Do you remember where you were that September?

  • Published
  • By Bill Orndorff
  • 309th Maintenance Wing
As Mike Moore worked in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, he was separated from the area hit by American Airlines flight 77 by just a few hallways and floors. And because of this and his past training, he was able to help save the lives of many that day.

Nearly 10 years after he witnessed the destruction, Moore still vividly remembers the Tuesday when the world changed. Now the deputy director of the 309th Aircraft Maintenance Group, he was an active duty Air Force major in 2001, working on the Pentagon's fifth floor, above and south of the impact area.

"We were basically right around the corner from where the airplane hit," Moore recalled, "and we were so close to the impact that we first just heard the noise; the shock wave was really already past us."

After quickly securing the office, Moore and his co-workers from the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Installations and Logistics, headed for the exit.

"As we left, we heard a series of five explosions following what we thought was the initial impact," Moore said. "They were roughly a second apart. I looked at (a co-worker) and told him, 'We need to go figure out what this is.' His answer was, 'That's not my job.'ââ"

Moore, however, made it his job that morning. A trained paramedic and emergency responder, he spent about 15 minutes searching the smoky hallways in the now-burning building. Along the way, he discovered a group of between 15 and 20 people in a stairwell -- all new to the building and unsure where they were -- and directed them toward the exit.

"I went toward the A ring (close to the center of impact and center of the building), before the heat and the smoke started curling my contact lenses. The temperature was rising quickly, and I knew it was time to get out of there. One thing I learned as a paramedic -- a dead rescuer saves nobody."

As he turned around and headed for the exit, Moore found another man, lost in the smoke and having breathing problems. Placing the man's arm around his shoulder, Moore guided him toward the exit and again found the group of lost visitors, still disoriented in the stairwell.

"It sounds corny today, but I'm carrying this guy out because he's having trouble breathing, and I looked at the others, gestured with my free arm and said, 'Follow me,'ââ" Moore said. "And so we moved from there. I got the one gentleman out -- I needed to find some sort of emergency medical help for him. I didn't have any equipment, but I knew what he needed."

After leaving the injured man at an ambulance, Moore spotted a disaster response unit from the Metro Washington Airport Authority, and walked to the senior paramedic to offer his assistance.

Moore began training in emergency medicine in 1984. While attending Penn State University on an ROTC scholarship, he worked with an ambulance crew and became an emergency medical technician. He was a part-time paramedic until 1988 when he changed his Air Force career field from medicine to aircraft maintenance.

Though he hadn't used his paramedic skills for almost 14 years, Moore found that in the moment, "it was just like falling off a bike -- you get pushed into it, the old skills come back, and you pedal fast and hope to stay upright."

Moore asked the Airport Authority paramedic some basic emergency procedure questions: "Have you figured out if we're upwind or downwind," "Are we in a secure environment," "Do you have communications set up," "Do you have a disaster response checklist," "Who do you want to do triage."

Stepping up

"These are basic initial questions that you have to think through and generally, if you're going to be a disaster responder, you have them all on a checklist," Moore said. "As I asked him all these things, I saw it was just going straight over his head. He asked me if I'd done this before and I responded, 'Yeah, I used to do it for the Seven Mountains Emergency Medical Region.' And that's when he handed me the radio and orange vest and said 'You're better qualified to handle this than I am. You're now the triage commander-- tell me what you want me to do.'"

Moore thought, "All right -- now this is unexpected," but then immediately went to work. He assigned the Airport Authority paramedic to coordinate transportation, then had a Navy corpsman serve as operations officer.

"I felt confident enough in my medical background -- I'd been doing this for a number of years -- and as a career logistician and maintenance officer in the Air Force, and the organizational skills to be able to make a decision in a crisis situation. I'd been well-trained for that," he said. "I figured I'd just do this until competent medical authority came along -- a disaster responder kind of guy would come and say, 'Hey, I've got it.'ââ" However, that responder wouldn't arrive for quite some time.

Moore explained that the 3rd Army Infantry Regiment at Fort Myer, Va. -- better known as The Old Guard -- has a wartime mission to set up a 10-mile perimeter around the Pentagon when there is evidence of an attack.

"Well, they did that, so nothing could get in or out. We didn't really know what the situation was; we didn't have effective command and control. And the professionals didn't get there for another 12 hours."

