By Gabriel Weinstein Assistant editor
Angel Fire Village Manager M. Jay Mitchell felt a rumble in the Pentagon at 9:38 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. A slight shake. Dust began to seep from the ceiling. Evacuation and alarm notices blared.
American Airlines Flight 77 had struck the northwestern rings of the Pentagon, not even a full wing away from where Mitchell was working.
Sept. 11 started out as a “just a Tuesday morning” at the Pentagon for Mitchell. At the time, Mitchell was the Air Force’s chief of non-rated and intelligence officers’ assignments. He enjoyed his trips to the Pentagon to talk about career advancement with Air Force intelligence officers.
Mitchell arrived at the Pentagon at 7 a.m. for his scheduled meetings. The World Trade Center attacks happened during Mitchell’s first round of meetings. The meeting was interrupted when the Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence was called to the Pentagon’s Crisis Action Center.
Memories of the Oklahoma City and the Khobar Tower bombings Dhahran, Saudi Arabia bombings flashed through his mind when the plane hit the Pentagon. He did not realize that what was unfolding at the Pentagon was connected to the attacks in New York.
Mitchell, his friends and colleagues evacuated the building shortly after the plane hit. He had his cell phone on him and called his wife to tell her the Pentagon was being evacuated and that he was safe. He did not have time to explain what was happening as he passed his phone to others. Eight minutes after calling his wife, cell phone service went out in the Washington metro area.
Twelve miles away, Angel Fire Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Howe saw the plumes of smoke from the Pentagon drift through the sky from his office in Hyattsville, Maryland. He worked for a government contractor. Howe went up from his sixth floor office to the ninth floor to see the smoke.
“It smelled like a smoke that shouldn’t have been there,” Howe said.
Howe’s office did not have a TV. He and his coworkers pieced together the morning’s events through radio reports. Rumors and misinformation quickly spread through the Washington area, Howe said.
“It was an uncertain time,” he said.
Howe knew the Pentagon well. He made weekly trips there from his Army base in Fort Meade, Maryland.
“It was terribly overcrowded,” Howe said about the Pentagon during his days in the military. “They kept making offices smaller and smaller… You’d try to go from one location to another. You always learned the short cuts to get around.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had an office in Howe’s building and swept the area with search dogs. They ordered that the building close. When Howe arrived at his home, he was glued to his TV set.
Back at the Pentagon, Jay Mitchell saw the smoke coming from his right. It was over the helipad, where the Secretary of Defense would normally land his helicopter.
As Mitchell neared the smoke, the flames came into his view. The first, second and third stories of the Pentagon were ablaze. The marks where the planes had crashed into the building were still raw and fresh. The first and second rings of the Pentagon were penetrated and on fire.
As the heart of America’s military defense smoldered, Mitchell and a small contingent ventured back into the ruins. Their goal was simple. On their first trip, they set out to help civilians and Pentagon staff that may have still been in the building. On later trips they provided exhausted firefighters with food and water. The Pentagon’s design made the area where the plane hit an inferno. The firefighters wilted from dehydration and exhaustion. The nourishment Mitchell and the makeshift rescue teams provided could not satisfy the famished fire fighters. In their quest for nourishment, fire fighters stuck pick axes in soda and candy machines.
“Everything was fair game,” he said.
Eventually, Mitchell, his organizing crew and the firefighters opened up the small cantina in the courtyard of the Pentagon.
That day Mitchell’s group also helped set up a temporary mortuary and helped local fire chiefs understand the layout of the Pentagon.
Small reminders of the perished were everywhere. Among the mangled plane parts were the shoes and small belongings of some of Flight 77’s passengers. In his two decades in the military Mitchell had seen carnage left over from IED’s and spent time in Afghanistan and other war zones.
The smells, sights and sounds of war zones felt out of place in Washington, D.C. that day.
“Seeing it on U.S. soil, knowing those were just traveling civilians that had perished, let alone the people that had just gone to work that to do their job at the Pentagon. That was hard,” he said.
At 10:15 p.m., Mitchell returned to his hotel room. The world had become a different place since Mitchell left his hotel 15 hours earlier.
On Sept., 12, 2001 Jay Mitchell went back to the Pentagon for work. The building stunk.
“It had the same smell of an electrical fire,” he said. An electrical fire had started as a result of the attacks.
That day feelings of disbelief and anger overshadowed the normal sense of stress that hovered over the Pentagon.
He had scheduled meetings and was due to leave to for his home in San Antonio, Texas in a few days. Not many people showed up that day.
“There was a lot of coping going on. A lot of discussions,” he said.
On Friday, Sept. 14, 2001 Mitchell returned home to San Antonio, Texas, ending his week in Washington, D.C. Mitchell was later recognized by his Air Force supervisors for his actions at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Chuck Howe says it did not feel right when he went back to his office on Sept. 13, 2001.
“It was eerie. Everybody was still in shock,” he said.
The mood at Howe’s office stabilized over the next two to three weeks. A month after the attacks, things felt normal again at Howe’s office.
Both Howe and Mitchell have returned to the Pentagon since Sept. 11. On Sept. 11 every year, Howe thinks about the day of the attacks and the need for America to remain vigilant.
Mitchell said he tries to rarely think or talk about the day’s events. It stirs too much emotion.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 remain vivid for Howe, Mitchell and millions of Americans. The plumes of smoke over the Washington beltway and gentle shake of the Pentagon will always remind the two men of the day the United States of America changed forever.