Now retired Rear Adm. Hugh Wetherald was standing in an open space near his offices on the D-ring of the Pentagon’s fourth deck when he heard a deep rumbling noise.
Then he watched as a large fireball came up over the E-Ring, near where the Navy and the Army had offices.
It was 9:37 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. A hijacked plane had hit the Pentagon.
It’s been 20 years since hijackers took control of four planes, flying two in the Twin Towers in New York, one into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, and one into a Pennsylvania field after passengers fought back.
The Capital spoke to Anne Arundel residents and Naval Academy graduates about the events of Sept. 11 and how it affected their lives and careers.
Ship, shipmate, self
Wetherald arrived at the Pentagon Sept. 11 after a few hours of sleep. His office was working to prepare the Navy’s budget and there was a briefing that day.
There were no televisions in his wing, but Wetherald and the other members of the staff heard through the grapevine that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers in New York. They went up to another office that had a television. A second plane had hit the towers.
As Wetherald and his co-workers walked back to their office space, Wetherald commented that they were a target as a building in D.C. full of military members.
As a Naval officer, Wetherald had been in harm’s way before, but it was unexpected in D.C. People were still absorbing what had happened in New York.
Wetherald was back in his office for only a few minutes before the plane hit the Pentagon.
The power started flashing, he remembered. The lights did as well. Ceiling tiles started falling. People started rushing out, heading toward the center of the Pentagon.
For Wetherald, his Naval Academy and Navy training for fighting ship fires kicked in. Instinct took over. He grabbed another person and turned toward the offices that were burning. They were going to see if there was anyone they could help.
When there is a fire on a ship, Naval personnel are taught to first try to save the ship, then their shipmates, then themselves. Sixteen years of Naval training taught him that if he did not go to save others, there would not be time for others to try.
They ran down to the E-Ring and started checking offices. They took their T-shirts off and put them around their mouths and noses. They crawled over debris, over a part of the deck that would eventually collapse.
Finding no one, Wetherald and his co-worker started to exit. He was on the first floor, near the elevators between the third and fourth corridors and he could see people streaming out of areas that were on fire. Injured people were being brought out on doors.
Wetherald decided to go back in, at one point facing the area of the Pentagon that had once housed the Navy Command Center. The nose of the airplane had punched through the wall, and it was a fiery inferno, he said.
People came out and told Wetherald and the surface warfare director that there were more people in some of the secure areas. Wetherald and some of the others set up a daisy chain, where they would move through the fire putting it out with fire extinguishers.
He was standing in liquid he later realized was jet fuel. There was black smoke. Plastic dripped on him. It was a gruesome sight, he said.
Until at one point, Wetherald realized he was alone.
The flames started reigniting around him, and he realized he could either go toward the area that was black and smoky or try to get out through the fire.
He chose the flames. He jumped headfirst and landed in front of a captain who was looking for him, and got out of the building. He ended up in a parking lot where he got a ride from an admiral. Weatherald’s wife picked him up and took him to the hospital, where he recovered from smoke inhalation.
When Wetherald reflects on Sept. 11, he remembers the courage that he saw and the resiliency of the country. Although he did not return to work the next day, his office did, opening up in the old Navy annex where the Air Force Memorial now stands.
On a personal level, the experience made him take advantage of every day and every opportunity he now encounters.
It was “the day our lives changed,” he said.
Remembering those lost
Dennis Dias had recently left active duty service and was working on the Pentagon when he read the news reports about planes hitting the World Trade Center in New York.
He joined the reserves in December when he left active duty, but had just done two weeks of reserve duty at the Pentagon at the Navy Command Center, standing watch. That was in August. Just weeks later, a plane would hit the Pentagon, where the center was located.
There were 42 members of the staff killed, but at the time, the people had not been identified.
He got a call saying to go to an alternate site, where they were trying to muster, to account for all of the Navy Command Center staff.
“And every time these names are coming up, ‘I’m like, Oh, my God, I know who that is.’ And we didn’t know where they were,” Dias recalled.
Dias stayed overnight. The next morning, he moved to the Marine Corps Command Center, which was near the Pentagon. The Marines opened the doors for their Navy colleagues.
At that point, there was a list of people known to be missing, and the Navy began sending casualty officers to their families. They could tell the families their loved ones were missing, Dias said. It would be late September before death notifications could be made.
Dias had a friend who was on the list. The two were stationed in Hawaii together and worked together at the Pentagon. Dias went to his friend’s house to talk with his spouse.
“It was just that awful unknown period of what was going on and kind of bouncing between his house and the Pentagon and hearing all these other names of people that we had known and worked with, even known out in the fleet as well,” Dias said.
