weekly, she asked him what he wanted to achieve. "I told her I wanted to be the person I was on Sept. 11, before this all happened. She told me that's the one thing I can't have. But I can be better." And he is, every day.

Twenty-four Army employees in what was then known as the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel were killed on Sept. 11. Spc. Craig S. Amundson, 28
Max Beilke, 69
Col. Canfield Boone, 54
Sgt. 1st Class Jose Orlando Calderon-Olmeda, 44
Ronald F. Golinski, 60
Lt. Col. Stephen Neil Hyland Jr., 45
Lt. Col. Dennis M. Johnson, 48
Maj. Stephen V. Long, 39
Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Maude, 53
Odessa V. Morris, 54
Spc. Chin Sun "Sunny" Pak, 24
Debbie Ramsaur, 45
CWO4 William R. Ruth, 57
Col. David M. Scales, 45
Marian Serva, 47
Gary Smith, 55
Patricia Statz, 41
Sgt. Maj. Larry L. Strickland, 52
Lt. Col. Kip Taylor, 38
Sgt. Tamara C. Thurman, 25
Lt. Col. Karen Wagner, 40
Maj. Dwayne Williams, 40
Edmond Young, 22
Lisa Young, 38

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