Terrorism became the topic shortly after the start of a PowerPoint class at the Pentagon, which commenced at 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Word had spread quickly that a plane had slammed into the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. and that a second airliner crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.
Millwood’s Jerry Warren recalls the conversation in Corridor 4 of the Pentagon: “After we learned that the second plane hit (the World Trade Center), we started talking about the USS Cole (bombing in 2000) and (Timothy) McVeigh and the Oklahoma bombing and what could happen.”
Warren, 62, now a retired master sergeant and Bellingham park ranger, experienced the next attack minutes later as a Boeing 757 struck the Pentagon, less than 50 yards from the classroom.
“We immediately knew that we were hit with something and it was time to spring into action,” Warren recalled. “I’ll never forget it. It was like being in an earthquake but worse considering the circumstances. I did what I had to do. I made sure people got under tables and then I made sure everybody got out of the building and made it to a safe area. It was nonstop helping people.”
Warren, who was working at the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, helped assemble a triage unit and set up stretchers for those who were injured, to be flown via helicopter away from the scene. “There was no division by rank,” Warren said. “I just did what I had to do.”
Warren’s heroism was rewarded with several medals, including an Army Commendation Medal “for meritorious achievement in the face of extreme danger during the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.”
It’s an experience Warren still has trouble comprehending 20 years later. “I still go back to the fact that what the hell was I doing, a park ranger from Bellingham, at the Pentagon briefing three-star generals about what was going on in the world. I was just a guy from Bellingham and there I was in the middle of this tragedy doing what I could. It was overwhelming, as you can imagine.”
It was so overwhelming that Warren couldn’t call his wife, Aleen, until 2 p.m. to inform her that he survived an attack that claimed 125 lives in the Pentagon.
“She had no idea if I was dead or alive,” Warren said. “It was such a relief to call her. I finally reached her and said, ‘Honey, I made it out alive.’ ”
Warren was living in a vacuum and had no idea that the Twin Towers collapsed after the initial attacks.
“I didn’t know exactly what happened until after 6 p.m.,” Warren recalled. “I remember walking in (to a hotel lobby) and there were two big screens and people surrounded the screens.
“I was next to a two-star general and I asked him what was going on and he said, ‘You don’t know? Where have you been?’ I told him what I had done and then I sat down and watched the news for an hour and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Now Warren can’t believe that it’s been 20 years since the most infamous day in American history since Pearl Harbor was attacked. “I’m dumbfounded by that,” Warren said. “Time really does fly.”
At the time, Warren, a Seattle native, was an Army reservist serving as a noncommissioned officer.
“A regular reserve unit wouldn’t work for me,” Warren said. “I wanted something more. I didn’t want to waste my efforts. So I ended up at the Pentagon and my work there wasn’t taken lightly. I enjoyed having the higher-level assignments. I was working in the biggest office building in the world, which is like a museum. There is no place like the Pentagon.”
And there is no other day in American history like 9/11. Warren has a framed letter from Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly praising his bravery and a limestone fragment from the face of the Pentagon.
Most of all, Warren has indelible memories from his 9/11 experience. Warren remembers when a huge American flag was draped over the Pentagon shortly after the plane caused a partial collapse of the outer ring of the wing. Warren looks back at attending the 2002 memorial at the Pentagon a year after the tragedy with his wife.
“It all brings back so many emotions,” said Warren, who will not attend the 20th anniversary memorial. “I’m staying here.”
Warren, who retired as a park ranger in 2018, moved from Bellingham to Spokane in 2019. “I love it here,” Warren said. “It’s a great place to live.”
Warren realizes how fortunate he is to still be alive considering how close he was to the impact, though he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I had some trouble sleeping for awhile but that’s nothing compared to how some people suffered,” Warren said.
And don’t ever tell Warren that it was a missile that struck the Pentagon.
“I don’t have time for conspiracy nuts,” Warren said. “A plane hit the Pentagon. There was a guy who knew who I was that went up to me in a supermarket and tried to say that the Pentagon attack was a conspiracy. He said it wasn’t a plane that hit the Pentagon.
“I know for a fact that a person in the Pentagon during the attack had a son on that plane that crashed into the Pentagon. I told him that I would pay for a one-way ticket so he could tell that person that his son didn’t die on that flight. I know what happened on that day.”
Warren hopes that 9/11 becomes an annual day of service.
“I would love it if Americans donated 24 hours to their community,” Warren said. “We all need to step up.”
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