Putting triage together

Moore organized triage areas southeast of the building -- and later moved them under a highway overpass when reports came from the FBI that a second airplane was headed for the Pentagon. (The aircraft turned out to be an errant pilot looking for the best route out of the chaotic airspace that resulted when Washington National Airport was closed. The pilot ended up landing in Baltimore.)

And even with jammed highways and blocked roads, assistance poured into the area. More than 200 volunteers arrived, ranging from colonels who were in the Pentagon to emergency room nurses who ran down from nearby I-395.

"We had a class of EMT students from Fort Myer who were preparing to take their final exam to be emergency medical technicians. They were all Army. Their instructor saw what was going on and brought them over to our triage area to help out," Moore said.

"We were teaching volunteers on how to set up IVs -- it took us awhile -- then after about the first hour or so, we moved from rescue operations to recovery operations. When we had to make that shift, we then started training volunteers on what to expect, because they all, to a man and woman, wanted to go in and help.

"There were a number of us who had done casualty recovery before in burning buildings and so we were very frank as to what they could expect and the nightmares they could possibly endure. We still had people who heard all that and said, 'I understand,' and we sent them forward."

Evacuation was accomplished by 16 ambulances and three helicopters, and two large passenger buses provided needed air conditioned areas as the outside temperature got hotter.

"Things came together exceptionally fast," Moore said, "and we had most of the injured prepared for immediate transport about 15 minutes after set-up. We had medical supplies -- critical medical supplies choppered in from Walter Reed Medical Center, and most remarkably, a Rexall Drug delivery driver received clearance from the company president to divert off I-495 and open his 40-foot trailer load of medical supplies to support our operation."

Another volunteer helped by incessantly trying to call out on the other volunteers' cell phones.

"The 703 area code (which covered the Alexandria and Arlington, Va., areas) was completely saturated. We were all trying to call, but none of us could get out because it would just beep-beep-beep," Moore said. "Not that we were com-jammed intentionally, it's just that everyone was trying to call the 703 area code and find out what was going on. We put our names on our phones and the volunteer would keep calling until she got somebody on the line. About six hours later, after this all started, I finally talked to my wife who immediately issued me an order to return home. Although my wife had been an emergency medical technician with me in college, she didn't have the same perspective that I had, shall we say."

Homeward bound

Moore would remain at the site until around 11 p.m., after which he got on the Metrorail transit system and went home.

"I got on the metro still wearing the orange vest -- I didn't even think about it," he recalled. "As I sat down for the first time after about 14 hours, I looked down and realized I was out of uniform." The blue Air Force uniform he had worn to work that day now smelled like diesel fuel, smoke and sweat, and he put it in the trash. He does, however, still have the orange vest.

Moore stayed home on Sept. 12, but returned to work on Sept. 13, reporting to a relocated office in Crystal City, a collection of office buildings, shops and hotels located near the Pentagon.

For many, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were traumatic and unforgettable. Some had nightmares, or have developed anxiety about being in certain places at certain times.

"I think with all my training I was able to respond and have control of my area," Moore said. "I was able to do some good and to help out. I was not powerless. People who find themselves in the situation where they have to react feel powerless afterwards and ask themselves, 'Why -- why did this happen.' That's the best explanation I have. It hasn't haunted me at all -- I have no nightmares about it. But I will vividly remember the events of that day, probably for the rest of my life."

Months later, it was decided that all military members who were actually in the Pentagon on Sept. 11 would receive combat pay for that month.

"All my Air Force friends and I, to a man, donated that combat pay to the Air Force Assistance Fund," Moore said. "None of us wanted it. And what's really ironic -- we used to whine and complain before that we took so much fire, day to day, that we should earn combat pay. When the day finally came that we earned it, we gave it away."

For all he did, Moore doesn't consider himself a hero, noting that the word is often overused.

"I had 209 volunteers that were just absolutely phenomenal. We had ER nurses stopping their cars, abandoning their cars by the side of the road, running down the hill where I was standing as we were setting the triage teams up. These nurses had just worked a 12-hour shift and they volunteered and stayed there until their shift came up again. I was releasing nurses who had already worked 24-hours straight to go back to their hospitals.

"Those were the true heroes -- I personally treated no one; I just happened to be the guy pointing. The bottom line is, take advantage of every training opportunity and learn all that you can. Be ready. You never know when, or in what manner, our nation may call on your services."