NEW BETHLEHEM – With the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., New Bethlehem residents Sandy and Terry Mateer recently shared the following about their personal experiences of that fateful day while they lived and worked near the Pentagon.
The following was initially written in 2006, with updates in 2008 and 2021:
September 11, 2001 began as a pleasantly cool day with clear blue skies. It was so pretty it was hard to get motivated to go to work and spend the day inside, especially after a late meeting the previous night. Terry had retired from the Pentagon in March. I left him sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast, reading the Washington Times and listening to WMAL’s Morning Show with Andy Parks and Tim Brant. It was about 8:45 a.m. and Tim had just said, “It’s a beautiful day out there, go out and have some fun.” Terry turned off the radio, read the paper a little longer, then went downstairs to the basement to take a shower in his bathroom. As he was about to enter the shower, he heard a loud boom which shook the house. He thought about going upstairs and checking around, but instead he took his shower.
We had just started major house renovations in New Bethlehem, on July 23, 2001. Terry spent a week or so in New Bethlehem at his parents’ former home and then a week or so in Alexandria. He was home for several days in Alexandria. That morning, I left for work at about 8:30 from our home in Fairfax County near the Alexandria line. The house was in a quiet tree-filled neighborhood of about 125 homes and was located about 8 miles southwest from the Pentagon, near Columbia Pike and I-395. Our neighbors included many professionals with government connections, CIA, Pentagon brass, retired Navy, Army and other military, many now working as consultants, and the then-current Clerk of the United States Supreme Court, William Suter, among other less well-known folks.
On the drive to work I listened for a while to the local oldies station and switched to WTOP, 1500 AM for the morning news. The office was about 12 miles southwest from the house on the other side of the county near Fairfax City. My commute was a “reverse commute” so I passed many people heading in the opposite direction up Columbia Pike and Route 50 toward the Pentagon and Washington, D.C. Most of the traffic had already gone in since the Pentagon and offices that worked with the military and government would have already been at work.
At about 8:45 a.m. a news flash came across the radio that an airplane had hit the World Trade Towers in New York. I thought it was odd on such a clear day, but pictured a small plane or a traffic reporter with a pilot in distress. The news reports were unclear at the time as information was just coming in. At 9:03, just as I was pulling into the office parking lot, a news report came across the radio that a second plane had hit the other tower. I knew immediately that it was an attack. I listened for a couple of minutes to the radio, said a prayer and then went upstairs to the office on the 4th floor of our five-story building. I went into my office, dropped my stuff and went to the conference room to turn on the television. Other people were starting to hear the news from their radios and a group started gathering to watch the latest reports.
Our receptionist started receiving calls for staff members from their spouses and families. Word spread of rumors of bomb threats in D.C. near the Capitol and other locations. I went back to my office to listen to WTOP. At about 9:43, Angie, one of our paralegals, was on the phone with her husband who worked in the management office of one of the airlines at Washington Reagan National Airport. He suddenly told Angie that he had to go because they just heard a loud explosion coming from the vicinity of the airport and black smoke was beginning to cloud the skies. She spread the word and people began to panic. They wondered, “should they go home,” “should they get their kids from school.” Many tried to reach family members who worked in D.C. My secretary’s husband worked as a consultant for a company that worked with the military. He was in Egypt at that time. She and others didn’t know what to do. I tried to calm people and suggested that the attacks were going for big targets and that their kids were probably safer in school than they would be on the roads or at home. I suggested that if their spouses or families were trying to reach them, they would probably try the office first. Most people agreed and stayed glued to the TV and radio. I called Terry, but just got the answering machine. I figured and hoped that he was probably in the shower so I left a message.
When Terry came upstairs, he noticed that the answering machine was blinking with a message and so he pressed the button to get the message. He heard me say, “Turn on the TV and don’t go anywhere, a plane has crashed into the Pentagon.” He found it incredulous but remembered hearing the explosion. When he turned on the TV, he saw the Twin Towers with at least one of them on fire. He knew immediately that this was a terrorist attack. He listened as the commentators talked about how many people could be in the Twin Towers, but that it was also early in the rush hour and that not all the people would be in the buildings when the planes first hit.
