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Retired Army Colonel Recounts Her Day at the Pentagon on 9/11, and the Aftermath

Pentagon
U.S. National Archives
A helicopter flies over the area as smoke pours from the southwest corner of the Pentagon Building located in Washington, District of Columbia (DC), minutes after a hijacked airliner crashed into the southwest corner of the building, during the 9/11 terrorists attacks

Debra Lewis was working at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

A Hilo resident and retired Army colonel, Lewis remembers her experience inside the Pentagon after a plane crashed into the building 20 years ago. Also a commander for the State of Hawaiʻi Veterans of Foreign Wars, she served in the military for 34 years and has lived on Hawai'i Island for the last nine. She’s an author and has been an instructor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

The Conversation's Russell Subiono spoke to her about being inside the Pentagon that day, and where her military job took her in the years that followed. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SUBIONO: We talked to Laurie Laychak earlier this week, she's the widow of David Laychak — a budget analyst for the Army who died at the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks. I know that you were also at the Pentagon that day, what was your experience?

Deb Lewis courtesy Deb Lewis.PNG
Courtesy Debra Lewis
/
Debra Lewis

LEWIS: On that day, we were doing what we normally do in our anti-terrorism office, we were monitoring things on TV, we had CNN and all the other programs that were up. And my main job was to refine the regulations to keep people safe in buildings. So we were sitting in there and we had the TVs on, so we knew that something happened when the first tower was hit. When the first tower was hit, we didn't know at the time — and I think people may forget this — we didn't know it was an airplane at that time. We just knew a huge explosion happened at the tower. And so automatically, our senior leaders one level above me went into a meeting. And then we watched the second tower and of course then we knew for sure: this was aircraft, this was commercial aircraft. And then I was standing next to an intel analyst — we were trying to figure out, okay, they have completely upended the targets and our strategies because when people were hijacked, you normally would cooperate so that you could live and land. Here, they were making our aircraft into bombs. And these planes were all fueled. And when they were in the meeting, all I can tell you is, because it wasn't that long, it was within an hour after the first tower was hit, that we were attacked in the Pentagon. And the building just shook. We're talking the Pentagon, a huge office building, think of it as a pie. And we were the adjacent pie to where the plane went in. And it shuttered. We're talking this huge concrete building. It just shook like something was gonna fall through the ceiling. That's how it felt. And, and you're just like, what? So we didn't know if it was a bomb, was a plane? What was it? And we immediately gathered up quickly and exited because all the alarms went off. And as we exited the building, you could look off to the right and you could see this huge black smoke billowing out and people just rushing out of the building, because it was the adjacent pie to ours.

SUBIONO: From what I understand, if the plane had hit anywhere but the recently renovated part of the building, it would have been much worse.

LEWIS: Absolutely. We could have lost that entire building. It hadn't been renovated since just post-World War II, where they didn't even have like the fire things in there. There were no fire doors. There were none of that until the renovation. So to our wedge, the reason we were spared, a lot of it is they had a lot of that taken care of with the fire doors and things to make sure it didn't spread to our side. The fire spread for days going the other direction after the plane hit. You just have to understand, you had a fireball from the outside because the plane hit equipment that was outside, you had the fireball because of the fuel that was in that aircraft, and then you had the fires based on all the flammable materials.

SUBIONO: After the dust had settled in New York, at the Pentagon, in that field in Pennsylvania — how long did it take for the first phase of response to be designed and implemented?

LEWIS: It was pretty immediate. We were doing the renovation, so there's whole engineer teams that really understood the building. And then we had a few local units, engineer-type units that came in and helped within the first 24 hours. We were actually back — some members of my team were back in the building and not everybody evacuated. The whole building is so huge, not everybody left the building at that initial point in time, they had no idea what was going on. We were close enough that it affected us and we were back in that building, some members, within hours.

SUBIONO: How did your job change after that? What was your work experience in the months and the years right after the crash?

