We all know what we were doing the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Charleston resident Cheryl Irwin’s memory remains so seared with the sounds and smells of that day that 17 years later she looks at a clock every day when it strikes 9:11. She can’t help herself.
These memories are painful and personal. Recalling that day still causes her eyes to moisten and lips to quiver.
Why are her memories still so fresh and her passion for sharing that day so profound? She was working at the Pentagon when that plane plowed into the building, killing 184 people.
Irwin worked on Capitol Hill for 15 years in various jobs as a TV reporter, congressional spokesperson and press secretary. On 9/11, Irwin was employed in public affairs at the Pentagon and was preparing for a briefing day, just before 8 a.m. She was one of four civilian desk officers.
Her office resembled a giant newsroom, with small TV’s on each desk corner. She remembers someone saying, “Turn on the TV, something’s going on in New York.”
Her initial thoughts: “We’ll probably be next.”
At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines flight 77 was steered directly at the compound.
A Rallying Point
Each Pentagon sector knew from past emergency drills where and how they should react.
“There was no screaming, no panic,” Irwin remembers. “The floor moved. We knew we’d been hit but we were trained to head to our rally point.”
It just so happened that Irwin’s place to gather was at a flagpole on the grounds outside. How poignant, in retrospect, that her group would have that particular location at that particular moment.
Irwin had family living in Columbia and desperately wanted to relay her circumstances. In those times, cellphones were mildly popular, but not as constantly attached as they are now.
Black smoke was billowing from one side of the building. The smell of jet fuel permeated the grounds and Irwin could hear constant fighter jets overhead.
Every detail is so ingrained she even remembers what she was wearing that day.
“I was wearing a white and red striped silk top with navy blue slacks, a red, silk jacket and navy blue shoes.”
As I looked up from my notes, I looked at Irwin and said, “You were wearing red, white and blue?” She nodded her head.
The higher-ups in her office decided to establish Leadership Headquarters, and in the name of the U.S. government, took control of a nearby gas station.
Irwin remembers bumming a quarter from a network TV reporter and used a pay phone to reach her family in Columbia.
“This was a time where we still knew people’s phone numbers.”
She told her sister she was safe. For four hours, her family didn’t know if she was alive or not.
Not just an anniversary
“I think about it every day,” said Irwin, who retired in 2014 and moved to Charleston a year later.
And she’s quick to credit the U.S Intelligence Community and our military who keep us safe every day.
“We’ll never know how many more times our enemies have already tried to kill us and will keep trying.”
Irwin will share her story with a military support group Tuesday. She speaks to different civic groups and fills her day with volunteer work at the Fisher House, which provides temporary accommodations to veterans and their families while receiving medical attention at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in downtown Charleston, and mentoring a Citadel cadet.
This was a day of mass trauma for our country and a shared experience that impacted us all.
What Irwin fears most is that, in time, memories will fade and our country’s consciousness will dim with regards to how that day affected our fate and our future.
As I listened to her story, the clarity of her recall and specifics of that day are revealing. Two particular points of interest cause me to pause for reflection: Cheryl Irwin’s clothing that September day were patriotic from head-to-toe. And secondly, the rallying point.
We could all do well to gather more regularly at the flagpole.