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Witnesses recall Pentagon 9/11 attack that 'changed America'

Posted September 9, 2011

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— While the nation watched in horror as the World Trade Center in Manhattan flamed and smoldered on live television after planes hit each of the iconic twin towers the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a third plane, hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, flew into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.

That crash killed 189 people.

Bishop James Magnes, a senior military chaplain who grew up in Hendersonville, was in a meeting just 300 feet from the point of impact, but said he didn't feel the building shake.

Alarms began to sound, Magnes recalled, and the building was evacuated.

"One of the vivid memories I have was of an Asian woman in the crowd of people running out of the building, running so fast that she literally ran out of her shoes," he said. "(She) showed no indication she was going to go back for those shoes."

Right Reverend James Magnes Bishop from NC was inside Pentagon on 9/11

His medical training came in handy as the evacuees waited for paramedics to arrive. He helped a badly burned woman and an Army specialist with burns over a third of his body.

"(It was) rather harrowing," Magnes said. "I remember this particular specialist because he told me he was about to be released from the Army in about four days."

Soon after the evacuation, the chaplain joined a team of people who were heading back into the Pentagon to look for people trapped inside.

"You suspend your level of incomprehension and just function," he said. 

The memory of the burning smell is seared into Magnes' memory.

"Not only could you smell the smoke from the burning building, you could smell the injuries, the effect that the injuries had on burning flesh," he said. "You could see the carnage and the damage."

Kevin Spruill was in his car leaving Arlington Cemetery when he heard a plane roaring overhead and saw the Boeing 757 slam into the Pentagon.

Kevin Spruill Man watched from car as plane hit Pentagon

"I duck and it's really low and I'm thinking to myself, 'What is going on?' And within seconds, the explosion hit," Spruill said.

He pulled off at the next exit, and ran toward the blazing building.

"Someone's got to do something, someone's got to get out of their car, and I just did," he said. 

He said the people gathered outside the Pentagon were bewildered.

"They're like, 'We don't know what's going on. Twin towers just got hit by planes as well. This is clearly a terrorist attack. We don't know where the next one is going,'" Spruill said. "There was a lot of fire and you could see the tail end of the plane in the building."

The billowing black smoke was visible from the House of Representatives office building where Congressman Walter Jones, who represents North Carolina's 3rd District, and Sen. Richard Burr, then a congressman, were just beginning to get information about the attacks.

"There was no real organization for staff and members of Congress in the event of some type of attack," Jones said. "I'm trying to call my wife in North Carolina. I can't get through. As you can imagine, there was just total chaos up here."

Jones said that, in the days following the attack, members of Congress were trying to "figure out what had happened, why it happened."

Burr agreed.

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones NC congressmen remember 9/11 vividly

"There wasn't a book that you could read that told you about Osama bin Laden or about al-Qaida," he said. "This is reality today, and we've got to deal with it in that sense."

He said upgraded security measures were quickly put into place at government buildings in Washington, D.C., and members of Congress were given Blackberry mobile devices so they could communicate in case of an emergency.

Beyond security and technology, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks caused other, more fundamental changes in the U.S., Jones said. He remembers gathering on the House steps with other members of Congress to sing "God Bless America" the night of the attack.  

"I think it changed America," he said. "You will never forget it... and it could happen again."

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