A first-hand account from local soldier of 9/11 at the Pentagon
Sep 11, 2011 | 4103 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Col. Todd E. Key tells his story of being the Pentagon on 9/11. Key grew up in Talladega County.
Col. Todd E. Key tells his story of being the Pentagon on 9/11. Key grew up in Talladega County.
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(Editor’s note: Col. Todd E. Key was in the Pentagon on 9/11 when the terrorists crashed the airplane into the building. Here is his account of that day. Key is the son of Bill and Letha Key of Alpine. He graduated from Talladega High School in 1982, joined the Army in 1984 and graduated from Jacksonville State University in 1987. He was a major in the Army in the Pentagon on 9/11. Today, Key is serving in Afghanistan. He is speaking at the Camp Eggers 9/11 memorial.)

It was a beautiful day.

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, started like any other day: riding the Metro to the Pentagon and going to my cubical in 3C450 (3rd Floor, C Ring, 4th Corridor). I had been working in the Pentagon since June of 2001 and I was a Major in the Army and a strategic planner on the Army staff.

It had been a beautiful day in New York, just like it was in Washington. When the news broke that a plane hit the World Trade Center, we hoped that it was a terrible accident, but I think we all instantly knew that it was not. I think we all knew that it was an act of terrorism. I caught a glimpse of the news coverage in my boss’s office, but did not stay fixed to the TV because I had work to do to get ready for a trip that I had to take next the day which required me to go to the E Ring of the Pentagon where my generals worked— MG Robert Wood and then BG Karl Eikenberry (later LTG Eikenberry, Commander, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan and then Ambassador Eikenberry, US Ambassador to Afghanistan.)

While in the E Ring, about twenty minutes before the plane hit the Pentagon, I was watching TV in the general’s office and learned that a second plane hit the other tower. It was an unbelievable sight to see the two World Trade Center towers burning.

I left my general’s office and went back to my cubical and called my wife. She was driving to Fort Myer where she worked and we exchanged concerns and I told her that I loved her.

My desk faced a window looking at the D Ring of the Pentagon. Shortly after I hung up the phone the Pentagon shook and I saw debris coming toward my window. I knew something had terrible had happened, but I did not know what. I thought a bomb had blown up somewhere outside or inside the Pentagon. I never thought of a plane. We began to evacuate the Pentagon.

I was still new to the Pentagon, and going somewhere different than your normal route was a challenge because it is a big building and the section I was in was newly renovated. As I left the office and entered the main corridor there was something different in the hallway—newly installed smoke doors were closing off the hallway. I, as well as everyone else, did not know about the new doors and while no one panicked it was very unsettling to begin seeing your escape route closing. I did not know if the doors would re-open—neither did anyone else.

Again, not knowing the building very well, I followed the crowds ‘evacuating.’ By the route the crowd took weaving in and out of the building, I realized that very few people actually knew the building at all. After a few minutes, I decided it was pointless to stay with the “evacuating crowd”—I thought they are never going to get out, so I turned around and went back to my office completely unaware that the first and second floors were on fire.

As I got closer to the office I felt the heat and saw the closed smoke doors and I decided going back to the office was a bad idea. So I went to the Metro entrance to exit the building—the way I normally exit the Pentagon. I did not want to go down into the Metro because I was sure there would a second explosion, but it seemed to be the only way out. As I got to the top of the escalators to head into the Metro, I saw some men with cameras trying to get in which I thought was a bad idea due to OPSEC, and forcibly denied them entrance. I eventually went down the escalator and got out of the Pentagon only to see a huge billow of black smoke coming from the Pentagon. At that time I still thought that it was a bomb that had exploded near the Pentagon.

At that moment, I thought about my wife who was on the way to the Fort Myer. Her route took her right by the smoke that was emanating from the Pentagon and I felt that something bad had happened to her.

It was one thing to be involved in this situation by myself, but now it had turned in to something else: concern for my wife, which is something I was not prepared for.

I had to find her.

So I began to run toward Fort Myer and as I got closer I heard someone yell that another plane was coming, which turned out to be United 93 that crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I felt like the sky was falling. Shortly after hearing about the other plane I heard a rumbling from the Pentagon. It was the E-ring wall collapsing.

As I made my way up to Fort Myer I asked a police officer if they had any idea what happened and they told me a plane had hit the Pentagon and [another] Camp David. Once I finally got to Fort Myer, I got a land line phone and was able to talk to my wife.

She told me that she saw the plane flying extremely low over Fort Myer and thought that it was hijacked but had thought the pilot was intentionally crashing it into Arlington National Cemetery. She had later learned that it hit the Pentagon from soldiers she’d ushered into her car to drive them back to their units around Fort Myer. She told me that she going to the Army Community Services to help do whatever was needed. She said our daughter was safe with a neighbor since they evacuated her elementary school. I told her that I loved her and I would see her later—I did not know when I would see her next I knew that it would be later.

