News From Terre Haute, Indiana

9/11: 10th Anniversary Coverage

September 10, 2011

'ALMOST SURREAL': A decade later, two men who witnessed the attacks look back

TERRE HAUTE — The underground Metro train shook noticeably.

Something had happened. William Hanna, a retired U.S. Army colonel living in Virginia, was on board the Metro and could feel the shock.

“I felt it rock the train,” Hanna said recalling, that late summer morning in 2001. He also heard a “thunderous” sound. “I knew something had happened. I thought two trains had collided or a gas main exploded,” he said.

Hanna, now 72 and living in Terre Haute, his hometown, had just arrived that morning at the Pentagon Metro stop, below the U.S. Defense Department Headquarters in Northern Virginia. Hanna had worked in the Pentagon for eight years and was on his way that morning to visit a friend still working in the building. “I had time for a cup of coffee,” Hanna recalled. After that, Hanna, who retired from the Pentagon in 1995, had an appointment on Capitol Hill.

Hanna’s friend’s office was just 150 yards from where American Airlines flight 77, which had taken off that morning from nearby Dulles International Airport, crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.

“It blew him out of his desk,” Hanna said of his friend, who was not seriously injured. “He flew across the room, about 10 feet.”

The Pentagon building is actually a series of buildings and is “built like a bunker,” Hanna said. In fact, the section of the building that was struck by the hijacked aircraft with 59 people on board had recently been reinforced, he said. “The building, itself, is extremely strong,” Hanna said.

Nevertheless, the impact and resulting fire from the terrorist attack on the Pentagon killed 125 military and civilian personnel inside the structure. If Hanna had caught the earlier Metro that morning, he believes that he would have been walking through the impacted section of the Pentagon at the moment the plane hit.

“If I’d have been a train earlier, I’d have been right there,” Hanna said, pointing to a dot on his hand-drawn diagram of the Pentagon building. “I’m glad the train wasn’t early.”

A few miles away that same morning, Rod Henry, then-executive director of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, and a delegation of community leaders from Terre Haute were taking a walk after eating breakfast at the Hay-Adams Hotel, near the White House in Washington, D.C. The group was in the nation’s capital for the chamber’s annual “fly-in” to Washington to lobby on behalf of the city. While walking through Lafayette Park, which is just north of the White House, they were still reeling from the news that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.

The group was near the park’s fountain when they noticed what appeared to be a “mass exodus” of people from the direction of the White House, Henry recalled. The people were headed north, away from the White House, the Executive Office Building and the Treasury Department building toward the group from Terre Haute.

“It was almost like we were going to get trampled,” Henry said. Next, Henry and the others saw security personnel with weapons readied. They pointed at the Terre Haute group to get back, Henry recalled. “We weren’t allowed to go anywhere near the White House,” he said.

Back at the Pentagon, Hanna, after sitting in the Metro for several minutes, was informed that he and the other passengers were going to be taken back one stop to the east, to a Metro station known as Pentagon City. It was there that Hanna exited the Metro and was able to look around. The scene at Pentagon Station metro stop was chaotic. The sky was filled with black smoke from the huge explosion and fire at the Pentagon about a half-mile away. People were running back and forth, some were sitting on the ground, some were crying, Hanna recalled.

“People were in a panic,” Hanna said. “I stopped some guy and asked what happened. He said a helicopter had crashed. I knew from the amount of smoke, it wasn’t a helicopter,” he said. He speculated a plane had missed the runway at nearby Reagan National Airport. Whatever the case, he believed it was likely a passenger jet had crashed.

“It was almost surreal,” Hanna said, when asked how that event feels 10 years later. “It’s almost as if I wasn’t there, but I know I was.”

The Terre Haute Chamber group returned to the Hay-Adams Hotel and soon learned of the attack at the Pentagon, which took place about 45 minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center and about 30 minutes after the second plane hit. Members of the delegation immediately tried to reach family members back home to let them know they were OK. Rumors were flying wildly that morning and family members back in Terre Haute were concerned. The chamber delegation had a meeting scheduled that morning on Capitol Hill with then-Sen. Evan Bayh. Some rumors indicated the Capitol had been attacked as well.

“It was really a surreal experience,” Henry said. “We, in a lot of ways, felt isolated.” Still, many of the delegation took a long walk through Washington that day, looking for somewhere to give blood, he noted. “It was just one of those experiences you will never forget.”

Thinking back on that terrible day a decade later, Hanna and Henry agree that it was a life-changing day for everyone and for the nation.

“I think it changed everybody,” Henry said. “You don’t take life for granted. You appreciate everything that’s around. You never know when something completely out of your control will change everything.”

Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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9/11: 10th Anniversary Coverage
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