The following Saturday was unusually chilly, Dias remembered. The families of the missing were asked to congregate in a hotel in Crystal City, near the Pentagon. An officer briefed the families, telling them it would be some time before their loved ones could be identified.
They were then bussed over toward the Pentagon parking, where they could see the Pentagon and the gash still in its side, Dias said.
Chaplains passed out blankets as family members of those worked in the Pentagon and who were on the plane stood together.
“But it was just an incredibly horrific, powerful moment,” Dias said. “And families were looking for direction. And it was just a really, really tough day.”
Dias is now chair of the Office of Naval Research in the Cyber Science Department at the Naval Academy. Around the anniversary of Sept. 11, he takes 15 minutes at the beginning of class to talk about the attacks.
He tells them about the people who died that day, reminding them that they were just like the midshipmen, some were even Naval Academy graduates.
“And you never know when your generation’s 9/11 is going to happen,” he said. “ … I think about 9/11 every single day. And you just want to do your best to help the next generation be ready for theirs.”
It was not until the second plane hit the Twin Towers that Capt. (retired) Paul Tortora knew the Sept. 11 attacks were a planned event.
He was a part of naval intelligence and in a predeployment meeting when someone rushed into the room to announce the first plane hitting the towers. That was odd, Tortora recalled. He knew there were historic crashes, but those happened on cloudy days. Sept. 11, 2001, was clear.
The immediate reaction was the need to find out who was responsible and go after them, as well as stop any further attacks. Then came the attack on the Pentagon.
While some knew people in New York, the attack on the Pentagon hit closer. Tortora knew many killed. They were mentors, friends, colleagues.
Tortora was preparing to deploy already, but the events pushed his deployment up. Now, he was leaving that night.
He stopped at home to grab his gear and left a note for his wife and children who were not there. His wife would have to be in charge of the household while he was gone, and there was still a lot of uncertainty. And now he was also potentially heading into harm’s way.
Tortora shipped out that night for a short deployment. He was able to return home briefly before setting out on another seven-month deployment, he said.
Tortora, who graduated from the academy, is now the director of its Center for cybersecurity, working with midshipmen who were not yet born when the Sept. 11 attacks happened. The training that midshipmen learn prepares them to be able to adapt to unexpected events, he said.
Reflecting on the past 20 years, Tortora wants people to remember that there has not been an attack on the United States, and those who serve in the armed forces or for the Department of Defense continue to work to try and prevent any future attacks.
“So I want folks to focus on the fact that the United States will continue to defend our soil, that those who serve in the uniform should be proud of what they do protecting their family and our way of life,” he said.
A knock on the door
Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck was stationed at Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine in a meeting with his commanding officer when there was a knock on the door.
The squadron duty officer told those in the meeting they should turn on the television. When they did, they watched as the reports came in about a plane striking the World Trade Center in New York.
Then the second plane hit, and that’s when Buck and the rest of the world realized that this was a premeditated attack, he said.
Buck had been planning to start a training day to prepare for upcoming deployments, but that was stopped as a result of the attacks. Instead, the commanders sent some of the aviators home for crew rest because it was unclear if they would need to leave to support the country’s response, and aviators needed eight hours of rest before they could fly.
Buck and the other members of the chain of command stayed by their phones and prepared for any tasks that might come their way, he said. Buck was the number two in his squadron, and his commanding officer immediately took charge, giving everyone the orders needed to prepare.
Buck and the other officers had trained to be able to adapt quickly. Still, the unexpected shift in their day came as a shock, he said.
Patrol squadrons, including Buck’s in Maine, were tasked with protecting the maritime edges from D.C. to the northern border, he said. It was unclear if the next attack would come by sea, which meant those areas needed to be monitored.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 did not change Buck’s career, he said, but it did affect him personally. It gave him the resolve to stay in the military and continue to do so over the past 20 years.
“And I’m still resolved to serve as long as they want me to serve,” he said.
For the midshipmen at the Naval Academy, Buck wants them to know two things about Sept. 11. First, the attacks were an inflection point in the country’s history.
Second, they need to be prepared for the unknown and uncertainty. They, too, could be called up to serve at a moment’s notice.
“It’s a very sobering thought for young minds who may not have gone down that mental journey yet,” Buck said.
When reflecting on the attacks, Buck thinks about the unity the country showed in the hours and days after and the courage that many showed that day.
“I was not even born during Pearl Harbor, but I remember Pearl Harbor and what it led our country into, a world war,” he said. “I want every American to remember the attacks of 9/11 and how it changed all of our lives forever.”
A quick goodbye
Nicole Reibert was 6 years old when the planes crashed into the twin towers in New York. She was on the west coast and she remembers her mother and grandparents watching the news. Her father was out at sea on what was supposed to be a routine naval exercise.
