A Pentagon Survivor Remembers And Mourns (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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A Pentagon Survivor Remembers and Mourns

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:05
As we know perhaps too well by now, four airplanes went down that September morning nearly ten years ago. At 8:46, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the World Trade Center's north tower in New York. At 9:03, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower. At 10:03, United Flight 93 went down near Shanksville, Pa. But at 9:37, much closer to home, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the world's largest office building, that iconic six and a half million square foot structure in Arlington County, Virginia, the Pentagon.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:42
The impact occurred in what's known as Wedge one. Five Wedges make up the Pentagon and at the time, workers were renovating the first. In fact, they were just five days away from completing it and we'll hear more about that renovation later in the show. But when that plane burst through Wedge one on that blue-skied morning, 125 Pentagon personnel lost their lives. That was out of the more than 2600 who were at the crash site at the time and one of them...

LT. COL. ROBERT GRUNEWALD

00:01:10
My name is Rob Grunewald.

SHEIR

00:01:11
...was this man.

GRUNEWALD

00:01:12
I'm a Department of Defense government civilian working for the Department of the Army.

SHEIR

00:01:16
Grunewald was an executive officer in charge of technology.

GRUNEWALD

00:01:19
And I had helped design the Wedge and the area that we were in for all the computers, for all the faxes, for all the phones, for all the cubicles, copiers.

SHEIR

00:01:27
And at 9:00, he and ten other executives packed into an enclosed conference room for a meeting. Now, none of them had heard about that morning's crashes in New York so they were utterly unprepared when 37 minutes after the meeting began...

GRUNEWALD

00:01:43
There was a huge explosion to my 3 o'clock along the top of the wall and a large fireball came into the room. And we had a drop ceiling, one of those styrofoam-type ceilings that immediately exploded into a million pieces.

SHEIR

00:01:58
At which point, Grunewald says, the wall in front of him started to fracture.

GRUNEWALD

00:02:03
And then the room went instantly black.

SHEIR

00:02:05
Like pitch black...

GRUNEWALD

00:02:06
You couldn't see anything. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face.

SHEIR

00:02:08
And the first thing he felt right in his gut...

GRUNEWALD

00:02:11
Was anger...

SHEIR

00:02:11
Because remember Grunewald was the tech guy, the one who had worked so hard to get all those brand new computers, faxes and phones into the newly renovated Wedge one so when this sudden explosion rattled the building...

GRUNEWALD

00:02:23
I thought it was an industrial accident. I thought an electrician was working, a gas person was working, a phone company person was working and severed a line and I'd have to do it all over again.

SHEIR

00:02:32
But his anger didn't last long because at one end of the darkened conference room, Rob Grunewald's long-time friend Martha Carden...

GRUNEWALD

00:02:39
Who was the executive assistant for Lt. General Timothy Maude, the G1 in the army.

SHEIR

00:02:43
...started crying out for help.

GRUNEWALD

00:02:45
And I yelled, Martha, I'll come and get you. And I jumped on top of the table and I made my way down to her area. And by this time now, the room is dark and smoke is starting to fill and there are two exit doors for this particular room...

SHEIR

00:03:00
One exit was either blocked or locked...

GRUNEWALD

00:03:03
...which turned out to be very fortuitous because there was an inferno along the corridor...

SHEIR

00:03:07
...so Grunewald and Carden pushed their way through the other exit.

GRUNEWALD

00:03:11
And so we're crawling on our hands and knees and Martha Carden is holding onto my belt and we're encouraging people, you know, follow me, come to our voice, everybody get down, stay low.

SHEIR

00:03:21
Because somewhere above them there was a fire raging.

GRUNEWALD

00:03:24
We could hear that crackle that you hear from a fireplace, that type of thing, but you couldn't see it.

SHEIR

00:03:29
So they were scuttling around on the ground bumping into cubicles, scrambling over fallen printers and computers...

GRUNEWALD

00:03:35
And the alarm is sounding, attention, fire emergency has been declared in the building, please evacuate.

SHEIR

00:03:39
...over...

GRUNEWALD

00:03:41
...attention, a fire emergency has been declared, please evacuate...

SHEIR

00:03:45
...and over...

GRUNEWALD

00:03:45
And after awhile that became fairly annoying, but it was good that we could still hear.

SHEIR

00:03:49
Because at this point, not only was it getting smokier, it was getting hotter too.

GRUNEWALD

00:03:54
And Martha described the heat and she was curious as to just how long it would take to die and how painful would it be. And there were some instances where, during the crawling out, that I felt, you know, that we weren't going to make it. And Martha, you know, pushing me or helping me or prodding me or knowing that she was there. So that helped me keep going.

SHEIR

00:04:14
They eventually made it to a corridor which actually was sealed off from the blaze thanks to cutting-edge technology used in the renovation and at that point, Grunewald tried going back...

GRUNEWALD

00:04:24
I told people to come to my voice.

SHEIR

00:04:26
...to rescue other people.

GRUNEWALD

00:04:27
But I didn't really get far. By that time, the smoke was down very, very low to the floor. It was very dark in there and you couldn't really see a lot. And I didn't hear anybody calling or coming in my direction.

SHEIR

00:04:39
So he had no choice but to give up and go with Martha Carden to what seemed like a safe place, the Pentagon's center courtyard. That's when he found out the morning's events had nothing to do with a careless electrician or gas person.

GRUNEWALD

00:04:53
But, of course, you don't get the magnitude of it until you're sitting out front of the Pentagon looking at it and seeing the breadth and scope of what's actually happened to your little corner of the world.

SHEIR

00:05:03
Which is precisely what he did when he and group of people were led outside and around the building...

GRUNEWALD

00:05:09
And I'm standing 100 feet away from what used to be my office and it is smoking and it's caved in and it's gone.

SHEIR

00:05:19
Grunewald wound up in the hospital where he was treated for smoke inhalation and burns. And as he lay in his hospital bed, that was the first time he saw the footage of the planes hitting the twin towers. He went home the next day, but he didn't rest for long.

GRUNEWALD

00:05:34
I had a job to do. I was the information management officer for this office that's now destroyed and people would come up to me and say, Rob, get us in the building, get us back to work, figure out how we're going to do this.

SHEIR

00:05:47
Hence the ensuing months of 16 sometimes 17 hour-days...

GRUNEWALD

00:05:52
My day would consist of going to my kid's soccer game in my Class A uniform, going to a funeral in Arlington National Cemetery and then going to the office until 8 o'clock at night. You know, hit rewind and do again the next day and do again the next day.

SHEIR

00:06:12
Rob Grunewald knew 31 of the people who died at the Pentagon, two had been sitting next to him at that executive meeting, one on either side. Another had been his friend, Martha Carden's boss, Lt. General Maude and Grunewald says he pays tribute to all these people every year, right around this time, by visiting the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

GRUNEWALD

00:06:34
And I go to their bench and I say a little prayer and other than on 9/11, the only way, other than coming to work every day, that I honor my friends is every Memorial Day I go to Arlington National and I go to every one of their grave markers and say a prayer for all the people that were lost that day.

SHEIR

00:06:53
And that day is one Rob Grunewald will never forget, not only because of what he lost, but because of what he gained.

GRUNEWALD

00:06:59
I appreciate my family and my friends much more than I did before. I don't take life so much for granted anymore and you know, possessions aren't as important to me I think because life is too precious.

SHEIR

00:07:12
Instead, he says, if you have people, be it family, friends or tried and true colleagues who will quite literally walk through fire for you, well, that's really all you need.
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