I remember vividly how crystal clear the autumn sky appeared as we were driven in to the Capitol Building that morning. A Brigadier General colleague and I had a hearing to attend and we discussed our comments and strategies en route. Just as we arrived at the House entrance, we received a call from our office that let us know that an aircraft had hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. No details were available.
We proceeded to the House Intelligence Committee hearing rooms on the fourth floor of the rotunda, stepping off the elevator and meeting the other military intelligence chiefs gathering for the budget briefings. As we waited in the anteroom, we were mesmerized by the scene unfolding on the television screen as the second tower was struck. It was then that we realized that this was not an aviation accident.
Then the Pentagon was hit, and we all knew we needed to get back to our commands. As we began to depart, an alarm sounded and the guards started yelling for everyone to evacuate the building. We got to the bottom floor and went out Statuary Hall. The scene was surreal, even disaster movies do not capture what was happening. The guards were telling everyone to run for the exits. People were yelling and screaming. Representatives and staffers were stuffing files into cabinets and drawers and trying to secure things before running out of the offices.
Outside the building the walkways were utter chaos. The black pall of smoke rising from the vicinity of the Pentagon was testament that this was not a movie. Young pages were screaming, crying and asking what they should do. Staffers were telling them to go back to their quarters and stay there. Our driver was awaiting us. Our cell phones were useless, as the system was simply overwhelmed. I finally called my wife from the office landline, after we set a land speed record going back out to our facilities near Dulles Airport. Our offices at the Pentagon were on the opposite side from where the aircraft struck, and all of our personnel were safe. There were acquaintances and co-workers who were not so fortunate. (My wife's former office in the Pentagon was destroyed.)
The Capitol guards had been warned that another aircraft was headed for Washington. The target may have been the White House or the Capitol. Had it not been for those brave souls onboard United Flight 93 overpowering the terrorists, I might not be writing this. They are my heroes. We had been right under that big, gold Capitol dome.
Dwight Williams is a retired senior level Air Force civilian and current president of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus.