HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
“Like most people, I remember a lot of details about that day,” said Col. Houston Cantwell, the 49th Wing commander. “I remember it being one of those beautiful fall days where there’s not a cloud in the sky. It was a crisp, beautiful day -- not too hot, not too cold. I had short sleeve blues on because it was just that nice outside. I drove to work and parked in that massively huge parking lot, and walked in the building like it was just any other normal day.”
The day started normal, but it was not -- it was September 11th, 2001 at the Pentagon.
After getting to work, then-Captain Cantwell began his day-to-day activities as an F-16 pilot serving a staff job as an Air Force intern.
“After being at work for just a little bit of time, we started hearing discussions about an airplane in New York that crashed into a skyscraper,” he said.
“There was about six or seven of us standing around the TV, trying to figure out what was going on. From the size of the fire, we thought, ‘That doesn’t seem like it would be a small airplane, but that’d be really strange for an airliner to have crashed like that’ – and that’s when we saw that second airplane hit, and we knew we were under attack.”
Now glued to the television, the University of Virginia graduate -- like many Americans that day – was stunned, desperate to understand what was going on in New York City.
“As we were watching, someone said, ‘the Pentagon would actually be a really good target,’” he said. “And, I said, ‘Yea, you’re right. It would be a good target. If they’re targeting things of significance in the United States, certainly the Capitol and the Pentagon would be excellent targets.’”
At 9:37 a.m., just 34 minutes after the second plane struck the North Tower, a third hijacked airliner, originally bound for Los Angeles, crashed into the west side of the Pentagon.
“When you’re standing in a building that big, and you feel it shake, you know something big has just happened,” he said.
After the building quaked, Cantwell looked out the window and saw a massive, orange fireball erupting from the Pentagon -- just a few hundred feet from his office.
“A lot of words were said at that point. It took me about 30 seconds to grab my backpack and jacket,” he said. “The colonels were still on the phones, finishing up some emails, and I looked at one colonel and said, ‘Sir, I’m not going to wait for the order to evacuate the building. I’ll see you guys on the outside.’”
Cantwell hurried out of his office and began anxiously searching for the nearest exit.
“There aren’t a lot of exits in the Pentagon. So, it takes a while for 25,000 people to get out, especially from the fifth floor,” he said. “We were standing in lines just trying to exit the building. We saw two airplanes hit in New York – so, we were thinking ‘There’s going to be two airplanes on the Pentagon.’ So, I was just waiting, and I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to be waiting in line – trying to get out of this building – when the second airplane hits.’”
As he anxiously waited, the young captain thought of his family and his friends. After 10 minutes filled with adrenaline, fear and uncertainty, Cantwell finally made his exit.
“The first thing I remember was smelling the jet fuel and seeing all the smoke bellowing over the exit I went out,” he said.
People outside the building were rushing around, desperate to tell their story of what happened to anyone who would listen. Some people in the building had no idea it had been attacked.
“There was no real social media in 2001. So, email was the main means of communication,” he said. “One of our interns in Crystal City, across the highway, saw the Pentagon get attacked. Then, he got on his computer and typed an email saying ‘the Pentagon just got hit!’ Some of my classmates were in the Pentagon and had no idea it had been hit. So, the first time some of my friends found out the building they were in was struck by an airliner was from a classmate outside the building, who actually saw the attack happen.”
Fear and uncertainty continued, despite being in the parking lot of the head of all U.S. military operations. After a couple hours outside without updates, he made the decision to drive home to Arlington, Va.
“I’ll never forget on the way home I was listening to the news, trying to see what was going on in New York, if there was an attack in D.C.,” he said. “Then, I heard one of the Twin Towers had collapsed.”
Fighting back tears, 15 years later in his office at Holloman Air Force Base, Cantwell vividly recalls his thoughts and emotions that day.
“I heard that and thought, ‘What are you talking about? There’s just no way.’ But, sure enough, I went home and saw the TV, and just thought ‘Woah.’”
When the reality of the situation set in, Cantwell’s focus shifted from “What happened?” to “Where are my friends and family, and are they ok?”
“There were 50 other captains serving as interns in D.C. and around the Pentagon, so we didn’t know the status of everybody,” he said. “We didn’t know where everyone worked and what offices were in the areas that were struck. But, it was hard to get ahold of anyone, because at that point most cell phones weren’t working because everyone was on their cell phone. My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, was obviously concerned because she had no way to contact me. That was an obviously stressful period for us.”
For months after the attack, F-16 Fighting Falcons flew Combat Air Patrols over Washington D.C.
“The National airspace was empty at that time – there were no threats,” he said. “So I would always think to myself, ‘Why are we spending all this money to have these guys and gals doing this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week over all these areas of the United States of America?’”
His question was answered one night when he and his then-girlfriend, Lisa, were coming home from a date and heard F-16s flying overhead.
“I said to her, ‘Do you hear that thing? Do you hear that jet? What do you think about these fighter jets flying over our nation’s capital?’ And, she said ‘I love it.’
“So I said, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘It makes me sleep better at night.’”
‘“Wow,’” Cantwell said. ‘“I never thought of that.’”
One hundred fifteen Defense Department employees and 10 contractors were killed in the Pentagon that fall day. Another 59 people on Flight 77 perished as the plane collided with the five-sided symbol of America’s military strength.
“It was a pretty emotional day overall for us at the Pentagon” . . . And, it started as a crisp, beautiful fall day.