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Surviving the attack

Within 30 minutes of two planes hitting the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 was departing from Dulles International Airport bound for Los Angeles.
That plane, a Boeing 757 loaded with 10,000 gallons of fuel and flying at 345 mph, was hijacked by terrorists, who crashed it into the west side of the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.
All 58 passengers, four flight attendants and both pilots on board, were killed. Also among the dead were 125 people inside the Pentagon.
It is estimated that nearly 2,600 people were working near the impact site in the Pentagon that day.
Lt. Col. James Michael Pahris, who retired and moved to Jonesborough eight years ago, was among them.
Having completed 28 years as a commissioned officer in the United States Army, Pahris had taken a civil service post managing a couple of internal programs for the Army, including the Schools for Other Nations Program and the Military Exchange Program.
He and his wife, Charlotte, had just returned from Europe. After two weeks away, Pahris was spending the early part of the week playing catch up.
In his third floor office at the Pentagon that Tuesday morning, Pahris was dealing with an issue that had come up with the exchange program in Germany.
“I had been on the phone with a master sergeant who was working with me on the program. He and I had telephoned back and forth all morning, starting at about 8 a.m.,” Pahris recalls. “I had just finished talking with him when I hung up and picked up my coffee cup and took a sip. It was about half full and cold. I had a philodendron in my office that I poured my coffee dregs in, so I dumped my coffee into the plant and headed out to get another cup of coffee.”
Two women shared the office space with Pahris – a program assistant and a budget analyst. When one of them asked him a question on his way out, Pahris says he remembers stopping right behind his assistant’s desk to answer. That’s when the power went off.
“I heard somebody make a comment to the effect of, ‘Well, there go the computers,’ and then, at that moment, there was a gosh awful explosion and a fireball came over the E ring.”
The fireball dropped between the E and D rings, the two outermost walls of the Pentagon, blowing out the windows in Pahris’ office suite.
He and his two staff members were unharmed, but shaken. The three wasted no time exiting their office.
They were lucky, Pahris says. The Pentagon had just undergone a $258 million renovation and he credits improvements made during that project with saving many lives in the complex.
Kevlar wraps had been put in place to reinforce the building’s columns; an overpressure system — a system that maintains higher air pressure inside than out — had been installed as a safety measure in case of biological or nuclear attack; and new laminated glass had been installed in all of the complex’s windows.
“When the glass gave way, it just bowed in and then crumpled to the floor,” Pahris said. “And then the overpressure system blew the fireball away.”
In just an instant, the Pentagon was in crisis.
“I guess I sounded a little panicked and the analyst heard it in my voice,” Pahris said. “But I told her, ‘Give me your hand’ and the three of us walked out of there. I remember telling them, ‘Stay calm. Nothing has happened to you.’ All three of us were holding hands.”
The trio walked out into Corridor 4 toward the E ring. There were ceiling tiles all over the floor, blocking the way.
They turned left and went toward the A ring, the ring closest to the courtyard in the center of the complex.
As they made their way down the hall toward safety, they once again found their pathway obstructed – this time by a safety mechanism in the building.
An automatic smoke curtain was in the process of closing all the way across the 25-foot hallway.
“That was another moment of panic,” Pahris said. “I didn’t know anything about those smoke curtains.”
Thankfully, a nearby lieutenant colonel did understand how the curtain worked.
“Just as the curtain was reaching the far wall and closing off the passage,” Pahris said, “he reached out and just barely touched it and it opened back up.”
They were swept up into a “mass exodus” of people rushing to safety, he recalls, and just as they made it into the courtyard, the belly tanks on the plane blew.
He would later learn more about the path the hijacked plane had taken. He would hear that the plane took out light poles in the parking lot, hitting the ground just outside the outermost ring of the Pentagon.
The aircraft had come frighteningly close. It had turned up on its wing and penetrated the outermost ring midway between corridors 4 and 5. Then it had come plunging through the D ring all the way into the C ring.
After the explosion, the three decided to leave the courtyard. They were able to exit through Corridor 10, which emptied out at the Metro Concourse.
When they finally reached safety, Pahris and his two staff members went their separate ways and he started searching for a phone to call his wife. He went into the nearby mall and the customer service department in Macy’s, but the phone there wouldn’t work.
He went to the mall’s Hallmark Store, where he was able to make the call.
Then he made his way by bus and subway, slowly, across town to where Charlotte worked in Reston, Va.
Two days later, Pahris returned to the area near the Pentagon. While there, he remembered something and went back to the customer service department in Macy’s.
There, sitting right where he had left it two days earlier, was his coffee mug.
“I guess I didn’t let go of it the whole time I was moving,” Pahris said.
The insulated plastic mug, a yard sale find, is now a prized possession — a reminder of that day and how close he and his two co-workers had come to tragedy.
Eleven days later, when Pahris and others were allowed to go back into the building to observe the destruction, he saw that his desk had been blown away from the wall.
Everything was in disarray and soaking wet.
He says he recalls looking down at the second floor, through holes in his office floor.
Several people just one floor down had been killed and injured.
“The plane hit the ground below and wiped everything out — it went right under me,” he said. “If (the hijacked plane) had flown all the way into the building, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”