Reibert went to school as normal, but when she came home, her mother was upset. She did not know where Reibert’s father was.
Reibert’s father did naval intelligence. Normally, when out on a ship, he would call his wife every day. But he did not on Sept. 11. His family did not hear from him for a week, Reibert said.
When he finally called, he was brief. He could not say where he was going, although they could guess based on the news. He did not know when he would be back or when he could talk to them again.
The conversation maybe lasted five minutes, Reibert recalled.
“And everybody got that quick ‘I love you.’ And then that was it,” she said. “We didn’t know when we were going to hear from him again.”
Reibert was close to her father, and she was frightened, she said. Her mom essentially became a single mother. That weeklong exercise became a 10-month deployment to the Middle East.
Everything changed for the family after Sept. 11, Reibert said. Deployments were always extended. What would be scheduled for six months would become nine. A nine month deployment became 10 months.
Reibert was angry. She was sad. She did not understand what happened. What she knew was something bad happened far away and took her dad away from her.
Her father was in the military for 11 more years, including as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, retiring from it when she was 17. There were 10 missed Christmases and birthdays over the years.
“We always say thanks to the veterans, and don’t get me wrong, love them. Wonderful. Big support,” Reibert said. “But it’s the families that are left behind that I think sometimes get forgotten as well.”
Watching from across the sea
Susan Barry was on a lunch break during a course when she saw the news about the attacks in the United States. She was linguist with the Army stationed in Germany.
Like many, it took the second plane for Barry to realize it was not an accident. The United States was under attack.
Barry was told to go home and grab her gear. When she tried to return, she was stuck in traffic for hours a mile outside the base. Security was on high alert. Every car was being searched.
She was told to go home and come back in the morning.
For the next four to six weeks, she was on gate watch. The Germans were supportive, she said. They brought flowers and offered their sympathies.
Being in Germany made her feel removed from the attacks, but at the same time, she also felt closer because the base was a launching point for the Middle East.
It was hard to feel emotion in the moment, she said. She knew change would come and the time for training was over.
Barry was an Arabic linguist, and her skill set was needed. She was sent to Kosovo. She had been originally scheduled to go there anyway, but the assignment was moved up.
And her deployment, which was scheduled for six months, was extended another three months because the unit that was meant to replace hers was rerouted to Iraq as Operation Iraqi Freedom began.
She returned from Kosovo in July 2003 and deployed to Iraq in February 2004. Her deployment lasted around a year.
Iraq was terrifying, she said. To get into the country, her unit had to convoy from Kuwait. They drove throughout the night.
She had learned defensive driving because the roads were dangerous due to improvised explosive devices. Her first night she was at a table with a Marine who had lost some of his platoon, and it hit her that she could die.
“I remember writing in a journal, just some of my feelings, because I was really worried that I [wouldn’t] make it,” Barry said.
While in Iraq, she was not in a firefight, she said, although she experienced indirect firing from militant groups weekly.
Barry left the Army in 2008 while pregnant with her second child. She met her husband while in Iraq and the two decided it was too difficult to raise their children while both were in the military. Her husband will retire next year.
Sept. 11 was world changing, Barry said, especially when it came to flying, which now faced stricter restrictions.
It reminded her of growing up in Germany where airport security was tighter because of a concern around hijacked airplanes.
She has three children, all of whom were born after Sept. 11. She took them to the museum in New York last year to help teach them about the attacks.
Her older children understand how Sept. 11 affected the country, at least through the lens of their own lives, she said. Her husband deployed to Afghanistan twice since she left the service, and her kids remember when he was gone.
“I think at this point, I just kind of look at [Sept. 11] as this very defining moment in the history of the world, but also particularly for the history of the United States,” Barry said.
Serving after Sept. 11
Sept. 11, 2001 happened during Ryan Hefner’s senior year of high school. The Illinois native was in the process of being recruited by the Naval Academy and other schools for baseball.
He remembers learning about the attacks in chemistry class because his teacher had the television on.
When he arrived for plebe summer, the commandant at the time, now retired Gen. John Allen, told the incoming class that they were the first class in 30 years to enter the academy while the nation was at war.
“That was kind of ingrained upon us that hey we made a choice during a tough time and, and we’re all here think for the right reasons … we knew we’re going in harm’s way eventually,” Hefner said.
It did not hit him what it meant to enter the academy during wartime until he was in his third year. First, there was the Naval Academy graduate who came to speak about his time in Iraq, bringing with him some of the gory scenes he witnessed.
Then, he spent a summer with Marines who were part of the battle of Fallujah. Some of the sergeants invited him into the barracks while they watched a documentary on the battle that they had experienced firsthand.
