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Responders remember 9/11 at Pentagon

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Aug. 24, 2011) -- "You never recover completely. You always want to remember the people who perished. I think that is the lesson of 9/11: You can never be complacent."

Col. Franklin Childress, with the Army's Office of the Chief of Public Affairs and a dozen or more first responders, survivors and witnesses to the terrorist attack at the Pentagon, gathered Aug. 23, outside the building near the memorial built to honor those lost their lives that day 10 years ago, to meet with members of the press corps to share their stories.

A pentagon icon.

Childress had arrived in Washington, D.C., for his assignment at the Pentagon, just a week before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack there. Initially, he'd expected his household goods to be delivered to his new place Sept. 6, but clerical errors kept his stuff from arriving.

"I called and they said, 'sorry, the transportation clerk has dropped the ball, we found your paperwork in his inbox,'" Childress recalled.

Instead, the then-lieutenant colonel was offered a new delivery date -- Sept. 10 or 11. He chose the latter.

"That was a decision that saved my life," Childress said. "I was in the personnel office then -- 26 people around my desk were all killed. Had I been there I would have been dead."

The colonel said he heard the plane hit the Pentagon -- his apartment was less than a mile from the crash site.

"I thought it was a sonic boom from Regan National Airport. I had no idea. I had no frame of reference. I wasn't watching TV. I didn't know New York City had happened," he said.

It was his pastor from a previous assignment that called him and told him to turn on the television.

"I saw the second World Trade Center tower fall. I thought the world was coming to an end."

Childress said he put on his uniform and made his way over to the Pentagon to help out to "be a stretcher bearer or whatever," but the FBI was already there and wouldn't let him in.

"They said it was a crime scene," he said.

By the next day, those who would be let in to help out were already on their way. Up in Maryland, for instance, members of the National Guard there had been activated since the attack happened, and arrived on scene at the Pentagon the next morning.

Sgt. 1st Class John Richter, with the Maryland National Guard's 202th Military Police Company, served as a squad leader in 2001, and provided security on the 5th floor of the building, near the crash site. He was a staff sergeant at the time.

"When we first arrived you could see smoke coming up from the Pentagon still," Richter said. "We were escorted up to the 5th floor, and still there was smoke coming from the crash site. A lot of us didn't know the extent of the destruction."

Also working security in the building, Staff Sgt. Bruce McGrath, also part of the Maryland National Guard. He was a specialist at the time, and he worked the same floor as Richter. He said his job was "not let anyone past my point. Because beyond that was the crash site."

Seeing the devastation, he said he was "overwhelmed -- there's no other word."

When he and the other members of his unit heard about what had happened, that the event had been perpetrated by Osama BinLaden, "everybody wanted to go get him and do their part. And you know, come here and help. We wanted to do something. And we did. We were able to contribute," McGrath said.

Master Sgt. Aarion Franklin of the 290th Military Police Company, Maryland National Guard, said the scene he saw when he arrived was not what he was expecting.

"What we expected to see was something pretty much contained -- it had been 12 hours," Franklin said. "But when we got here, the building was partially collapsed, there were still flames and there was a lot of smoke. And hundreds of first responders were all over the place. It was definitely not what I anticipated."

Franklin was a sergeant at the time of the attack, and has been to Afghanistan and Iraq since then. As a Guardsman, he has a civilian job as a planner with the Maryland Department of Transportation -- though now he's been activated in preparation for an upcoming deployment.

At the Pentagon, on Sept. 12, he worked outside the building securing the perimeter of the crash site so first responders could do their work, putting out fires, and finding bodies in the rubble. Franklin said he didn't have to go in the building to know what was going on inside, though.

"All my work was on the outside. And when they brought a body out, work stopped," he said.

Childress is now back at the Pentagon. And today, he still sees people in the hallways there he knew from 10 years ago, when the building was attacked.

"I think we become a family that day, we really bonded after 9/11," he said. "Because of the tragedy, a lot of people in G-1 came together and those people who are still working in the building -- I'm very close to. I see them in the hall, and it's like seeing a family member. I think that's what I got out of it was that closeness -- experiencing tragedy and coming out of it as a stronger team."

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