'It was the loudest explosion I've ever heard': A 9/11 survivor on her harrowing escape from the Pentagon
WASHINGTON — For U.S. Army Col. Marilyn Wills the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, started out as a “beautiful, sunny day” as she made her way to the Pentagon, a daily trek made by some 20,000 people to one of the world’s largest office buildings.
“My family and I would always get up and pray together, I have two girls and my husband. But that morning I didn’t because I had to leave for the Pentagon. I only live 16 miles from here, but it could take you two and a half hours because of the traffic,” Wills said, adding that her day was filled with back-to-back briefings at the Pentagon.
“At nine o’clock we had a meeting and knowing the Army if you were there at nine you’re late, so I got there at least 15 minutes early,” she said.
As Wills found a seat at the polished conference room table alongside 15 of her colleagues in the recently renovated “Wedge 1” section of the Pentagon, the first hijacked plane slammed into the World Trade Center in New York.
At 8:46 a.m. ET, hijackers affiliated with al Qaeda flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the Trade Center. Nearly 15 minutes later, hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the Trade Center’s twin, the South Tower.
By 9:05 a.m., it was clear that America was under attack.
“As we went around the table, I just glanced at my watch and thought oh my gosh it’s 9:20, the meeting is going a little long,” Wills said. “As soon as my turn to speak, it was the loudest explosion I had ever heard and the room went completely dark.”
My first thought was … so there must have been a construction incident or accident.”
At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 barreled into the west side of the Pentagon near Wedge 1, where Wills attended a typical staff meeting. The plane, traveling at approximately 530 mph, killed 184 people and injured scores.
After the nose of the plane hit the Pentagon, a fireball erupted upward and rose 200 feet above the roof, triggering subsequent explosions throughout the building.
“I was on the right side of the table and was blown to the left side of the table,” explained Wills, saying that she crawled across the room to one of the doors.
“I grabbed the handle and pulled my hand back because that door was so hot. Then I crawled back across the room to go out of another door,” Wills said.
“Someone grabbed hold of my belt, and I asked: ‘Who is this? Talk to me. Who is this?'”
“She said her name. Her name was Lois Stevens and I told Lois: ‘Hold on to me. I have you, don’t let me go. For where I go, you go. Hold on to me.”
The two women crawled through the destruction calling for help and searching for survivors along the way.
The worst thing of all was the smell.”
“Lois tugged on me and said she couldn’t go any further. She had nylons on and her stockings had melted onto her legs,” Wills explained, adding that she proceeded to carry Lois.
They found their way to other survivors in the building, who were gathered around a cloudy window attempting to break it free.
“As we all know, the windows are blast-proof,” Wills said, adding that the group desperately threw objects at the glass hoping to break it. The group then decided to kick out the frame of the window.
“The smoke just bellowed out of the window,” Wills said, as the survivors scrambled to construct a human staircase with their bodies to help each other get out of the building.
“I came out of the window and stepped on arms and legs and heads before being caught and taken into triage,” Wills explained.
Wills would not know what happened that day until eight days later because she was hospitalized for her injuries.
“My first thought was, we had just moved into this new area of the Pentagon, and so there must have been a construction incident or accident,” Wills said, before learning about the terrorist attacks.
“The Army gave me several days off and I came back to work, but I could only come back for half days when I initially came back,” she explained. “The worst thing of all was the smell. You could smell the fumes, you could smell burning bodies, you could smell the burning wires, you could smell all of it. That was the worst for me,” Wills said, who has since retired after serving 30 years in the Army.
“I’d walk down the hallways and I would think that I saw a ghost,” Wills said, adding that the psychological trauma from that day proved to be the most difficult.
“Especially when they opened up the flight plan back over the Pentagon again. I remember I was sitting in a meeting and watching these planes go by. Just put that in your perspective. I couldn’t sit there,” she said.
“Eventually I got there because I knew I had to continue to serve,” Wills said, adding that she had relatives who would later go on to serve in the post-9/11 wars.