USAF Reserve officer, two former DAFB officers in Pentagon the day of the strike

By Jeff Brown
Staff writer

The disasters in New York and Washington have touched every American. Several current and former local residents who have been stationed at Dover Air Force Base are now doing duty at the Pentagon. Three of them were in the building last Tuesday.

Major Teresa A. Connor, USAF Reserve

“We knew we had to get out of the building”

Teresa Connor, a major in the USAF Reserve who lives in Magnolia, pulls regular duty near Washington, D.C.

On the morning of Sept. 11, she was doing routine paper work in her office, which is located in the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.

            “I was sitting at my desk, working on something. I was thinking about calling the Air Force Academy because we were working on a project,” Connor said in a telephone interview. “We had the televisions on when someone came in and said, ‘Wow! Look at that building!’ I knew it was the World Trade Center.”

            At Connor’s Magnolia home, her mother, Ann Schallock, was washing dishes.

Schallock had made the trip down from her home in Vining, Minn., to help Connor’s husband, Chuck, watch the two children while their mother was away.

            “I was in the kitchen when I heard them talking about the World Trade Center,” she said. “I ran into the living room and saw they were talking about the first crash. I saw the plane hit the second tower.”

            Then the phone rang as Chuck came in from taking the kids to school.

            After the first plane hit the World Trade Center, “I had called my husband,” Connor said, “I just couldn’t believe it.”

            The couple talked a few minutes, then Connor had to hang up. Pentagon officials had activated the Air Force’s Crisis Action Team (CAT).

            Minutes later, she heard a strange sound.

            “It sounded like the Thunderbirds were flying by. I didn’t see anything. There was a loud Whoosh!”

            At 9:40 a.m., without warning, a hijacked airplane exploded into the west side of the Pentagon. In her office about one-third of the way around the building from the crash scene, Connor’s world suddenly changed.

            It was loud, she said. She heard the blast reverberate through the structure.

            “We definitely felt it. I saw the blinds [on the windows] move [from the change in air pressure],” she said. “We all just looked at each other. I grabbed my cell phone and my purse and got out.”

Connor’s mother and husband were watching the horror in New York unfold as news came of the disaster in Washington.

            “Chuck said he felt she was OK. He kept saying he didn’t think it had hit where she worked,” Schallock said. “We felt she was OK – you know how it is when you get a bad feeling. We didn’t have that feeling. Five minutes later, I asked him to try to call her.”

            There was no answer on the other end.

            At the Pentagon, 22,000 people were making their way out of the shattered building.

            “There was no chaos,” during the evacuation, Connor said. The people at the Pentagon had practiced evacuation drills before, and although there was some confusion about what had happened, no one panicked.

            “I was afraid another plane might be coming,” she said. “At the same time we knew we had to get out of the building.”

            Once outside, Connor said she saw smoke pouring from the other side of the building, but didn’t really have any idea of the scope of the damage.

             “We saw helicopters immediately. We didn’t know who was in them. I was really looking to see if there were guns.”

            Watching television in Magnolia, Ann Schallock was growing alarmed.

            “I was getting very upset,” she said, “We tried to call her on her cell phone, and couldn’t get through. It was very nerve-wracking.”

            In the meantime, Connor was trying to get a call through to Magnolia. Her cell phone wasn’t working so she went to a girlfriend’s house to try again. At 10:45 a.m., the phone next to Ann Schallock finally rang.

            “She had called, and said ‘I just wanted to talk. I want to hear your voice. I want to feel the connection.’”

            The next day, Connor was back in her office. The west side of the Pentagon was still on fire, and she could write her name in the soot on the floor, she said. She had already volunteered to extend her reserve duty, to stay and help.

            Ann Schallock wants to make sure her granddaughter never forgets September 11, 2001.

            “She understands what happened,” said Schallock, “I told her I really want her to remember this day. I want you to know how lucky you are that your Mom’s OK.”

            Connor said both she and her husband have talked to their kids, ages 7 and 5, about the disasters in New York and Washington.

            “My daughter said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t die. You’re the best mom in the world.’ and she blew me a kiss.”

On Saturday afternoon, four days after the crash, Maj. Teresa Connor is standing on a small hill above the Pentagon.

It is a beautiful, sunny September day. A steady breeze ruffles her blue uniform as people, some American and some from other shores, survey the damage.

Many shake their heads in disbelief. Small American flags flutter from a makeshift memorial erected near the media center, which only days before had been an ordinary gas station.

            An ugly, black gash splits the stone facade of the Pentagon’s west side. Soot stains blossom from it like some sort of evil flower. Windows, some empty, some with glass still miraculously intact, stare from the blackened shell. Cranes and heavy construction equipment are already at work; a small city of tents, some white, some military green, have mushroomed nearby.

            Above it all, a huge American flag is draped over the side of the stricken building.

            Everyone who worked there knew the Pentagon was a place where terrorists might strike, says Maj. Connor, as she surveys the damage.

            “It’s sobering to look at the results of this, knowing that people died in there.”

            Each one of them had a family, she says, and you have to stop and think about that, too.

            Echoing President Bush, Connor is determined not to let this attack change the nation and the people she loves so much.  

            “We’re going to get back to normal and not let terrorists threaten our country,” she says firmly.

            Headed back to her office, she’s looking forward to finishing up a few bits of paperwork. After working 12- to 15-hour days since Tuesday, she’s getting to take a day off.

Her plans? To spend a few hours home in Magnolia, “...and hug my kids.”        

 

Captain David Westover, USAF

“You felt the building rock”

            Capt. David Westover had served two years at Dover AFB before moving on to a Pentagon assignment in 1999., but still has many friends in Dover and Kent County. For him, Tuesday meant a meeting with the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel.

            “I was in a staff meeting,” Westover said, “The general had just sat down and said, ‘I’m sure you’ve seen the news about the two planes that hit the World Trade Center.’”

            Military forces were already standing by, the general had said before staff members began their briefings.

            “Just before the first person had finished his report, we felt this huge jolt,” Westover said.

            It was 9:40 a.m.

            “You felt the building rock – you could feel it,” Westover continued. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like that before.”

            A young enlisted man came into the briefing room as sirens started to wail. He told the staff they had to evacuate the building immediately.

            “It was controlled chaos,” Westover said, adding that no one panicked as they left the building. “The only thing I could think of was that two aircraft had hit New York. What’s next for us?”

            Working his way out to the south side of the building, Westover saw thick, black smoke rolling over the building. He worked his way upwind to a grassy area near a parking lot, where people were trying to reach family or friends on their cell phones. He tried without success to call his own two daughters.

            Someone told him an airplane had hit the Pentagon, and rumors abounded that a second plane might have been in the area.

            “I was scanning the air to make sure there was nothing coming our way. I climbed up a steep embankment in my blues,” he said, “I’m sure the people driving by had to wonder what was going on.”

 

Major Donna C. Nicholas, USAF

“I just fell back on my training”

            Maj. Donna Nicholas had just finished a staff meeting when she walked into the Air Force media office at the Pentagon. She looked at the bank of televisions in the center and saw the crisis happening at the World Trade Center.

Nicholas, Dover AFB’s former Chief of Public Affairs, was in her second year of duty at the Pentagon, having left Dover in 1998.

            At about 9 a.m., moments after she saw the first television images from New York, she was told the Crisis Action Team had been activated. Although she hadn’t been assigned the duty for that day, she immediately headed for the CAT operations center in the basement of the building.

The CAT is under the command of the USAF Chief of Staff, and coordinates Air Force reaction to anything that might be a threat to the United States.

            By the time she got to the center, the second aircraft had hit the World Trade Center.

            “Just so you know,” someone told her, “we’re considering that we’re under attack.”

            Nicholas said she went to her station and started pulling out emergency checklists. The area around her was a flurry of activity as Air Force officials worked to gather information, both from the media and from their own intelligence sources.

            At 9:40 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 rammed into the Pentagon’s west side. In the CAT, buried deep underground and on the opposite side of the building, Nicholas said she had no idea anything wrong had happened.

            Suddenly sirens started to go off. Reports from the television news and from outside the building confirmed the worst.

            “I was amazed at the calm,” Nicholas said, describing the professional atmosphere in the crisis center. “I wasn’t feeling real calm, honestly. I just fell back on my training and started to think ahead about what needed to get done and how to get it done.”

            “We were concerned about keeping operational since there was a report of another incoming aircraft.” Officials, now including the AF Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force, started to consider evacuating the center.

            At about noon, the decision to leave the building was made, and Nicholas and the rest of the staff were whisked to a secret location outside Washington. Eleven hours later, Nicholas’ replacement arrived and she was finally able to go home.

            “I hadn’t grabbed my purse, hat or money, and I was at a different location from my car, without keys or money.” Someone volunteered to give her a ride home, where her mother and son, who knew she was safe, were waiting.

            Returning to work the next evening, she was amazed at how quiet the area around the crash site had become. Automobile traffic, intense even at night, had been diverted away from the site.

            “It was surreal,” she said. “You could see this flurry of activity around where the plane had crashed. It was still really, really quiet.”

            Going back to her office opposite from the crash site, she was greeted by armed guards stationed several feet apart on every floor.

            “There was soot and ash in all the hallways. Debris was scattered everywhere.” The smell of jet fuel and smoke permeated the building.

            Nearly a week later, Nicholas has had time to reflect back on what happened.

            “Tragedy like this brings out the best in people,” she said, noting that she had seen general officers carrying the wounded away from the burning building. People were out there, putting themselves in harm’s way, trying to rescue as many of their comrades as possible.

            She also thinks the American people have responded magnificently.

            “I’m really encouraged by this outpouring of patriotism,” she said. “It helps the military to know that we have that kind of support backing us up.”

            Like every other American who survived the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11, Maj. Donna Nicholas is determined not to let what happened go unanswered.

            “To let terrorism go on is unthinkable,” she said, “It is unthinkable what [terrorists] could be capable of.”


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