John Yates is a security manager at the Pentagon, the heavily guarded headquarters of the United States Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Yates was watching a co-worker’s television as coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center unfolded.
“I was just standing there, because we were talking and watching what was going on in New York,” Yates recalls. “Then, there was just this tremendous explosion that came from behind me and from my left. I remember a ball of fire coming over my head. I remember being blown through the air. I didn’t have any idea where I was when I landed. The room was instantly black from the smoke. It was down to within a foot of the floor. Everything was instantaneously hot. The temperature in the room went from 75 degrees to 1800 degrees in just seconds.”
Yates didn’t know it at the time, but American Airlines Flight 77, a plane hijacked by terrorists, had crashed into the Pentagon. The impact of the aircraft, along with the subsequent fire in the building, resulted in the deaths of all passengers and crewmembers on the plane and 125 people in the Pentagon.
Yates does not recall what happened immediately after the massive blast. “I just remember that my first conscious thought was that my greatest fear in life was at hand and that I was going to die in a fire,” Yates says. “My next thought was that I would not see my bride again, because I had been married less than 16 months at this point.”
Unaware of the burns he sustained in the explosion, Yates began crawling on the floor of the darkened Pentagon office in an attempt to find his bearings.
“At the time, it hurt to breathe,” he says. “It hurt to try and move around, because everything I touched was hot and burned me. I can’t see. All I’m doing is looking at the floor. I’m crawling over debris, ceiling lights, melted plastic from ceiling lights, ceiling light fixtures, chairs in the way.”
Later, Yates realized that crawling on the ground injured him. “The carpet on the floor was so hot that it burned the fingerprints off my [hands],” he says.
Yates eventually made it to a nearby conference room, where he heard the voice of a co-worker, Army Col. Phil McNair. Then he felt someone grab his ankle. He later learned it was another co-worker, Regina Grant, who also survived the attack and ended up escaping the building.
After that, Yates heard a voice that instructed him to head toward a specific door in the room. “Although it was a very distinctive male voice, I was never able to determine who it was,” Yates says. “So I consider it to be my guardian angel.”
Whoever’s voice it was, it gave Yates some good advice—the door opened to a hallway less-inundated by smoke. After lying down in the hall, Yates stood up and started walking, where he was spotted by Army Lt. Col. Victor Correa and Army Col. Karl Knoblauch. Correa helped him out of the building and into a courtyard.
Though Yates is able to remember walking to a stretcher and being put in an ambulance, he didn’t realize what caused the explosion in the Pentagon until later.
“I had no idea of what had happened,” he says. “No idea that a 757 going 500-plus miles an hour had slammed into the outside of the building.”
When Yates came to, he was in the burn unit of the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. He was told he had a very important visitor.
“My next conscious memory is my wife waking me up asking if I wanted to meet President Bush,” he says. “I thought it was still September 11, but it was September 13.”
For the next two and a half months, Yates recovered in the hospital. Like other survivors, he credits the Pentagon renovation project as one reason he is alive today. The renovation specifically is aimed at making the Pentagon less vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Begun in the 1990s, the massive project continues today.
“I think that if it had been a regular limestone exterior and concrete . . . I don’t think I’d be here today, because it [the hijacked plane] would have gone so much farther into the building,” Yates says.
Col. Vincent Kam
Army Col. Vincent Kam, who was also working in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, says the renovations probably saved his life, too. Kam was conducting a meeting when Flight 77 crashed into the building.
“I was actually standing right behind the window when that occurred,” he says. “That’s the reason I saw the fireball come at me, but the window held in place. It was intact, did not shatter. I was protected even though my eardrum was hurt.”
Kam, who suffered from smoke inhalation after the attack, was actually standing right over the area of impact. “The plane basically came in through the first floor of the Pentagon, and I was on the third floor . . . directly above the path of penetration,” he says.
The Pentagon Memorial commemorates and honors those who died in the attack. The memorial, near the area that was struck on September 11, was completed in August 2008. It includes 184 memorial units, each dedicated to a victim of the attack.
Yates plans to attend a private remembrance ceremony at the memorial on September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attack. After the ceremony, he has other plans.
“Because of my hospitalization, I was only able to attend one burial,” Yates says. “I’ve never been able to go back over there [to Arlington National Cemetery], so I’m going to do it that day. On this September 11, I will go over to Arlington Cemetery and visit my friends, visit their gravesites.”