Professor recounts Pentagon experience

Haley Russell
Assistant News Editor  

Michael Bowman worked at the Pentagon when a jet airplane crashed into it on the morning of September 11th.

Sept. 11, 2001 began differently than usual for Michael Bowman, associate professor of telecommunications system management.
Bowman took public transportation to an early morning meeting in the Pentagon instead of going to his office in the C Ring and sent emails to nearly 300 of his closest friends and family, telling them of his promotion to colonel in the Army -where he had served nearly 27 years – instead of flipping the television to CNN to listen to throughout his workday.
But, like normal, at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Bowman held a staff meeting in his office that housed a desk and a conference table. Close to 20 staff members were in his office that day, Bowman said.
“So I had all of these people squeezed into this small space,” he said. “It was pretty crowded for 20 people in there. I had gone the entire morning without turning the television on so I was basically completely ignorant of what was going on in New York, because the Towers were hit before the Pentagon.”
Bowman said at 9:26 a.m. a plane hit the Pentagon relatively close to his office.
“We clearly heard the explosion, we felt the explosion, things fell off the wall, people fell down in the room I was in, but we were basically safe and uninjured at that point,” he said. “One of the things that I’ve always remembered is that our lights stayed on.”
Because Bowman’s office contained classified information and was located in the older part of the Pentagon, there was no emergency lighting. If the lights had gone off, Bowman said, he and his staff would have been completely in the dark, intensifying the panic.
The first thing Bowman thought had happened was a truck carrying a bomb had driven through the alley-way closest to his office, a problem the Pentagon staff was concerned about prior to the day.
“Just like you do fire drills and things, in the Pentagon, they talked about terrorist attacks, because one of the things we were worried about was a truck bomb coming through the delivery alley,” Bowman said.
After he heard the explosion, Bowman said he tried to figure out what to do next, how to evacuate.
“We began to pick everybody up, dust everybody off and see if everyone was OK,” he said.
Once everyone was accounted for, Bowman said he went to the door and, instead of feeling it for heat, opened it.
“I just opened the door and fortunately there weren’t any flames immediately outside the door but the hallway was just full of black smoke,” Bowman said. “This was literally the case of you can’t see your hand in front of your face; it was that thick and that scary.”
At that point, Bowman said he closed the door and got everyone organized. He linked arms with his receptionist – an elderly lady who had fallen during the explosion and twisted her knee – and the other employees. They then filed into the hall of black smoke, Bowman leading the way with his hand on the wall guiding him.
“We were literally going blind into a small hallway,” he said.
They walked the length of the hallway directly outside of his office without seeing where to go.
“For the first 50 or 60 feet as we went down this hallway, we couldn’t see anything at all,” he said. “We were starting to have problems with smoke inhalation, we were starting to choke up from the smoke. But after about 60 feet, we entered a much larger corridor, the major connections between the five separate buildings.”
Because of the corridor’s size, the smoke had risen and Bowman could see, he said.
“So reaching that corridor, my adrenaline and excitement level went way down,” he said.
Joining nearly 20,000 Pentagon employees in the north parking lot, Bowman learned what had really happened.
“I heard something about a plane hitting the building,” he said. “Again, being totally ignorant of what had gone on New York, I assumed that the Pentagon had been hit by a commuter plane trying to land in National Airport, about a mile or two miles away from the Pentagon.”
Commuter planes that landed at the National Airport were often so low to the ground that Pentagon employees could see the pilot’s faces, he said.
The 20,000 employees in the parking lot were told that, because of the possibility of another attack, they needed to evacuate the premises and return home.
Bowman said he stopped a car on the highway running parallel to the Pentagon and a stranger drove several people to a public transportation site.
Bowman’s major concern was his daughter who was still in elementary school, he said, and after he had made it home, he and his wife went to see her.
The attack’s emotional impact, for Bowman, didn’t occur until afterward, when came back for clean up and damage assessments.
His biggest fear once he visited his office the next day, was falling, hitting his head and drowning in the six inches of water that had seeped from the top floor onto his first floor office.
“I never really got excited or panicked on 9/11, but that next morning as I went in to my office, I literally had a black small flashlight in my mouth, I got to my desk and I got my hat and my cell phone,” he said. “And that was the point I had this kind of roller coaster … so it was actually the next day that I had that little tingle of fear, not the day of.”
Bowman said the military changed drastically after the attack.
“9/11 changed everything,” he said. “9/11 was like the Pearl Harbor of my generation, it started a war, a war that’s still going on today.”
After a 90-day period, Sept. 12 to the day before Thanksgiving, Bowman and his staff worked 14-hour days, seven days a week, assessing the damage. Because of this, Bowman and his wife decided it was time for him to retire at 26-and-a-half years and move to a location without the threat of attacks.
“And I said ‘OK, well wherever we wind up, let’s not be at a place that has such a big bull’s-eye on it like Washington D.C. does,’” he said. “I just felt tired and ready to do something else.”
Bowman said he was ready to spend time with his family after his time in the military and traveling.
Said Bowman: “My wife and I both were just ready to see each other again. Just the intensity, and after four years of supporting the war, not personally in combat, I felt that it was time for me to end my military career. I don’t have bad memories of it or significant problems with it, but I do think about it a lot.”
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