By Argen Duncan: PNT senior staff writer
If a meeting hadn’t been canceled, Col. Stephen Clark would likely have died when a terrorist-piloted plane slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Although he is now the commander of the 27th Special Operations Wing, Clark was at the time assigned to the Pentagon, with an office on the side of the building opposite of where the plane hit.
Clark said he and his co-workers rarely turned on the office television. But that day, an agent had it on and they saw planes strike the World Trade Center.
They had planned a meeting on the other side of the building, but it was canceled because of the attacks.
If the meeting hadn’t been called off, Clark and the others would have been in the hall when the plane hit.
“We would have been smack right in the middle of it,” he said.
Because the Pentagon is a large concrete building with thick glass windows, Clark heard only a pop like backfiring when the plane crashed. He didn’t realize what had happened until his wife, Cynthia, called.
After hanging up the phone, Clark and his colleagues grabbed “fly-away kits,” which contained computer hard drives and other things they needed to do their mission, and left. On the way out, they helped evacuate the Pentagon Child Development Center.
Clark and his handful of colleagues joined 20,000 other people streaming away from the building. His group headed for the Crystal City district because one of them had an apartment there.
What normally would have been a 10-minute walk took an hour. Forty-five minutes after arriving, announcements over loud speakers and the television called for an evacuation of Crystal City because it was believed another plane was coming.
Clark and a friend tried to get on the metro to reach the friend’s car, but they had to walk for some time to even find a station that was open. They tried to call their families, but the lines were jammed.
After five hours and taking a metro route far out of the way, Clark finally reached his home, 20 miles from the Pentagon.
When he and Cynthia picked up their two daughters, they found the girls among only a few people at school because a lot of parents took their children early.
That night, the family ate at a restaurant near Washington Dulles International Airport because Clark and his wife didn’t feel like doing anything else.
“It was a beautiful fall day, not a cloud in the sky. No planes were flying, no cars on the highway. I would swear even the birds weren’t flying,” Clark recalls. “It was deathly quiet.”
The next day, the bus he had been using to commute couldn’t come near the Pentagon. Passengers had to walk under the interstate and across a large parking lot.
Clark remembers noticing an acidic smell, like an electrical fire.
Then he joined 200 or 300 people lined up to go through security to enter the building. It was still burning.
Firefighters couldn’t put out the fire in the roof because it was insulated with horse hair, which smolders.
“But that’s what struck me: 300 people trying to get into a burning building,” Clark said.
Up through Sept. 11, Air Force personnel at the Pentagon had been wearing their blue dress uniforms to work.
“The next day, everybody comes in their battle uniforms, their utilities,” Clark said.
The change marked the transition from peace time to war.
Once he was in the Pentagon on Sept. 12, Clark went down halls covered in soot with fire hoses still running through them. The center courtyard was being used as a casualty collection point for people gathering bodies and sorting through the rubble.
People sat in their offices without much to do until 5 p.m.
“From the military perspective, it added and continues to add a sense of urgency to everything we do,” Clark said.
The colonel believes that, along with whatever other reasons may have motivated them, everyone who has joined the military since the day of the attacks has in the forefront of their minds the idea that they would rather fight the nation’s enemies overseas than on American soil.
“We don’t ever want to have that happen again,” Clark said.