I then called the Army Operations Center. I knew I had to tell someone that I was accounted for so I thought that would be a good place to call. I told the NCO that I was in Deputy Chief of Staff Operations in Strategy and Plans. He told me that I was needed immediately back at the Pentagon to help with the Crisis Action Team, the War Plans Desk. I understood, and started to make my way back down toward the Pentagon. On my way, I saw some heavy equipment that was working on Fort Myer. I flagged the drivers of the equipment down and asked them to go to the Pentagon to help with recovery. I also saw it as a quick way to get back to the Pentagon without running in low quarters. I jumped on to the outside of the front end loader and we made our way down to the Pentagon by way of the Navy Annex.

The hill the Navy Annex sits overlooks the Pentagon. I saw the Pentagon burning and the collapsed wall—it was unbelievable.

And because I was new to the Pentagon, I did not realize that the part of the building that was burning was the part of the building that I worked in.

Once I got back down to the Pentagon I jumped off the front-end loader and tried to get back in but the police were refusing anyone entrance. They directed me to the command post set up under the overpass of I-395. When I got to the command post I told the commander that I was needed in the Army Operations Center (AOC) and he said, “Son we have been waiting for you!”

I think he had confused me for someone else.

Nonetheless, he put me in a police car and that drove me inside the Pentagon all the way to through the center courtyard to the corridor that leads to the stairwell going down to the AOC. He stopped the car at the corridor and said, “You just go straight down the corridor look for the stairs and go all the way to the bottom.”

As I looked down the dark— smoked filled corridor— I felt that this wasn’t going to end well—but I did exactly as the officer told me and I found the Army Operations Center.

A month before 9-11, I took the DCSOPS tour where they show you around the AOC and point out to you the desk you sit at should they stand-up the Crisis Action Team (CAT), but when I got to the CAT floor it did not look the same—it had been re-arranged. I finally found the desk and logged in assuming responsibilities for the Army’s war plans desk and began executing the tasks as directed by the senior leadership of the Army.

The first task was to gain accountability of the Army’s DCSOPs team. Two people were unaccounted for. The two were from the Deputy G-3’s office. And it was to the Deputy G-3 I had to report accountability to.

Later that afternoon I was joined by the experienced desk officer then MAJ Pat Tennis who had assisted people evacuating the Pentagon.

The remainder of the night was spent verifying accountability and watching countless replays on CNN of the plane flying into the second tower of the World Trade Center and watching the Pentagon burn.

It was surreal to be working inside a building, and watching the same building burn on TV.

As more details emerged that night, I began to understand that the part of the building that was burning was the part of the building I worked in. Over the course of the next couple of days I began to learn the plane had literally gone right underneath my work area. I also began to realize that people had died underneath me and I that could have helped them—if I had just gone down stairs.

The next morning Major Tennis and I were relieved of our duties by two more war plans officers on the CAT floor and we left the Pentagon. Our clothes smelled of smoke and we did not have our berets because we had left them in the office during the initial evacuation. I walked out of the Pentagon to a beautiful sunny day and walked across to Pentagon City and rode the Metro to Huntington where my wife and daughter met me.

It was Wednesday, Sept. 12. A new day and a different world.

The following Monday we moved into a new section of the Pentagon and two weeks later we got to return to our destroyed offices to reclaim military files and personal effects. Interestingly, the third floor where my office was hadn’t burned. There was structural damage and there had been fire in the fire escape, but our area had not burned. It was certainly apparent that it had been very, very hot on the third floor—the carpet had melted, the phones had melted, even our computer towers on the floor had partially melted. I had left behind a back pack that I kept on the floor by my chair and it too melted but the contents inside, including a rosary, a handheld computer, my cell phone were still recognizable.

As we moved around the third floor, the engineer guiding us kept us over the remaining supports from the first and second floor because most of the columns had been ripped away in the crash. As we exited the building, we went through the second and first floors and saw the devastation. There was nothing left except a few support columns that were holding the weight of the entire building. As we moved through the destroyed sections of the Pentagon I realized that only a couple of feet had protected us from the same fate as those souls that worked on the first and second floor.

To this day, I am grateful for the amazing renovation that was done to the Pentagon right before 9-11. Without it, I am sure that I and many others would not have survived.

There were other great stories that day. BG Eikenberry getting MG Wood out of his office, MAJ Pat Tennis’s actions that earned him the Soldier’s Medal and countless other stories of people who risked their lives to save their co-workers.

I am proud to be associated with these fine people and others like Ms. Linda Moore and Ms. Lee Gutwald and profoundly honored to have met Mrs. Irene Golinski. Her husband perished that day in the Pentagon and his remains were never recovered. But somehow out of this terrible tragedy hope and love find their way back to us and inspire us wherever we are especially her in Afghanistan to ensure that this never happens again — because we will never forget. God bless you and thank you.