“And I saw like the visible scars of these folks you know both emotional and physical, and that really hit it hard,” he said.
Hefner would go onto to do Naval Intelligence and volunteered for a one-year tour in Afghanistan in 2009, eight years after Sept. 11.
He now serves in the Navy reserves as a lieutenant commander. He lives in lower Manhattan, where he often walks by memorials to those lost, he said.
The 20th anniversary is different, as it marks the 15th year since graduating from the academy, but also the end of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
At some point, the United States had to leave the country, Hefner said. The withdrawal was more in people’s faces because of the way information can spread via the internet and social media platforms, he said.
But that does not take away from the people lost over the past 20 years, including Naval Academy graduates. Many people were hurting, he said, as the troops withdrew.
Hefner’s classmate Capt. Tommy Ragsdale had received his letter of assurance, which meant he had been accepted pending a congressional nomination, from the academy a week before the attacks.
“And for me it was an instant awareness of the game changing, because before that going into one of the service academies was a bit of an unknown in what your service life would be like after graduation, but once that happened it was not right away,” Ragsdale said.
Attending the Naval Academy as the country entered the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts meant all of the leadership lessons were taught in preparation of going to the battlefield, he said. There was a gravity Sept. 11 added.
“I think it was the expectation to go to cool places and do cool things with cool people,” Ragsdale said. “You still did that after 9/11. It just was … through a different prism.”
After graduating, Ragsdale commissioned into the Marine Corps as an aviator and then into four years of training. He deployed to Afghanistan 10 years after Sept. 11. He doesn’t want to speak broadly about the withdrawal, but there are mixed feelings, he said. There’s an inevitability to it that is paired with frustration and questions over the losses from the past 20 years.
Ragsdale will be back in Annapolis for the Air Force-Army game Saturday. He still struggles with the fact that some midshipmen were born after Sept. 11, 2001.
“The message that I would convey to them is that we always, and I say this in a collective we, not just the Marine Corps, not just the Navy, but we’re always going to be called to some sort of duty and your preparation at Annapolis, is what’s going to set you up, at least your foundation, for success or failure in that call,” Ragsdale said.
Lt. Cmdr. Andre Agraviador graduated with Ragsdale and Hefner, but unlike the two other alumni, he was not in high school when the attacks happened. Instead, he was at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island.
He was in class when the news broke about the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon. Classes ended abruptly, Agraviador said, sending everyone back to their rooms.
Agraviador was concerned because he was from New York. His father worked for the Metropolitan Transit Authority and was stationed at the World Trade Center subway stop. But that day, his mom, who was a nurse, told her husband not to go into work.
He couldn’t get a hold of his family because of phone line issues in New York. When he finally did, it was a quick assurance that they were OK, but then they had to go back to work.
“And I think it was like a deployment for them, where they just were at it for a long time, until things kind of calmed down,” he said.
Being from New York, Agraviador thought he would go to West Point, the more well-known service academy in the area. The Naval Academy recruited at his high school and the superintendent visited, as well.
There’s a sense of pride from joining the military ahead of the surge of enlistments coming after Sept. 11. It felt like they were the “guardians of serving your country,” he said.
Agraviador noticed a difference in training after Sept. 11. There was a deeper purpose as people worked to prevent future attacks. There was more concern about other possible landmarks being targets.
After graduating, Agraviador deployed often, he said, estimating about eight times in six or seven years. It makes a person grow up more quickly. Instead of talking about plans for Memorial Day after graduation, it was thinking about a will, if he had good life insurance, if he told his family he loved them.
The Morning Sun
That quick rate of deployment was a symptom of the country’s response to Sept. 11. Had those attacks not happened, it would have been a deployment maybe every two or three years, Agraviador said.
One of the deployments was to Afghanistan, he said. He was surprised that the country stayed for 20 years. Twenty years is a long time.
“I mean there’s people whose fathers have been killed or mothers in the start of the war that are entering the war,” he said. “And I think that’s a really sobering moment where you ask do we still need to be there.”
At the same time, his heart bleeds for his Afghan colleagues. He was in charge of Afghani translators. There were many service members who put their blood, sweat, tears and lives into making Afghanistan a better place so the withdrawal is also disheartening, he said.
“Whenever you see things roll backward it just feels like all the progress has kind of been wiped out, kind of like two steps forward, one step back,” Agraviador said. “So I think that part of me is still grieving the possibility that it could have been a free, democratic nation that would contribute to the world.”
Each generation has a chance to answer the call, and if current midshipmen or the public question whether they will step up, the answer is yes, he said.
“I want them to know that Sept. 11 produced a new generation of warriors not seen since World War II, and that we should be proud of all the good things we think we accomplished in those two decades,” he said.