As he was watching the news, my sister-in-law, in New Jersey, about 20 miles from the Trade Towers, called him in a panic asking whether she should go get the kids at school. My brother was out at work and she couldn’t reach him by cell phone. Many circuits were overloaded and busy. Terry advised her to leave the kids in school and to listen for recommendations from the authorities. He suggested that if it was a massive attack they would be going for big, visible targets and that the kids were safer in the school building (which was a designated bomb shelter) than at home. While he was trying to calm her, he was watching as the second trade tower began to crumble. News stories concentrated on the Twin Towers and spent little time on the Pentagon attack.
After hanging up with my sister-in-law, he watched in horror and amazement as the events unfolded. Not long thereafter, his sister-in-law called from Pennsylvania. Her husband, Terry’s brother John, had died in November 1997. Her two kids were in school and she had a young child at home. Her significant other was not at home. She too wondered if she should go get the kids from school. He told her, “You’re out in the middle of nowhere. They are going for big targets” and repeated the same advice he had given my sister-in-law. He hung up after trying to calm her down and watched more of the news presentations.
Terry’s concern now was with the attack at the Pentagon. Finally, the network switched to a view of the Pentagon and he could see where the plane hit. He saw that it was at the west side near a wedge that had just been remodeled to include reinforced glass, sprinkler systems, and other safety features. Not all offices had been moved back in yet. The area next to this site was just being vacated because it was the next section in the Pentagon to be renovated. As Terry looked at the news reports, he realized that if the Pentagon was going to be hit, it was probably hit in the least dangerous location.
Terry had retired from the U.S. Army Cost and Economic Analysis Center on March 3, 2001. His office at that time was located in Jefferson Plaza One in Crystal City, Virginia just South of I-395, with the Pentagon on the North side of I-395. The office was scheduled to move into the newly renovated section of the Pentagon sometime in the Fall. The offices with which Terry and his office worked were usually in these areas but for the renovations. The offices of the Secretary of Defense and other high-level people were on the other side. He thought of the loss of life and damages to the buildings. He did not realize how great the damage to the building was. He was not aware at that time that a full-size jet plane had smashed into the Pentagon plowing through the rings of offices. Still, it was devastating to see the damage and potential loss of life. Emergency response teams were quickly on the scene and co-workers helped each other evacuate. The plane had flown in so low over Columbia Pike that it had knocked down street lights. The scenes on television switched back to the Twin Towers.
Terry was concerned about whether his former co-workers were alright since they often had meetings at the Pentagon and their offices were a 10-15 minute walk from the Pentagon. We later found out that his immediate supervisor and division chief and two military personnel who had worked for him were scheduled to meet with the Director of Training, a Brigadier General, in the Pentagon at 9:30 a.m. The General’s staff had called earlier and said that he would be tied up in another meeting and asked them to come to his office at 10 instead. His office was on the first floor in the E-Ring with windows facing the helicopter pad. American 77 hit the Pentagon near that area at about 9:43 a.m. after leaving Dulles Airport in Virginia. The coworkers were in transit when the plane hit and were unaccounted for until later in the day. One co-worker had been at the Pentagon earlier and was unaccounted for for a couple of hours, but she was later found to be okay.
As we watched the reports, word came of two possible other planes that were still in the air. All air traffic had been ordered to land shortly after the Pentagon had been hit. Rumors flew around D.C. that a plane was heading back to the Pentagon, to the Capitol or the White House. There were rumors of bombs being placed around the city. People were being evacuated from the city, but the Metro (train system) was not running. Office workers streamed out of D.C. across the 14th Street and Arlington Cemetery bridges on foot and by whatever means could be had. Phone circuits were tied up and it was hard to get through. People didn’t know where their loved ones were. When people did get through, our receptionist at the office would pass information around. We knew that the Pentagon had been hit and other stories before it hit the TV and radio news. Emergency vehicles from throughout the area headed in past our office toward the Pentagon. Things seemed to be happening so quickly and yet it all seemed like a slow-motion nightmare from which we could not awake. After the traffic cleared, I got home late that evening.
