At the Pentagon
Surviving September 11
Col. Shattuck has served in the United States Air Force for nearly 25 years in such exciting places as Germany and Korea, and even taught history at the Air Force Academy for four years. But it was her assignment in our nation's capital six years ago that brought her to the front line of battle with the most treacherous enemy our nation has ever faced.
I recently had the honor of interviewing Col. Shattuck about her experiences on the day we now know as 911, and what's being done to prevent another day like that from ever happening again.
Six years ago today, on September 11, 2001, Shattuck had been at her assignment to the Joint Staff in the Pentagon in Washington D.C. for only two months. She said that day started like any other, with her riding the D.C. Metro to work, but it became a day she would remember forever.
Shattuck said she arrived at work about 7:30 am that morning to an office in the middle ring of the Pentagon. She and 50 coworkers performed their duties in this room with no windows, located deep inside the huge Defense Department building. They did, however, have TVs in the office to monitor news outlets, and they needed them that day like no other day.
Shortly after she got to work, Shattuck's boss called her and her colleagues over to a TV to watch news of American Airlines Flight 11's crash into the World Trade Center. She and her colleagues were confused as to how an airplane could be so careless as to strike one of the prominent Twin Towers. However, moments after they began discussing the first strike among themselves, they saw United Airlines Flight 175 strike the South Tower, and they knew the country was under attack.
Shattuck quickly called her husband Cliff who was a trucker at the time and advised him to monitor what was going on, then she went back to watching the news coverage at the World Trade Center.
At this point, no one knew how many airplanes had been hijacked. Since the Pentagon is the highest profile military target on the East Coast, Shattuck opined to a colleague that they might soon come under attack. Moments after voicing this concern, Shattuck heard a dull thud. She said it was very soft, and some people in her area didn't even hear it, but to her it sounded as if someone had dropped something very heavy on the floor above them.
Seconds later, one of the news reports they were watching cut away for a live report of "an explosion at the Pentagon," and she knew they were under attack: American Airlines Flight 77 had slammed into the Pentagon, killing 125 people inside and 54 on the plane.
When Shattuck walked out of her office into the long hallway, she heard people calling for all personnel to remain in their offices, that there had been some sort of attack but that no evacuation was currently taking place.
But shortly thereafter the order came to evacuate, and she joined her coworkers in quickly shutting down down their computers that had classified information and locking the safes before lining up with scores of others waiting their turn to leave the building.
"I remember being proud of how calm everyone was," Shattuck told me. "There was no panic or anger; we just realized we'd now have to put our training into action. We were there to defend the United States of America."
As the long line moved toward the exit, Shattuck remembers seeing a woman who was covered head to toe in ashes. She remembers wondering how this woman made it all the way around from the opposite side of the Pentagon where the plane had struck.
After a few minutes, she was out of the building and happy to see the clear blue skies above. She and other Pentagon personnel calmly proceeded to their designated meeting location where roll was taken and everyone was accounted for.
At this point, rumors where flying as people tried to ascertain what had really happened. One rumor said that a helicopter had struck the building but Shattuck later found out that an airplane had struck the building where the helipad was located.
It wasn't long before the thousands gathered outside the Pentagon were ordered to take cover because of a report that another plane was coming; at this point United Flight 93 had turned and was headed back toward Washington.
After they were given the all-clear, injured people were taken out onto the lawn where medical personnel began treating them. Shattuck recalls the professional manner in which the injured were given necessary immediate treatment, and then were given or had cards pinned to them with details about their injuries for later caregivers.
About 45 minutes after the attack, she and other personnel were ordered to set up an alternate National Military Command Center in another location, in case the primary center at the Pentagon had to stand down. Though personnel were mobilized to prepare for this contingency, it never became necessary due to the dedication of NMCC personnel who stayed at their posts despite the smoke and other dangers. Shattuck said she didn't know anyone personally who was killed in the attack, though she had friends who knew people who were killed.
She remembers the miraculous story of an Army lieutenant colonel that had been in a conference room with thirteen people shortly before the attack. The briefing had finished and the other attendees invited him to stick around and talk some more. He declined, stating he had to get back to his office, leaving the others in the room. Shortly afterward, the plane struck that area of the building, killing all those inside the conference room. Shattuck said there were many stories of close calls like this one.
After the attack, Shattuck and her coworkers wondered what the death toll would be, given the thousand killed at the World Trade Center. About 25,000 people work in the Pentagon on any given day, with about 5,000 people in each of the five "wedges" of the building.
In another miraculous set of circumstances, Wedge 1 had just been renovated and was still almost empty of personnel. Some of the renovations included reinforced support beams and explosion-proof glass. Wedge 2 was about to be renovated and most of the workers had already been cleared out in preparation. Flight 77 struck where these two sections meet, so casualties were much fewer than might have otherwise been.
In the shadow of such death, destruction and suffering, some have understandably wondered, "Where was God?" But something happened that told Debra Shattuck where He was that day.
Speaking not as an Air Force officer but very personally, Shattuck told me about an amazing thing that happened the night of 911. She got home that night about 11:30 pm. Though she was very tired, she determined not to go to bed until she had done her daily practice of prayer and Scripture reading. That night, Shattuck opened her Bible randomly and read the first passage she saw. It was Psalm 37 which says, in part, "Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong...Trust in the LORD and do good."
"That last part really stuck in my mind," Shattuck told me. "It really put things in perspective and helped me be calm. We were attacked, but the Lord is still on His throne."
Now Col. Shattuck is stationed at Ellsworth AFB, one of the many locations from which the War on Terror continues. Shattuck said personnel from Ellsworth support the war by sending individuals or small groups overseas to work with security forces, explosive ordinance disposal, and pretty much anything they would also do here at stateside bases.
But Ellsworth also deploys large numbers of airplanes, operators and maintainers as a unit to forward operating locations in support of operations such as Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom (Iraq).
Her maintenance group was behind such extraordinary achievements such as hitting Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq on the same day, and carrying out the largest close air support mission since the Vietnam War.
As I concluded the interview with Col. Shattuck, she left no doubt about her commitment and that of other military personnel: "We cannot forget as Americans that we are in a global war on terrorism, and we are doing everything we can to stop them overseas so they can't come back and do again what they did on September 11."
Today we remember the 2,974 Americans killed that day, and we remember the husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers who lost their loved ones.
We also remember the brave military men and women working tirelessly to ensure such a tragedy doesn't happen again, and their families so often separated by many months and thousands of miles.
And hopefully we remember the lessons that history has written for us in blood. May God bless Col. Shattuck, the warriors at Ellsworth, and all the heroes in the U.S. Armed Forces around the world.
Written by Bob Ellis for Dakota Voice, September 11, 2007 (an expanded version of an article in the Rapid City Journal).