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September 11th, 2008
08:20 AM ET

On 9/11, sunlight versus darkness

Editor's Note:
We are devoting many posts today to the anniversary of 9/11, with first-hand accounts, insight, and commentary dedicated to that day seven years ago that changed our world.

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This week, the Pentagon's September 11th memorial will be dedicated to those lost in the attack. CNN's Barbara Starr reports.
This week, the Pentagon's September 11th memorial will be dedicated to those lost in the attack. CNN's Barbara Starr reports.

Barbara Starr | BIO
Pentagon Correspondent

Journalists are trained that most of the time, the world is gray. Nothing is black and white, there is always some nuance, or piece of context to report. We look for that little something of gray to help explain to our readers and viewers what is going on in the world. The color gray went away that day.

I have always thought I must have been the most clueless journalist in America that morning. I woke up early, saw the weather was absolutely gorgeous in Washington DC and thought only about how early I could sneak out of work since it was my birthday. The phone in the kitchen rang, a Pentagon source was telling me an unmanned drone had crashed a few hours earlier in Iraq. Still, on September 11, 2001, I thought, heck Iraq’s not really a big story, I can still get out early.

I was working as the Pentagon correspondent for ABC News, with the late Jack McWethy, broadcasting from the Pentagon press area along the famous E-ring of the building…home to offices of top generals, admirals, the Defense Secretary and the always cynical press corps.

The morning was beautiful, sunny and warm. I always wondered how America missed the clouds of horror that would explode two hours later. I think you had to be at one of the attack sites to really understand that feeling.

We watched on television as the first plane hit. Myself and several other journalists went into the office of one of our best military sources—a senior navy officer, all of us glued to the screen. The second plane hit, the navy captain turned ashen. We knew it was bad. It was about to get worse.

I starting back down the hall to the ABC office…but suddenly a Pentagon police was running down the hall yelling “Get out get out get out. We’ve been hit…Get out now!” In an instant, the hallway was full of people …Seventeen and half miles of Pentagon corridors, 20,000 people trying to get out.

Jack and I made our way to the nearest exit and found ourselves in a traffic jam of hundreds of people backed up in the hall…the doors had malfunctioned and slammed shut. They automatically had locked as part of the security system in an emergency. It was a long 30 seconds until they opened again.

The sunny morning was now dark where I stood on the attack site along with hundreds of others… Flames shot five stories into the air, the massive black clouds of smoke poured into that sunny blue sky, and for the first few minutes no help. Then of course, sirens screaming from everywhere. Fire trucks, police, federal agents, poured in. Local firemen from the surrounding Virginia suburbs were the first troops on this front line. Someone called for volunteers to help rescue victims. I watched as more than 100 military personnel who had just escaped from the Pentagon instantly surged forward…ready to go back into the flames. No one would be left behind. An Army general I knew well came up to me and said ‘we are at war.” I could only think this must have been the people felt at Pearl Harbor.

For emergency personnel, fighting the fire, tending to the dead and wounded would go on well into the next day. I saw body bags being carried out of the building by young soldiers. I would come to know Colonel Marilyn Wills who jumped out a second story window, flames at her back, lungs full of smoke into the arms of young Navy SEAL below who promised he would catch her and not let her fall. One man who didn’t make it: Max Bielke worked as an Army civilian. Thirty five years earlier, he was the last US combat soldier to leave Vietnam.

And there was a young Army soldier who crawled out of the flames and smoke with his buddies into the sunlight. But then he looked around and one man was missing. It was the mentally disabled man who worked as one of the custodians. He had been in the office cleaning when the plane hit, but hadn’t come out with them. The young man crawled back into the building’s wreckage. The man was curled up safe in a corner, but overwhelmed and unable to move. The young Army soldier instantly slung him over his back and carried him to safety off this battlefield.

On this day there were no shades of gray….heroes in the sunlight fought against the darkness. A few weeks later I joined CNN. I would find myself for the next nearly seven years reporting from the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan to Baghdad’s Green Zone to the borders of Somalia.. But every morning that I come to work here at the Pentagon I walk by the now rebuilt section of the building, always, remembering the 184 souls lost on a lovely sunny September morning.

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Julie Cooper

    Thanks for the story. It is hard for people from other areas of the country to comprehend what it meant to be in an area hit on 9/11/2001. I was working near Dulles airport at the time. First we watched in horror at the images from NY. We had just launched a bond trading site and our clients were very heavily hit. Those that could were calling from cell phones with terrible news and we were in shock and tears as we watched from the television in our break room. Some of those lost in WTC had been on the phone with co-worker only hours earlier. When the news about the Pentagon was announced, it really felt like the world was coming to an end.

    September 11, 2008 at 1:08 pm |
  2. Eric

    Thank you Barbara Starr. For me your blog broke through the seven years of fog and time and brought back that day in all its vivid and clear horror. Thank you for connecting me back to its reality.

    September 11, 2008 at 11:55 am |
  3. Annie Kate

    I wondered too at the time if it was like Pearl Harbor. I asked my mother who had been a teenager at that time and she said that here on the mainland at least Pearl Harbor was still very remote at that time and it didn't really sink in; there wasn't news 24 hours a day with instant coverage, etc. She said that 9/11 felt so much worse because it was so close – so immediate.

    As an American I had always felt somewhat invulnerable to attacks like this – they happened in other countries, not here. That day I found out just how foolish that belief was. The company I worked for lost 3 or 4 employees in the towers. It was sobering how many people knew someone in the towers. It was heartbreaking to look on-line at the pages of missing – it seemed endless – so many young faces stared out of those pictures. I'll never forget the images of that day or the horror and sadness.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    September 11, 2008 at 11:44 am |
  4. Diane Martin

    Thank you for you poignant commentary. This day tugs at my heart. It is important for all Americans to remember where they were and what they felt when we were under attack. More importantly to never let it happen again.

    September 11, 2008 at 10:42 am |
  5. jtc

    amazing story, barbara. thanks for sharing.

    September 11, 2008 at 9:24 am |
  6. deni Jones

    Great first hand report from a reporter.
    First report from the media that does not blame W. Bush for the attack.
    Good report for all americans to read.
    Thanks Barbara.

    September 11, 2008 at 9:20 am |
  7. ully

    to the all family was loosing their family,my sympathy to all of you!

    September 11, 2008 at 9:11 am |