War on Terrorism

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Five Years On, Pentagon 9/11 Survivor Reflects on Attack

By Steven Donald Smith

WASHINGTON, Sept. 6, 2006 – At about 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Debra Wagner and her colleagues at the Pentagon got a phone call telling them to turn on the television. There had been a terrible "accident" in New York City. "I thought this was a horrible way to start such a beautiful morning," Wagner said, reflecting on learning the news that an airplane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. "It was absolutely beautiful that day. The sky was crystal clear. It was just beautiful."

Only moments after switching on the television, Wagner watched as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the trade center's South Tower. "I cringed," she said, instinctively knowing this was no accident and that Washington was probably next. Wagner, 53, a civilian working for the Office of the Assistant
Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, which was located in the Pentagon's outer E Ring on the west side of the building, felt fearful.

About half an hour after seeing the second plane crash, Wagner found herself peering out a Pentagon window toward Arlington National Cemetery. She said she vaguely remembers seeing an object in the sky, but didn't pay much attention to it. Suddenly, American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building, violently shaking the room where she stood.

"The sound was unbelievable. For six months afterward I kept hearing that horrible impact sound. It was a BOOM!" she said. "The first things that I felt were fear and shock, then just disgust."

Wagner was slightly burned around her face and neck by flying embers, but for the most part was uninjured. "I knew there were people hurt, and I just wanted to help," she said.

The events that followed are a blur to Wagner. She doesn't remember leaving the building or much about her drive home from the Pentagon. The only memory that is seared into her mind is hearing Lee Greenwood's song "God Bless the USA." on the car radio. "I remember losing it," she said. "That's it."

She does, however, vividly remember the events that led up to the telephone call prompting her and her coworkers to turn on the television. She remembers seeing an acquaintance Ernie Willcher, a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, just before he went into a meeting that morning.

"Jokingly, Ernie said (to Wagner), 'If you go to this meeting, we'll get some things done.' He had this blue suit on; ... I still remember this beautiful blue suit. I said, 'Ernie, you look really nice today,'" she recalled with tears welling up in her eyes.

Wagner said remembers Willcher saying his wife picked out the blue suit for his new job. He had recently joined the company after working for the Army for more than 20 years and was at the Pentagon on Sept. 11 on a consulting assignment.

Flight 77 crashed directly into the room where Willcher's meeting was being held, killing all in attendance, Wagner said.

In the days that followed Sept. 11, Wagner grew tired of watching the news "But I couldn't not watch it," she said

"I remember feeling violated that my Pentagon had been maimed," she said. "I remember crying. I didn't cry for fear. I was crying because I was learning who had perished."

She went back to work a couple days after the attack. "I remember the morgue. I remember the smells. I remember the noises," she said.

Upon her return to work, she said, she gained a newfound respect for the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, formerly known as the Defense Protective Service, because of its officers' kindness and patience. Wagner began routinely checking in on the PFPA officers to see how they were coping. "It's my nature to reach out," she said.

On one occasion she consoled an emotional officer. "I had to hug him," she said. "I never hated anybody, but I hated what happened to us."

Wagner still works in the Pentagon. And, as the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack approaches, she said she is doing well. "I'm okay; I don't think you ever recover," she said. "Right after 9/11, I became a professional mourner. That's the word I used to describe myself. I've appreciated every day since."

Wagner emphasized the importance of remembering those who lost their lives at the Pentagon that September day and said the Pentagon Memorial now under construction will be vital in helping accomplish that goal. "I think the memorial is just so important," she said. "It's important for recovery. It's important for remembrance."

She said she came through the tragic events of Sept. 11 with a profound belief in the resilience of America and its people.

"You don't know what you're made of until something like this hits you," she said. "I remember our country standing strong, like a phoenix just rising out the ashes."

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