My Peaceful City Had Been Transformed Into a War Zone

Tom Gjelten i i
NPR
Tom Gjelten
NPR

'This is NPR' is honored to share personal accounts of 9/11, in the voices of our journalists who covered the events as they unfolded. Correspondent Tom Gjelten, who was at the Pentagon when the plane hit, remembers how he and his NPR colleagues brought listeners the news that day.

Events unfolded so quickly and so dramatically on the morning of September 11 that news organizations, including NPR, struggled to separate fact from rumor. We had to proceed cautiously and yet pass on the hard news as soon as we learned it. The behind-the-scenes story of our initial coverage of the attack on the Pentagon is a good example of what we faced that day.

I was there, reporting live from NPR's booth near the northeast corner, at the moment when American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the opposite side of Pentagon, from a west southwest direction. Parts of the aircraft penetrated three of the building's five concentric rings, but our booth was soundproofed for broadcast purposes and at least 400 yards from the point of impact, and I neither felt nor heard the explosion.

The first NPR staffer to report the attack on the Pentagon was Franklyn Cater, an All Things Considered producer who lived in Arlington in an apartment overlooking the Pentagon. Franklyn, who was due to work a late shift that day, was at home watching television coverage of the New York attacks when he caught a glimpse of AA 77 streaking by his living room window, no landing gear in place. A moment later he heard an explosion and his windows shook. Leaping to his feet, he saw smoke rising from the Pentagon and knew it had been hit. Franklyn immediately called NPR and alerted the Newscast unit to what he had seen.


'Everything is fine here...'

NPR's Melissa Gray, who was directing Morning Edition that day, came on the line to me during an off-air moment to ask what I knew about the Pentagon being hit.

"Everything is fine here," I reassured her, and NPR editors decided not to mention Franklyn's dramatic eyewitness story. The NPR newsroom was a scene of chaos at the time, with staffers overwhelmed by rumors and unconfirmed reports, and NPR editors were erring (excessively, as it turned out) on the side of caution in what they approved for broadcast. I had been in another Pentagon office just a few minutes earlier, asking an officer what he knew of the New York attacks, and I noticed nothing out of the ordinary as I ran down the hall to the NPR booth to report what I had learned. It seemed inconceivable to me that the building had been attacked in the meantime.

Within minutes, however, other stories started to come in, including a wire service report of a fire at the Pentagon. NPR's Bob Edwards, hosting Morning Edition, promptly came back to me on the air, asking about the situation. Television pictures from downtown Washington showed a plume of smoke rising on the west side of the Potomac River, but I did not know about Franklyn's report, and it was not yet clear to me where the smoke was coming from.

"Well, I just walked in," I told Bob, "and there was absolutely so sign of anything." At that very moment, however, I heard an urgent announcement over the Pentagon public address system ordering people to evacuate the building. "Clearly something is happening here as well," I reported.

Evacuating the Pentagon

At that point, I went into the hall outside our booth to investigate, taking my cell phone with me. Police were running up and down the corridor, and they corralled me and other reporters and ordered us to leave the building immediately. I did not have a chance to let my NPR colleagues know what was going on or to grab a tape recorder or notebook.

With thousands of other people, I was herded into the Pentagon's center courtyard, which is open to the sky. I saw black smoke and flames above the west side of the building, and I overheard a police radio transmission of "casualties, many casualties." I tried to call NPR on my phone, but the network was jammed.

The evacuation route put us on the south side of the Pentagon, via a tunnel, and from there we were directed up a hill to the west, from where I had a clear view of the impact site. I saw a gaping black hole in the side of the Pentagon and dozens of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. I searched frantically for a pay phone so I could report the news to NPR and relay a message to my wife, ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz, whom I had dropped off at the State Department less than an hour earlier.

Getting on the Air

I ran first to a gas station, but police were blocking access out of concern about a possible explosion, so I headed toward the nearest residential area, a few blocks to the west, and started knocking on doors. Eventually a man answered and let me use his phone to call NPR. Nearly 30 minutes had passed since my colleagues had last heard from me, and they were anxious. I was put immediately on the air to describe what I had just witnessed.

After about an hour, cell phone service was restored, and I returned to the Pentagon to update what was happening there. I was soon joined by other NPR reporters, including Steve Inskeep, and a producer who came supplied with tape recorders and notebooks. We started interviewing Pentagon personnel for an account of what they had seen.

I wanted to stay on the scene, but my editors at NPR asked that I return to headquarters and prepare a story for All Things Considered that afternoon. It was not easy. All roads and bridges into Washington were closed, and I had to walk the approximately five miles back to NPR headquarters. Military boats were patrolling the Potomac, and US military vehicles, including humvees and armored personnel carriers, were positioned on street corners. Having spent months in besieged Sarajevo, the scene was familiar. But soldiers on the streets of Washington on a sunny September afternoon? In a matter of hours, my peaceful city had been transformed into a war zone.

I arrived at NPR shortly after 3 p.m. A producer and I put together a story about the Pentagon attack in less than an hour. The next day I returned to the Pentagon. It smelled of smoke. All the military personnel were in battle dress.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: