Geren at Pentagon during attack
By BOB MAHLBURG
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Former U.S. Rep. Pete Geren of Fort Worth was in his second week of a new job at the Pentagon on Tuesday when he heard a boom and felt the building rumble.
"Very quickly, people started shouting in the hall and someone said something hit the roof," said Geren, a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
"There was a huge fire but nobody knew how or why," said Geren, who was shaken but unharmed. "Even with New York, it wasn't an obvious leap we'd been hit by a third kamikazi airplane. Everyone was just wondering what happened.
"We didn't know if it was bomb or aircraft or what. But it was obvious something terrible had happened."
Geren had learned of the terrorist attack on New York while wrapping up a meeting on missile defense issues with Rumsfeld and eight members of Congress, including Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth.
He said an aide remarked on the way back to his office that the Pentagon would be a likely target. Granger had already left the building.
"He said, 'Terrorists are looking for targets. This building has to be on the list, doesn't it?' " Geren recalled.
The carefully orchestrated attack on the Pentagon, less than an hour after a terrorist assault on the World Trade Center in New York, is a painful reminder of vulnerability at the headquarters of the world's most powerful military, Geren said.
"That's what contributes to how unbelieveable it is," Geren said. "Not since 1812 have you had this, when you had British soldiers torching the Capitol. And the thought that in 2001, a foreign attack could actually hit the Pentagon, it's just hard to comprehend."
In the wake of the attack, Geren said, his job has changed from spearheading military spending overhaul to helping push legislation through Congress to fight terrorism.
"It's changed everyone's responsibilities," he said.
In the minutes after the attack, people yelled to evacuate, sirens screamed and black smoke billowed from the crash area on the other side of the building, eventually reaching his office, he said.
After evacuating, Geren tried to reach his wife, Beckie, by cellphone but couldn't get through, so he drove 10 miles to his new home in northern Virginia.
"Beckie was in a grocery store and checking out and someone said, 'Did you hear a plane hit the Pentagon?' " he said. "She was very upset and she was relieved to see me."
Geren said that the attack has been "unsettling" to his family and that he didn't sleep much the night after the attack. He said it is like having a death in the family.
"You have to remind yourself they're gone," he said. "It takes your psyche a long time to accept the loss. It still hasn't sunk in really what has happened."
Geren had just moved his family 1,000 miles to the East Coast, begun training for the new job, and sent his daughters off to a new school when he encountered firsthand the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Geren said his family is shaken but fine. They live in Falls Church, Va., an upscale suburb that's home to many federal employees.
Geren is so new on the job that he said he doesn't know any of those missing or killed at the Pentagon, which has 20,000 workers. Some of his daughters' schoolmates will, he said.
"Odds are every school in northern Virginia is going to be touched by this," he said.
Still, Geren said he has no second thoughts about taking the job and moving his family East. The four-term U.S. representative had left Washington and returned to Fort Worth several years ago to spend more time with his family.
"We're together now," he said, "and that's the most important thing to us."
Bob Mahlburg, (817) 390-7675
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� 2001 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas