My Close Call on 9/11

As a soldier and an officer in the US Army, Major General (Ret.) Antonio M. Taguba is no stranger to death and destruction. But, just like the country he honorably served for 34 years, nothing in his experience or imagination prepared him for September 11, 2001 – a day of infamy like no other – when he was just 2 minutes and 75 feet away from being pulverized by the American Airlines Flight 77 that plowed into the Pentagon at 9:37 am.

In this exclusive interview for Positively Filipino, General Taguba tells the story of what happened that day to him, to the Pentagon and the aftermath of the tragedy. This is the first time he is making public his heart-stopping personal story.

Even as he was coming to terms with the intense and personal trauma of 9/11, the general was deployed to the Middle East when the US war on Iraq and Afghanistan started. “[Our troops] were sent to Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction. They searched all possible hiding places, including bodies of water, and found NOTHING.”

In 2004, following reports of torture by US troops of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Taguba was given written orders to investigate. He did so with “thoroughness and passion” (New Yorker, June 25, 2007). The resulting report was a blistering and well-documented indictment of US military violations of international laws and cost General Taguba his career. (He was ordered to retire on January 1, 2007.)

For more details, read:

What has 9/11 got to do with Abu Ghraib? Sixteen years and a lot of frustrations and insights later, General Taguba has this to say: “9/11 started the dark era of going after the enemy that included torture. Definitely there’s a connection – revenge gives you the impetus, the excuse, the initiative to counter everything that‘s true about our country, [to] violate lawful principles and human values we were ordered to uphold and defend.”

Taguba tells his 9/11 story. (Photo by Irwin Ver)

Taguba tells his 9/11 story. (Photo by Irwin Ver)

September 11, 2001. I had a meeting in the Pentagon with Army Lt. Gen. Tim Maude, the Army G1 – the senior executive officer for personnel and human services for the Department of the Army. Our meeting was at 8:30 in the morning. I waited in his aide-de-camp’s office while the general was on the phone, and then I went in to his office. We were talking, discussing key Army issues, when his aide came into the room.

“Sir, you need to see what’s going on in New York.”

We walked to another office with a TV – and saw the second plane hit the [Twin] tower. Our meeting of course ended right then. Gen. Maude and I agreed to meet again. I walked out to the reception area of his office where I saw about 13 people waiting to meet with him. He exited right, I exited left because I had to go to the bathroom.

About five minutes later there was a huge explosion, the sheer force of which knocked me down on my back while I was in the men’s room. My first thought was that the explosion came from a boiler room underneath the Pentagon. I got up and ran out. I heard people running and screaming, furniture was flying everywhere and black smoke was coming towards me. My cell phone rang; it was my driver asking “Sir, where the hell are you?”

The Pentagon hit on 9/11 (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

The Pentagon hit on 9/11 (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

“I’m here in the 4th corridor. What happened?”

“An airplane flew right behind me in the parking lot and hit the Pentagon,” he said. “It dove into the lower level of the building.”

I looked back down the hallway where I was just about two to three minutes earlier. Which means the plane hit the office area where I was meeting with General Maude.

There was so much smoke and people were running towards me to exit the building to an open field. My driver quickly got out of the parking area because airplane fuel was spilling. He was able to find me and we could see the fiery damage from American Airlines flight 77 from the driveway going to the street. We saw the back side of the airplane sticking out of the building, people running for cover, and the huge fireball that engulfed the building.

I soon got a phone call from my boss asking where I was.

“Sir, I just got out of my meeting with General Maude.”

“Is he with you?”

“No, we separated.”

“Do you know where’s he’s at?”

“I think he’s in the impact area.”

First responders on the scene at the Pentagon (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

First responders on the scene at the Pentagon (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

At that point nobody could make the determination if he survived. Pandemonium hit the entire DC. I started thinking I have people who worked for me in there. So, I called back to my office.

“Is everyone accounted for?

“Sir, we don’t know.”

“Just stand by because we have to make sure everyone is accounted for.”

My office was half a mile away so I stayed there and monitored the situation. The entire Pentagon had become a crime scene. [There was] no way to go back in there. The whole area was blocked. The Pentagon has five sides: the outer Corridor E, corridors D, C, B, and A are all inside. A is the center. The American Airlines Flight 77 became, in effect, a flying missile. It went all the way through C -- that was the depth of the destruction. I was in the E corridor. Man, all those people in General Maude’s office, his entire staff, the 13 who were waiting for him, some of them my friends. The news went viral worldwide.

An hour later, I got a call from Terry, General Maude’s wife who worked for me. She was in San Diego.

“Have you seen Tim?”

“Last I saw him was when we concluded our meeting, before the plane hit.”

I got another phone call from my other 4-star boss.

“Where’s Tim?”

“Sir, I don’t know if he’s killed or not.”

Emergency Units (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

Emergency Units (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

Assisting the Victims

Two days later, we set up an ad hoc Victims Assistance Center at the Sheraton Hotel in Crystal City. I was part of that group. We put together phone banks, the Red Cross, an Army assistance office, comfort dogs, medical personnel, transportation services, hotel and lodging services, casualty assistance, and other services for families of the victims of the crash. It was headed by Lt. Gen. John Van Aylstyn. All of us didn’t exactly know how to deal with a disaster of that magnitude. This operations was the first of its kind, but we knew this will always be in effect.

A guard in the Pentagon called: “Sir, we have family members of people in that airplane, they don’t know where to go.” So I directed the caller to have them all come to the Sheraton and they were all given hotel rooms courtesy of the Defense Department so they could stay in the area.

There were 184 dead, including 125 employees of the Pentagon, the 54 passengers in the plane, and the five terrorists.

After law enforcement cordoned off the entire Pentagon area, they brought in cadaver dogs and mortuary affairs people to comb the area for survivors and remains. Destruction was so enormous that the section of the Pentagon where the airplane struck had collapsed. The Army assembled 200 pathologists at Dover AFB, Delaware, led by Lieutenant General/Dr. Jim Peake – Army Surgeon General. All remains found in the Pentagon were immediately transported to Dover where the Defense Mortuary Agency is located. .

Overlooking the damage (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

Overlooking the damage (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

I can’t recall exactly but I think the pathologists found General Maude’s remains a week later. We had to get DNA hair samples from the maternal side of the victims’ families. Most remains were not whole. I was told General Maude was not recognizable but what was recognized because the Army jacket he had worn at our meeting had 3 stars on it. The way they remains were accounted for upon arrival at Dover, they were x-rayed to determine if unexploded explosives were on them, they were weighed, then bar coded and taken to the mortuary affairs personnel ID section where the specialists went through personal effects, accounted for them, and documented all for identification purposes. On the surgical side – to determine DNA for any body part. It was a very distressing process. The young soldiers of the mortuary affairs unit were from Puerto Rico and had never experienced this type of catastrophe before; they examined all personal effects that came with the remains.

Briefings to the victims’ families at the Victims Assistance Center (VAC) were conducted three times a day to report on survivors, recovery of remains and logistical issues. There were about 3- to 4,000 family members, all inconsolable, making demands, and impatient. That was understandable. There were chaplains, counseling and comfort personnel in the center to assist them. Nonprofit organizations were setting up scholarships, providing grants, and providing technical assistance. General Van Aylstyn would report if the mortuary team found more remains, if families were to be informed, and a progress report given on identifying other remains. More pleas were made to provide DNA samples. Then he would make a declaration if remains cannot be released until a completion recovery due to incomplete identification process. Just because an arm was found didn’t mean there were other body parts.

Every family that was there was provided a casualty assistance officer, either an Army officer or NCO. It was an imperfect solution. Say a service member married twice – by law the next-of-kin is the second wife or whoever is listed in the emergency notification document that [every member of the military] signed and that’s on his/her military record. But if a first wife makes a scene and [there are] kids involved, she was given a CSO too. Then the in-laws would come into play.

So Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld changed the rule – everyone who has anything to do with a service member or civilian employee of DOD will have a CSO. I don’t know how many CSOs were assigned, but it was the prudent thing to do in spite of the situation at hand. We couldn’t afford anyone going to the press or contacting a member of Congress to complain that at the time of their need, they were being discounted.

The VAC was a 24/7 operations for almost two months. Counseling on benefits, burial services, recovery, internment, travel, lodging, memorials and other services were provided almost instantly. Each of the remains had to be accompanied by an Army general officer during the burial. So all of us were on duty. To be honorable and dignified, it was our obligation to the families of the victims who gave their life. The Army exclusively did that on behalf of Secretary of the Army. We did not meet an American Airlines representative on the first month. The families of the passengers of AA 77 were also provided a CSO – it was morally our responsibility.

