By Army Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum
Special to American Forces Press Service
Sept. 11, 2008 - Seven years ago today, Army Col. William Stoppel dropped his 9-month-old son, Will, at day care and went to work. "It was my son's first day at Pentagon day care," Stoppel said. "I came in early, got him situated and went in to the office."
The day happened to be Sept. 11, 2001. Stoppel was assigned to the Army's personnel office, where he processed promotion packets.
When Stoppel got to his office, he borrowed some socks from Chief Warrant Officer William Ruth of the Maryland National Guard, talked to newly engaged Medical Service Corps officer Lt. Col. Karen Wagner and made light conversation with soldiers like Col. Canfield "Bud" Boone from the Indiana Army National Guard.
"I walked in that morning with Bud Boone," Stoppel said, recalling the conversation he had with him about a picnic they both attended. "I kind of joked with him about being an Olympian, because he played in every sport they offered that day. And for an 'old guy,' he was actually a pretty good athlete."
After the morning staff meeting, rumors flew that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Office staff flocked to televisions to get confirmation.
Something wasn't right, Stoppel recalled, but he didn't know what it was. He decided to check on his son at the day care center. At the same time, he would go for his morning jog a little early -- an unusual change for such a schedule-oriented person.
"Ordinarily, I would always run at 11," he said. "What made me change my schedule? Why did I leave at 9:20 instead of 11?"
At the day care center, Stoppel talked to a provider about Will's first day. At about 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the southwest corner of the Pentagon.
"I felt the earth shake," he said. "That was kind of strange. I walked outside, and I saw some smoke coming up. At that time, [the provider] got the call that it's time to evacuate the day care center."
Stoppel, the provider and the children moved to a nearby park without hearing another word. They tried to keep the children and each other calm, even after hearing that another plane was on its way.
Later, after getting home, he called around to check on his co-workers with no notion that his office in the inner ring of the Pentagon had taken a direct hit. He called Dave Scales, the man with whom he shared a cubicle. He talked to Wagner's fiancée, who hadn't heard anything.
After hours of calling, Stoppel finally received the dreaded news. "About 9:30 that night, I get a call from Colonel Charlie Baldwin, who was the chief of the Army National Guard Readiness Program at the time," Stoppel said. "He said, 'We thought you were dead.'"
The next day, the seven remaining members of the office met to discuss what happened. Some had survived and were in the hospital. Some, like Scales, had died immediately from the blast. Others, like Wagner and Ruth, died of smoke inhalation while trying to escape the wreckage. Boone, the "Olympic" athlete with whom Stoppel had joked, also was dead.
The visit brought questions that Stoppel still asks today -- the eternal issues of those who survive a tragedy.
"Had I been there, would I have been able to pick [someone] up and carry them off?" he wondered. "I don't know. Had I been sitting at my desk with Dave Scales, I probably would have just died in the initial blast. Why did I live and they didn't? I don't know."
The attack killed 184 innocent people, 125 inside the Pentagon.
The office was a close-knit unit – a family united by a common mission. The survivors attended many funerals, and ultimately decided to put their grief behind them by not letting the tragedy interrupt their work.
"The best way that we could honor the people who died in our office was to keep going," Stoppel said. "So we made sure no [promotion] board actions died ... [or] were affected by 9/11. We just kept going."
Will Stoppel will be 8 years old Dec. 27. He may never fully understand what he did for his father that day.
His father, however, will never forget.
"Every morning when I wake up my son and hug him, I know that if not for him I'd be dead," he said.
(Army Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum serves at the National Guard Bureau.)