LEWIS: It did change. It changed dramatically. We went from planning mode, which is what the staff often does — I'm meeting with over 200 people worldwide to help put rigor and explain very practical ways how to keep people safe in buildings from terrorist attack — what we found out for my job is that all of that panned out, we had a more robust plan for the Pentagon because it's more than a car bomb, we plan for truck bomb, we didn't plan for a plane. But if you take a look at the videos, you can see how much of the impact was mitigated by what they had done even on the outside. Budget people were helping us with that. And then when we exited the building and we were getting in reports, we talked to the person who had seen the plane go in so we had that physical evidence. I knew the person who was the engineer part of looking in the building and telling us how far did it go in. It went into the "C" ring. The Pentagon is in a consecutive series of rings, we only renovated the outside part of the "E" ring. And when we got out, then we went in operational mode. Operational mode meant 24/7 we had teams online in order to help. For us that meant we couldn't go into the building immediately. So someone luckily had an apartment nearby and we were first evacuated just to the parking lot, but then we had reports of more aircraft because we thought there were over 3,000 aircraft in the air at the time. We thought okay, we need to move away from the building in case it gets attacked again, even though some of us had been thinking well it could hit the White House, could hit the Capitol Building — what were other prime very visible targets? What else could they be after? When we went into that person's apartment, we were on the phones, we were doing things starting the 24/7 operation. And then I actually became a shift leader for that working for an admiral. And I did that for another six months until I changed assignments.

SUBIONO: In the years that followed the attacks, I know that you spent some time in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. What was your experience like there?

LEWIS: When you compare it to what happened at 9/11, I think 9/11 well equipped me to be able to understand that kind of fog of war, that chaos of war. And going to Iraq turned out to be the place that my entire military experience — from the time I entered West Point in the first class with women and all the garbage and crap and difficulties that happened there, but I learned so much and I learned to be stronger and better and how to overcome; and then you think of the Pentagon experience that here is real world catastrophes that happen on our homeland and you have to be able to deal with that — going to Iraq was an honor to be able to actually implement and use those things that I did. And it was a terrible time. In 2006 when I went there, I got there — this is like I'm working engineering, keeping people safe in buildings, some may wonder my timing, how does that happen that I keep always being in the place where chaos reigns — but Samarra mosque had been blown up, like in April. Up until then we were thinking we were exiting, we were no longer going to be doing projects. And that's what I was told and they didn't give me any more people the whole year I was there. They rotated some people in and out, but they never gave me more people. It was $2.1 billion we were dealing with, with the things that were had been done and that, and doing it in harsh weather. And the final thing you may not have known and really didn't happen to a lot of organizations. My team was all volunteers, coming from all over the world. I had National Guard, I had different services. I had Air Force, I had Marines. I had Navy. We had the whole gamut of people working on my team, not big. I had 36 military. Think about the numbers that we're talking about in construction. I had 125 Department of Defense civilians from also all over the world. I had Iraqis who worked directly for me, I had Nepal Gurkha guards, I had these organizations that do security. So I had probably 850 on my team, I didn't have an army of people to protect me to go visit these project sites. And so that experience taught me that you can do amazing things if you work well with your people, and you can handle that stress. And it was stressful. But it was incredibly fulfilling because of the people we met, including the Iraqi people. They are caring and helpful and able to do so much.

SUBIONO: All of your experience throughout your time in the Army, 9/11, in the Middle East, from what I can tell, has kind of come to fruition in a book that you've written. Can you tell us a little bit more about the book?

LEWIS: Yes, it's not the book that I planned, which is the fun part. I planned to do that sophisticated leadership book and pass on all my leadership advice and help and insights to other people. And in the middle of that I gave a presentation to University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo students. I wanted to help them because under stress, you can really lose the best of yourself. And I wanted to help them understand at that time, it was anger, I was focusing on anger. But I wanted it to be a fun time together. So I created cartoons. And they showed I had had something happened to me, no matter how skilled you are in handling stress, something can always push your hot button. And usually people get negative is when they can't handle stress. If you're going to fight, run away or shut down, those are all our only base instincts, our survival mode responses to stress. So if you do any of those three things, I can tell you from great experience, the outcomes are definitely less than optimal, and usually horrible. So I was teaching these students imparting these lessons there. And then the cartoons wanted their own book. So the cartoons became a children's book. But it's so much more than that. It's called "Why Is Pono not Pono today?" and it's how to bring out the best when someone is stressed. What I've done is taken these very complex concepts and distilled them down to what is most important at any moment. How can we help each other? And this is going to be a tough week, people have been already showing the videos of 9/11 and I just encourage people to keep refilling their tank — every moment once you feel, because this is something to be sad about but it's also something to be hopeful and to take action by loving other people and helping other people and focusing on what's most important. Click here to learn more about her books.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 8, 2021.

Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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