As hundreds paused to remember 9/11 victims at the Pentagon Friday, a survivor who worked there and two local firefighters recalled the shock, horror and grief that gripped them 14 years ago after a shimmering summer morning unraveled into chaos.
Orlando Lau of Montgomery Village, a survivor, said the details of the day of the terrorist attacks 14 years ago remain with him, as if they were tattooed on his arm. The Navy worker, whose old office was in the part of the building that was hit, would have died if not for his supervisor – his “guardian angel” – who uncannily told him not to return to retrieve some things he had left behind after they learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Lau listened, and then the Pentagon, too, was struck.
Around 9:35 a.m. an alarm sounded, then Lau and his supervisor hastily exited the building, unaware that a plane had struck the building.
Lau, who worked past 2 a.m., said calls to missing co-workers’ families were the most difficult part.
Brian Hagburg, 57, a recently retired Montgomery County firefighter, said people are starting to forget what happened, which he fears makes similar tragedies likelier.
“(It’s) frustrating for me because in fire service, (we have) tradition to remember the people who died in it,” he said.
Hagburg has participated in recent years in a Montgomery County pipe and drum band to honor the victims, a tradition inspired by a similar band in New York.
On 9/11, working from a ladder truck, Hagburg and other firefighters took turns spraying the building with water for about eight hours during their 24-hour shift. The fire still wasn’t put out at the end of their shift.
Hagburg returned to the Pentagon two days later to decontaminate emergency response gear.
Montgomery County firefighter Eric Bernard, who has been volunteering for 34 years, and other firefighters from Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and elsewhere responded to a call from sister stations Sept. 13, 2001, and drove to New York City. They also received a second responsibility they had not anticipated – paying their respects at as many as three funerals a day for the firefighters who died in line of duty.
The attack on the World Trade Center was the deadliest incident in the history of the United States for firefighters and law enforcement officers. Bernard attended 14 of the funerals for the 343 firefighters who died in the collapse.
Bernard described low attendance at the funerals as disappointing because funerals for the fallen tend to draw thousands of firefighters from outside the area, along with 40-50 firetrucks and local first responders, he said. Instead, it was mostly relatives and a few visiting firefighters paying their respects.
“At any other time a firefighter who died in the line of duty was heralded for what he or she is, a hero. We were struggling to find a fire engine to take them to their resting spot. That sucked. That was difficult to deal with, and then we as a group we lost that catharsis of digging.”
Bernard said searching for remains offered them a way to feel helpful and cope.
“I think being there was cathartic – being there, that I was doing something to help, even if it was helping to recover,” Bernard said. “At that point, people just wanted their loved ones – they wanted the knowledge that, what happened to them.”
Sept. 11 dramatically reformed responses to serious fires.
“We call it self-dispatching, where firefighters around the country saw what was going on and were like, ‘Holy sh**, I need to go help.’ Well if you’re in Kansas, it’s not easy to go and help.
“It doesn’t (work) because there’s no accountability,” Bernard said. “You show up and they’re – first off they don’t know who the hell you are. They don’t know what your training is. They don’t know that you didn’t buy that uniform at a costume shop and decide you were a firefighter. They don’t know that fire truck meets the same standards, has the same hose, or if it’s authorized to be there or if it’s stolen by a terrorist.”
The dispatcher also is not able to communicate with the visiting fire engines since they’re not reachable by radio.
More than 100 survivors, family members of those who lost their lives in the attack on the Pentagon, and military personnel gathered for a private memorial service at the Pentagon Memorial Friday morning.
Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter gave speeches.
A few people cried, others intermittently staring at the ground.
The group had a moment of silence at 9:37 a.m., the time terrorists attacked the Pentagon.
More than a dozen members of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marines, all wearing dress uniforms and military caps or hats, stood behind the family members and survivors at the back of the Pentagon Memorial.
Later, more than 500 attended the Pentagon Community September 11th Observance at the center courtyard inside the Pentagon. Michael Rhodes, director of administration for the Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer, as well as Selva and Carter, gave remarks.
The U.S. Air Force Band concluded the observance with the national anthem.
The following Montgomery County residents were among those remembered at the Pentagon memorial events.
Gerald P. Fisher, 57, Potomac, United States Army contractor, Pentagon.
Michele M. Heidenberger, 57, Chevy Chase, Flight Crew, American 77, Pentagon.
Angela M. Houtz, 27, Rockville, United States Navy Civilian, Pentagon.
Teddington H. Moy, 48, Silver Spring, United States Army Civilian, Pentagon.
Darin H. Pontell, 26, Gaithersburg, United States Naval Reserve, Pentagon.
Scott Alan Powell, 35, Silver Spring, United States Army contractor, Pentagon.
Todd H. Reuben, 40, Potomac, Passenger, American 77, Pentagon.
Ernest M. Willcher, 62, North Potomac, United States Army contractor, Pentagon.