The after-effects rippled over time. You just can’t forget. The Pentagon was closed for two to three months. There were lots of classified material, equipment destroyed. The Metro [train] that goes to Pentagon had to be closed. Satellite offices were set up.

Everybody focused on recovery, assistance of any sort, transport. Still there were unidentifiable remains, burnt beyond recognition. What to do? Those were put in caskets and buried. The remains of the five terrorists were not all identifiable, so they were co-mingled with the others and put in caskets. Some families complained that they didn’t want their family member co-mingled [with the terrorists].

All the personnel recovery materiel and assets were placed in another location subject to investigation and accountability.

Damaged interiors (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

Damaged interiors (Photo from FBI files/Scripps Media)

The Emotional Aftermath

I got a phone call from the wife of General Maude’s aide-de-camp about two weeks later:

“Sir, you’re the last person who saw my husband alive. I’ve checked. What was he doing, sir.”

“Kip was standing, talking to somebody, that’s about it. That was between 8:30 and 8:35.”

“He was talking to me because he always calls me around that time. What was his demeanor?”

“He seemed okay. He later came in [to Gen. Maude’s office] and told us that we should look at what was happening at the Twin Towers.”

Kip was promoted to lieutenant colonel posthumously because he was already on the list. About a week or so [after our conversation], she give birth to their son, named him Luke. She died at childbirth. I’ll never forget that.

Another gentleman asked me if I saw an Asian woman at the back office. I said yes.

“What was she doing?”

“She was filing something.”

“She was an enlisted Army woman, my fiancée.”

About six months later, I got a phone call at home from a lady named Michelle.

“My mom wants to know if you saw my dad Max before he died. She has always wondered what he was doing.”

“Yes. Your dad was waiting, I said hello to him. I knew your dad, his hair wasn’t combed, his necktie was loose, sleeves rolled up.”

“That’s my dad! Could you tell me what he was doing?”

“He had a notebook and a pen, we greeted each other. I called him Mad Max because of his fierce look. Please tell your mother your dad was an honorable man, I liked him.”

The dad was a retired Army colonel.

There was another Army officer in an office where I had used the phone to call my secretary. I told my secretary that I was running late and was on my way, but I had to go to the bathroom. That officer suffered burns to some 80 percent of his body.

My Personal Reckoning

To think I was about 50 or 75 feet away in a bathroom when the plane hit. I was saved by a wall. The bathroom was damaged by smoke and the wall did not collapse until later. Fire was spreading from the fuel on the airplane.

This whole episode affected me terribly. Some nightmares and discomfort. I remembered all of the people I encountered that morning --- the general, officers and enlisted personnel around, civilian employees. They are seared on my mind that day and every day.

Months later, I bought a BMW sedan. When I picked up the license plate, it had YAA7911. I wanted to change it but had second thoughts. It was coincidental that the numbers 7 for lucky and 911 were embossed on the plate – to remind me how lucky I was that day. I still have that plate, a remembrance for the rest of my life. My mother told me that the reason I got that plate and did not die that day was because I was a sinner. My work on Earth is not yet done. God had more work for me to do. She said this in Tagalog.

I suffered two traumatic experiences – 9/11 and the investigation [of torture] at Abu Ghraib. They were not as critical as being wounded in combat, or losing a limb, or dying. I knew I had symptoms of post-traumatic stress – but not the disorder part. I was consciously exhibiting some erratic behavior -- sleeplessness, separation and being anti-social. I knew I had to get over these traumas. I was a general in the Army, but I was also human. My family was worried about me.

Christmas 2004, we spent the holidays in Las Vegas. I was not being sociable but I had to be there for my family. Six months with PTS was consuming me. I forced myself to enjoy the vacation.

It was very refreshing. I still remember telling myself to recover quickly for the sake of my family, myself, and my career. I came to terms with my dilemma.

On January 1, 2007 I officially retired from active duty. I was somewhat disappointed to leave early—a bit angry, but not depressed. I remembered being directed to retire. I took it as punishment for doing the right thing with the Abu Ghraib investigation. Little did I know that I was being monitored by high ranking executives in government. A close friend told me. So I was the sacrificial lamb. But I held on to my integrity, dignity, and honor. What was clear in my mind was that members of my investigating team were spared from being investigated as I was. They continued with their careers and were successful. That was foremost in my mind.

Antonio M. Taguba is a retired major general in the United States Army.