After getting off the phone with his sister-in- law, Terry heard the news that a fourth plane had crashed in Somerset County, about 90 minutes from where his sister-in-law was living. United 93 left Newark Airport in New Jersey and crashed in Shanksville, Pa. at 10:10 a.m. in Somerset County. Between New York, the Pentagon in Arlington, Va and Somerset, it was all too close to home.
In the days after 9/11, we thought about how grateful we were that Terry’s co-workers and our friends had not been injured in the Pentagon attacks. It was a few days later, when we realized that my cousin John’s wife, her brother, sister and father all worked with a brokerage firm in the World Trade Center.
My cousin was operating a crane in New Jersey at a construction site across the river from the Twin Towers, with his back to the Towers. Because of the noise of the machine and the ear protection he was wearing, he did not hear the crash. Some of his co-workers came up to him in the cab of the crane yelling and pointing. He turned to look in horror at the impact area right after when the first plane hit. John’s wife was late going into work that day because their son had a doctor’s appointment for a checkup. She was underground on a train approaching the Twin Towers when the plane hit. She managed to get out and get home after quite awhile, although it was much later until she and John were able to communicate. Her father and sister were on the 63rd floor of the North Tower when the plane hit it. They too managed to run down the stairs and escape. However, her brother, George McLoughlin, had an office on the 93rd floor. He did not make it out. He was able to call his mother by cell phone and speak to her before the collapse. After the tower collapsed, he reportedly was able to use his phone to call his mother. But they were not able to find him before there was a further collapse and he was lost. They were only able much later to find some DNA evidence from part of his spine to prove that he had died there. His body was not fully recovered.
John’s wife has not been able to go back to work in New York. Her father and sister moved with the company to New Jersey. John went in a few days to the “pile” as a crane operator to try and find his brother-in-law in the process of removing the rubble. It was a devastating experience. John has also changed jobs.
My mother and brother lived in New Jersey not far from New York City. For weeks afterwards, they reported a bad smell and a coating of dust on everything from the explosion, fires and collapse of the towers. My brother told me of the many commuter cars that were left at nearby train stations whose owners never returned from the Twin Towers.
Terry’s emotions were not fear or sorrow, they were stone cold anger at the people who had planned this attack. They had attacked his work place and his coworkers and he did not like it. There had to be payback in the harshest way, but all in good time. He stayed at home. There was nothing he could do at or around the Pentagon. It was no longer a beautiful day, but one that we would always remember.
In the days after the attack, in Alexandria, we heard from friends with the military, including the Old Guard band, that they were on guard duty at the Pentagon. From one of my employees, who was an emergency volunteer with a rescue company, we heard that people were trying to steal ambulances in the area to get inside the Pentagon perimeter. Armed guards and vehicles with anti-missile guns were stationed around the Pentagon for months. At night, for years before Washington National Airport had a no flight restriction after 10 p.m. until about 6 a.m. to avoid the jet noise in the surrounding residential areas. But after the Pentagon attack, we heard jets and planes on patrol in the skies over Washington for many months. That offered a feeling of protection, but also a concern that the government felt such patrols were necessary.
A makeshift memorial was set up near Columbia Pike on the opposite side of the highway from the Pentagon with remembrances of the people who died there or were injured, of the military and of the emergency personnel who came to assist them. A huge flag was hung from the Pentagon. We went to see the Pentagon and the memorial one Saturday a couple of weeks after the attack. Workers were quickly at work, cleaning out the debris and throwing the office furnishings that had been damaged by the jet fuel, fire and smoke out the windows into chutes and large garbage containers. The Pentagon was restored in less than one year.
As of October 2008, the World Trade Center area construction continued.
Today, in 2021, these memories remain fresh and we shall never forget. We pray that the U.S. will never be subjected to another attack like this. For those that are young, the upcoming tv specials and documentaries will give you some sense of the horror of that day and the reason that the U.S. went to war against the terrorists. We thank all of those who have served and serve now as first responders and all who have served and those who serve now in the military to protect the U.S. and our freedoms from the terrorists who seek to destroy the U.S. and our way of life.