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9/11: A Year After / WHO WE ARE NOW

Myrtis Ann Parham

'Then ... came the insight that war had come home not just to us, but to me.'

September 11, 2002

Myrtis Ann Parham, 58, is chief of policy for the Army library program, which provides books for soldiers overseas. She was working at the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building just below her second-floor office.

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"I notice everything about my physical surroundings now. Every time I walk into a room that is new to me, I notice where the exits are; I think about how I would escape in an emergency. When the lights go out temporarily, my heart skips a little beat. Every time the fire alarm goes off, I'm up out of my chair before most people have even registered annoyance.

The only warning we had that day was watching the second plane hit the tower and realizing that there'd been two, that this was not an accident. Unfortunately, we didn't heed the warning. There was a television set near my cubicle, so we were all gathered around watching. People were wandering in and out, in shock. A few commented that we were at war, and that the Pentagon was at ground zero in that fight.

Even though I was shaken up, I went back to my desk. I was leaving that Saturday for a trip home to Georgia, and work has a way of beckoning when you're trying to get out of town.

The simple act of returning to my desk may have saved my life. All of a sudden, there was this unbelievable concussion, this huge noise, like the world had come to an end. The plane had crashed into the Pentagon just under our office. Everything shook, the lights went out, things started to fall from the ceiling. I think I was knocked to the floor.

I know that I was hit on the head by a ceiling tile, because later I found pieces of the ceiling in the pockets of my clothes. In that first instant, there was this intense feeling, which I experienced for several weeks, this realization that the horror of violence and war had come to us, chased evil to our shores.

And then, in the next second, came the insight that war had come home not just to us, but to me, that it had fallen like dead weight on my head. I put my hands up protectively, burning them. And from that moment on, I was so focused on survival I didn't think about anything else. I'm not proud of it, but that's what happened. I felt the extreme heat, the unbelievable heat, the heat of suffocation, and I knew that if I didn't get out of there fast, I was not going to make it.

So began the most frightening five minutes of my life. I yelled for a co-worker named Patrick. Later, he told me that when he looked back toward my voice, I was silhouetted by a ball of fire. Fortunately, I didn't turn around and look back.

I felt my way to a desktop. I wondered if this was where I was going to die. And I started thinking about my mother. I remember thinking that she would not want to get this kind of news. So I kept moving, I just kept moving.

I knew that I had lost a shoe and I even contemplated stopping to take the other one off. But I couldn't take the time, I just kept going. I got to another place where I ran into something and I had the same thought again. Is this going to be it?

Finally, I saw a light. I think now that it was from the windows in the Pentagon's C Ring, halfway between where the plane hit and the corridor to the exits. But it looked so far away, like London in a fog. I just started stumbling in that direction. Patrick came along somewhere then and we sort of stumbled out of there into the A Ring corridor.

There was a great relief in getting out into the hallway, because we were out of the fire. All of a sudden I felt pain. I noticed that my hands were burning, my face was burning and, worst of all, my eyes were burning.

And I knew that I'd been hit with something wet, but I didn't know then that it was jet fuel. I wanted to stop at a bathroom and wash out my eyes. Patrick looked at me like I was crazy and said no, we had to keep moving.

When we finally got out, it was bedlam out there--cars, ambulances everywhere. I had on a purple silk jacket and the whole shoulder, all the way across, was scorched. It was black. From collar to hem, I was splashed in jet fuel. I didn't want to look at people. I was afraid if I looked at people and saw the look of horror in their faces, it would be even more frightening.

That evening at Arlington Hospital, the Army's surgeon general, James B. Peake, visited. It was about 11:30 p.m. and he was making the rounds at all the hospitals in the area. He was by himself, no entourage. In the bed next to me was a guy from my office who had jumped out the windows from the second floor and survived.

For the first two weeks, I walked around and cried at the drop of a hat. I felt vulnerable whenever I heard the Air Force patrol jets in the skies. It was frightening to return to this building. But it never occurred to me to quit, absolutely not. You look around and see other people pick themselves up and keep going. You have a job to do, and you do it.

It took months before hair grew again on the bald spot on my head. I had a broken toe and second-degree burns on my face. They sent me to a plastic surgeon, who provided his services for free. And I finally said to him, 'You know, people have been telling me my skin looks great. Do you think maybe I had a laser peel?' And he said, 'That's exactly what you had, except that it was an uncontrolled burn.' "

*

As told to Johanna Neuman

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