Stuttgart colonel recalls terrorist attack on Pentagon
For military families waiting for household goods to arrive during a move, delays usually add more stress.
But sometimes, a delay can save your life.
That was the case for Col. Franklin Childress back in September of 2001, when he arrived in Arlington, Va., to start his first assignment at the Pentagon as the public affairs officer for the Army G-1 personnel office.
His household goods were supposed to arrive at his temporary apartment on Sept. 5. However, after he had called the company on Sept. 4, he found out that something went wrong with the paperwork. The company offered him two new dates to finally deliver the household goods: Sept. 10 or 11. He told the company to deliver the boxes on Sept. 11 — a decision that saved his life.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, four coordinated terrorist attacks hit the United States of America. Nineteen hijackers took control of four airplanes. At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, followed by United Airlines Flight 175, which hit the south tower at 9:03 a.m. At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Pittsburg at 10:03 a.m., missing its original target, later determined to be the Capitol, the White House or Camp David. At 9:59 a.m. the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, followed by the north tower at 10:28 a.m.
Almost 3,000 people died that day from these attacks.
“I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment in Crystal City on Sept. 11 at 9:37, waiting for the movers to deliver my household goods. I was really anxious to get back to work because I was new, and I wanted to make a good first impression,” said Childress, now the U.S. Africa Command Headquarters director of public affairs, located in Stuttgart. “The movers weren’t there yet. I was journaling, and I remember I heard something that sounded to me like a sonic boom. Well, it turned out later that this was the plane hitting the Pentagon.”
At that time, he was not aware of what had happened only 51 minutes ago in New York City.
“About 35 minutes later, my pastor from Hawaii [his previous duty station] called me and asked ‘Are you alright?’ and I said ‘What do you mean?’ He asked me if I had watched TV. I said ‘no’ and he told me to turn on the TV,” Childress said.
He saw the replay of the two airplanes hitting the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the airplane flying into the Pentagon. Then he saw the twin towers collapse.
“But still it was unbeknownst to me that the plane had actually hit my office at the Pentagon,” Childress added.
The plane crashed into the first floor of the Pentagon’s west side.
“My office was [on] the second floor at that time. The plane hit, exploded and killed everybody in that area,” Childress said.
Altogether, 26 people from Childress’ organization were killed, including his boss, all his co-workers in the front office and his sponsor. Childress had recently met all of these people during his in-processing.
In sum, 125 people lost their lives at the Pentagon that day and 59 were killed on the American Airlines Flight 77: a total of 184 people outside of the twin tower attacks.
Childress’ initial thought was to put on his uniform, walk to the Pentagon and help. The area was already sealed off, and he was told that he could not do anything at that point. He walked back to his apartment. He still could not identify the area hit by the plane.
“I only saw the Pentagon burn. I was totally at [my] wit’s end,” Childress said.
Some of Childress’ office mates, who were out of town that day, thought he was in the building, so he was counted missing.
“There was confusion on where everybody was, and it was hard to call people or receive phone calls. It was a very confusing and upsetting time,” he added.
One day later, more detailed information on the destroyed offices was out.
“God’s hand spared me from being there,” Childress said.
There were many incidents that led to the fact that Childress was not at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. The Childress family, including his wife and daughter, had not yet found a house in the D.C. area. Therefore, Childress’ wife stayed in South Carolina while he traveled to Arlington to stay in a temporary apartment until they found a place to live.
“[In] any other scenario, with my wife being there, accepting the household goods, I would have been at the Pentagon,” he said.
Even nine years later, Childress still feels survivor’s guilt.
“You feel guilty in a way — that you should have been killed. I should have been there; not the others. Some people were just called to a meeting in the area that day and died. It’s a weird destiny dynamic. People were there for a reason,” Childress said.
The following months were filled with attending funerals and memorial services. Besides that, America was at war right after the tragic event and Childress, along with others, had to coordinate personnel and prepare the troops for Afghanistan.
“For me, it was not as hard to get back into a daily routine as for other co-workers. They had worked with some of the people who died for a long time. I was new; I was not that close,” Childress said.
Childress heard many personal stories about Sept. 11. It became part of his job to take people to the national media and help them to share their memories of the tragic event, not only with other Americans, but with the world.
“There are so many stories of heroism, so many stories of people being miraculously spared; it’s amazing when you think about all this. So many emotions are wrapped up in one event,” Childress said. “Personally, it was a hard time. It was depressing. On the other hand, it was incredibly uplifting to see how the United States came together — I have never seen us more united.
“The world community rallied around the United States. Hearts of people went out to the Americans,” he added.
On Sept. 13, 2010, two days after the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Childress celebrated his 50th birthday.
“Every day is a gift. I am celebrating that I am alive another year. It’s a miracle that I am still here. It’s a beautiful day to be alive,” he said.