Remembering 9/11: Smoke, flames, fear, gridlock

Scott Swanson

Army Major Craig Anderson was in a meeting on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 in the high-rise office complex where he worked, in Falls Church, Va., when his world changed.

His boss, though, in an upstairs office, looked out his window and saw a passenger jet approaching – frighteningly close, at about 9:45 a.m.

“He thought it was going to hit the building,” recalled Anderson, now 56, who has lived in Sweet Home since 2014, when he became a pastor at Elm Street Baptist Church. “He dove under his desk. It went right by his window.”

Anderson returned to his office, where he worked for the Department of Defense, Health Affairs. His team built information systems for military health facilities. The Skyline Complex, where the military had leased office space, was located 3½ miles as the crow flies from the Pentagon.

Civilian contractors on the top floor, who were working Anderson’s project, also witnessed the near-miss by the jet.

“They called down, saying a plane had almost hit our building. ‘We’re scared. We’re going home.'”

“Then I got a call from my boss,” he said. “He said a plane had just hit the Pentagon. We could see smoke and flames from his office.”

Anderson said the military personnel in the building were told to go home.

At the time, he said, he was taking the train to and from work, riding a bus in the morning from the station about four miles from his office, then jogging to the station on the way home.

“The whole place turned into a big, huge parking lot,” he recalled. “All the streets were jammed with cars.”

He called his wife Jennifer and asked her to pick up their children from school.

“Everything was getting jammed up. I ran faster to the train station than I could have driven. Everybody was trying to get out.”

Except public transit, it turned out.

When Anderson arrived at the Alexandria/Falls Church station, the trains weren’t moving and nobody was getting on.

“I asked people in the station what the holdup was and they told me all the trains in the DC area were held up. They weren’t releasing any mass-transit buses or trains for fear that those were targeted for terrorist attacks as well.”

He said authorities feared that the extensive Muslim population around the capital might include terrorist cells, which prompted the initial shutdown.

“The day it happened, a lot of people were scared,” Anderson said. “They didn’t know what was going on. We’d heard that the plane that hit the Pentagon flew out of Dulles,” 26 miles from the capital.

“Everybody knew that there were cells hiding in the D.C. area. There were a lot of internationals, Muslims, living in the area. A lot of people were fearful of that.”

With train traffic on hold, “I thought I was going to have to walk back to my office and stay there, but they said to wait, so I did.”

About 45 minutes later, he was able to board the train and get home.

Anderson said he later hired a civilian contractor who had been a nurse, who was in the east side of the Pentagon when the airliner struck the west side, which had just been renovated, he noted, for some $1 billion.

“Those were brand new offices.”

The nurse, Lt. Col. Mike Smith, had been an airborne Army Ranger in Vietnam, where he was awarded a Silver Star, before returning to the U.S. and attending nursing school.

“He was a real interesting guy,” Anderson said.

Smith, he said, ran to the west side of the Pentagon to help when he found a woman who had serious burns on her neck.

“He got her outside and somebody had a van, so he got her in the van.”

On the way to the hospital, Anderson said, the woman’s airway collapsed from swelling due to her injuries.

“Mike told the driver to pull into a fire station, which happened to be right there. The fire people were all gone, but someone at the station had an aid bag and he was able to open her airway. He saved her life. They gave him a medal for that, later.”

Anderson, who retired in 2007 as a lieutenant colonel after a 20-year Army career, said he didn’t see a lot of big changes in the armed forces following the attacks.

“The biggest thing that changed was air travel. After that, things became much more secure – longer lines at airport, checks and stuff.”

He said that, although he never personally served in any special forces units, he wasn’t aware of any plans to put large American forces in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries.

“That’s what the Russians did. Our plan was always to fight it as a light-intensity conflict, not to send a big, huge armed force over there.”

The attacks prompted inquiries in the area around the capital, including an investigation of how the attackers may have used taxis to get to the airport and where they had been picked up.

What did happen, he said, was that the Army began stiffening security around its bases.

“The Army installations used to be open – Ft. Bragg, Ft. Sam Houston, Ft. Lewis. You could just drive right onto them. They started gating them.

“The Air Force had always gated their facilities, but not all Army installations had gates. They all got gated and the trucks that bring stuff into the installations get inspected now.

“Security became more of an issue.”