Pentagon Worker Remembers 9/11 in Her Own Way

By Fred W. Baker III

Cheryl Irwin says she can tell those who were at the Pentagon the day terrorists flew a commercial jet into its walls. They are the ones who, while standing in its open center courtyard, will look up at a passing commercial jet and pray it continues flying by.

Irwin is one of thousands here who will commemorate the terrorist attacks tomorrow in their own way. She will not be at her desk.

In an ironic twist of fate, her best friend happened to be at the World Trade Center plaza that same morning. So, on the day’s anniversary every year, the two take leave from their jobs and travel together.

“Some people don’t understand, but it is a way for me to honor those who died in my own way,” Irwin said.

Despite the six years that have passed since the attacks on the United States, Irwin gets emotional quickly when talking about the day that 184 people died here. One-hundred twenty-four servicemembers and civilians who where in the Pentagon died with 59 passengers on the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77.

In her second-floor office near the E ring, just off of the fifth corridor, Irwin said she felt her chair rock slightly when the plane struck the Pentagon between the fourth and fifth corridors.

After getting the word the building was being evacuated, Irwin shot out a quick e-mail to her siblings to let them know what was happening. “Evacuating the building. Will call you later,” it read in the subject line. There was no text in the body of the e-mail.

Then she joined the thousands of others who were being directed out of the building.

She forgot her house keys.

There were no cell phone networks available that morning. Irwin was finally able to call from a pay phone after borrowing change from a reporter.

Her brother and sister thought she was dead for four hours that day, Irwin said.

A lot of employees didn’t return to the Pentagon for the next several days. Only about half of the building’s roughly 25,000-member work force returned that week. Corridors 2 through 6 were cordoned off as fires were extinguished, bodies were recovered and structural inspections were conducted.

Instead of leaving that day though, Irwin’s job in press operations for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs was just heating up. As the world turned its eyes to the worst terrorist attacks on American soil, managing the flow of information to the media was at its most critical point in the building’s 60-year history.

Irwin and many others worked long hours through the next several weeks, she said. Roads were closed. Parking was crazy. Because flights were stopped at nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, officials there agreed to allow Pentagon employees access to parking.

What followed was a “phenomenal feeling of camaraderie,” Irwin said.

The staff was allowed only one day off weekly for several weeks. Twelve-hour days or longer were standard. Employees in the press office would bring in electric skillets and cook pancakes and eggs.

Very few people complained about the long hours and days, Irwin said.

“We knew the situation was bad. We just kept working through it,” she said.