Driving Past the Pentagon
Washington, D.C.
September 11, 2001

Memoir by
Jack Kelly

Commuting, listening to the radio

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was commuting as usual to my job in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. My normal route took me up Washington Boulevard in Arlington, past the west face of the Pentagon. Traffic had been even more horrendous than usual that morning, and I was running late. But, it was a beautiful late summer morning, and I was used to doggedly sitting in traffic while I listened to NPR on the radio.

When the bulletins started coming in around 8:45 about the attacks in New York, I, along with everyone else in the country, was dumbfounded that such a thing could happen. Taking the exit off I-395 to go north on Washington Boulevard, I looked around at my fellow commuters and could see the shocked expressions on their faces.

Traffic at the exit was backed up, and it took several minutes to inch my way through the underpass at I-395 to the northbound lanes of Washington Boulevard. I could finally see the Pentagon looming up on the right side of the road, less than 200 yards away. Traffic was completely at a standstill. I continued to listen to the radio. It was by then 9:32 a.m.

Passage of the airplane

I heard the sound first. I was used to hearing and seeing helicopters pass overhead on that stretch of road as they approached the Pentagon for a landing on the helipad on the west side of the building facing Washington Boulevard. It was a routine, but extremely interesting, sight to see the big military helicopters take off and land from that spot.

At first, that's what I thought the sound was. Then, suddenly, the screaming roar was much too loud, and I saw the silver and red streak of a large airliner pass less than 50 feet over the road in front of me. The shadow of its right wing blocked out the morning sky for an instant as the big plane barreled into the base of the Pentagon's west wall.

Explosions in the Pentagon

An enormous shockwave emanated from the building and shook my bones inside my car, as a huge fireball and a cascade of debris erupted from the spot where the plane hit. Little bits of concrete, dirt, and God knows what else pelted down on the road all around me and the other commuters. Tall lamp posts knocked over by the plane in its descent lay across the roadway in front of me.

I looked to my right and saw fire jetting out of a ridiculously small hole in the side of the Pentagon. The building at that moment was still otherwise intact. I could hear secondary explosions from inside the building as the jet fuel continued to produce more huge fireballs.

I, along with dozens of other stunned commuters, grabbed my cell phone, and jumped out of my car. I looked around for somewhere to run; was another plane coming, like in New York? I thought I was going to die. No hero me, I did not even think of trying to go to the aid of the trapped and dying in that inferno. Instead, I called home. My wife answered, and I reported, in a panic-stricken voice, what I had just witnessed. I was afraid I would never speak to her again. She had been watching the events in New York on TV. I only got out a few almost incoherent, panicked sentences before the wireless circuits were saturated and I lost the signal. I later discovered that I had terrified her almost to the point of collapse.


© 2004 Jack Kelly

Excerpted from —
"Vietnam, the Greatest Generation, and Iraq"

September 11 Memorial:
Pentagon 9/11 victims list and tributes
Washington Post

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New York Daily News

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