Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Every year, as we near the date of September 11th, I begin a self-imposed separation from humanity. You see, on that date in 2001, I was in the Pentagon and had to do stuff and see stuff that I don’t want to see or do again. And much like I hid from fireworks every Fourth of July, as the date nears, I find myself hunkering down and watching a lot of old TV shows rather than see the inevitable 9/11 documentaries that run on nearly every channel of “regular” television. The memories are too painful, and the guilt is too sharp. In therapy over the years, I learned that my guilt, for not having done enough to help, was irrational, as I followed orders to get out of the building and ended up helping out at the triage area. But the guilt remains as does the deep-seated fear and other emotions.

So, every year I hide for 24 hours until the attention to that date passes.

But I do believe it is important for those of us here in Colorado and around the nation to have a sense of how real the events were to so many people. The scene at the Pentagon that day is often overshadowed in the media by the horror in New York, but there was profound and horrific suffering at my ground zero too, as there was in that sacred field in Pennsylvania.

And as this year is the 20th anniversary of that terrible day, I am briefly lifting my veil to offer you a few edited thoughts from my diary of that day, in hopes that it might give some of my fellow Coloradans a sense of what it felt like. I won’t include everything, nor will I respond to any questions or other inquires about that time, but perhaps my sharing of the below will help my fellow citizens to understand a bit more of what happened to one lowly Lieutenant Colonel who happened to be there and tried his best to serve. I’ll be back online next week to rant about something more specific to Colorado, I promise.

I was in the Pentagon today when the plane hit. I had gone for a medical appointment and was in the clinic waiting for a prescription to be filled. While waiting, I saw the NYC report on the clinic’s TV. I was watching when the 2nd plane hit. I remember thinking what a target the Pentagon was. I decided to get a bite to eat before going to the State Department [where I was assigned as a military advisor] and went into one of the cafeterias near the middle of the building. I was in there just a few seconds when someone yelled in that we were evacuating the Pentagon due to a bomb threat. There was not too much reaction. Perhaps 15 seconds later another person stuck his head in and yelled “get out, a bomb went off.” With that, people began to move.

We ran down the ramp to the main exit, and then down the escalators. I was very impressed. We all moved rapidly, but there was no panic, no pushing and shoving, and lots of cooperation. We then ran up the escalators that went to the outside, and out into the air. I looked back at the building, and was stunned to see the huge cloud of black smoke pouring into the sky. I moved across the parking lot and was able to see the impact point. Lots of fire and smoke.

One of the police asked for military in uniform to come and help set up a perimeter. I went along, and took a place across the field from the damaged side. I was told by a fellow officer that he had spoken to an eyewitness who reported clearly seeing the American Airlines logo on the side of the airplane.

A security officer came by my “station” with an armload of wreckage from the plane, and set it inside the cordon in front of me. I looked around my area, and found a piece of aircraft wreckage. It was about the size of a piece of notebook paper, and was greasy. I picked it up and placed it near the other collected debris inside the rope line.

I was amazed by the speed with which a triage area was set up. I think I was outside near the crash within 3-5 minutes of the crash. And only perhaps 10 minutes after that there was a full-blown triage area set up. They had laid out colored tarps (that I assume were color-coded for type of injury), tubs full of supplies, backboards, and ready access to many, many ambulances and air ambulances.

As the building burned, I saw the section of the E ring collapse and the roof cave in. It sounded like a load of tin roofs being thrown down a staircase.

Later, the cops came through warning that another airplane was hijacked and was 20 minutes away [from, we thought then, hitting the Pentagon again, as two planes had hit NYC]. I fell back to the area near Arlington Cemetery, where many people were gathered. Rumors were rampant, and at that time I heard for the first time that there had been a car bomb at the State Department (a false report, as it turned out). I helped one guy with a head wound get into the car his wife was driving. He was a “walking wounded” and had had his head bandaged, and then was to make his way to the hospital.

While I was standing there, a man came up and asked if I knew where a particular General’s office was. His wife worked there, and he always dropped her off near where the plane had impacted. I didn’t really know, but I told him I thought all the Air Force offices were on the far side of the building. It was a lie, but I thought that it would be a kindness to ease his panic, even if he got bad news later. I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do, but I made a spur of the moment decision.

Washington and Northern Virginia are both under a state of emergency. All bridges and roads into the District were closed. Out my apartment window, I saw the smoke from the Pentagon fire, and so I know where it is relative to me. Helicopters have been circling and every so often I hear a fighter flying high cover.

I can’t really describe what this feels like. You have seen the reports on TV where a person who has lived through a tornado or something and describes it in vague terms. I can’t really explain how this feels. I couldn’t believe that it was REAL. How could it happen? Terrorism has always been, with rare exceptions, away from here.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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