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‘Come to my voice and keep your arm against the wall’

A meeting with the naval undersecretary at the Pentagon turns to disaster for IU SPEA group

By Susan Williams



A group of 28 Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division civilian employees and administrators from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs were in Washington, D.C. Tuesday (Sept. 11). They were there to complete IU’s Executive Education graduate-level program for a certificate in public management. Tuesday’s session was in the Pentagon, where they would hear the undersecretary of the U.S. Navy discuss defense policy in the 21st century.

"Just as we got started, the undersecretary said, 'I've got to tell you, because you probably don't know yet that the World Trade Center in New York has been hit by an airplane,'"” said David Reese, adjunct instructor and associate director for executive education at IU’s SPEA, and former executive director at Crane. "Then about 30 minutes into her speech, there was a shock, a tremendous noise like dynamite. The room rocked and things were falling down and crashing."

A hijacked commercial airliner had exploded into the Pentagon, just as what turned out to be two others had crashed into the World Trade Center earlier that morning.

The undersecretary immediately said, "It must be terrorists, so we all knew immediately," said Jim Buher, IU director of administrative services in SPEA on the Bloomington campus. "The thing was, though, I thought we had been hit by a bomb."

So did Duane Embree, who with Reese was one of the first graduates of IU's 15-hour public management certificate graduate program some 12 years ago. As Crane’s highest ranking civilian and its relatively new executive director, he was there to support the students and to meet with senior officials in Washington.

"The explosion was loud, but it wasn’t what I thought a plane crashing into the building would be like."

Following the undersecretary into the hallway, though, the group members knew they were dealing with more than a bomb when they saw smoke and debris.

"If you aren't right in the middle of a bombing, you're probably okay," said Buher,"When we got into the hall and saw smoke, we knew it was more. The air temperature immediately went up and the walls were hot to the touch."

"At first there was emergency lighting, and we were scrambling to figure out which way to go." said Reese. "We started down one the hall, but it was so smokey that we turned around and went toward an exit. Someone opened the door and there was no stairway, so we headed back in the original direction. That's about when the emergency lighting went out.

Then we heard a voice. It was a security guard calling ‘Come to my voice and keep your arm against the wall.’”

"It was pitch black," said Embree. "We all hung onto whomever was in front of us and followed the voice. That security guard saved our lives."

Buher and Reese accompany executive education groups from Crane, and from the U.S. Naval Sea Systems, East and West coasts, and a Army Corp of Engineers from Louisville to Washington, D.C. for the fifth and final week of intense training. The students, who supplement their primary educations—mostly as engineers—with management and business training through the IU program, attend sessions which include time with ‘think tank’ personnel, and government and military officials. Topics include things like determining threat analysis, the challenges of U.S. international relations and the changing face of the U.S. military.

None of them could have known that the curriculum would be rewritten before their very eyes.

As they all felt their way out of the Pentagon, Buher covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief and crouched low to avoid breathing smoke.

“At one point, someone at the front of our group called "Watch your step," The floor had shifted and was sagging there. We had to step down about a foot,” he said.

"We had no way of knowing that we were headed in the wrong direction, toward the damaged area,” said Reese. "It wasn't until we were out of the building and looking at a map that we realized our meeting room was on the fifth floor directly above where the plane had crashed. About 30 minutes after we were out, we heard what sounded like another explosion, but by newspaper accounts, we later realized it was that corridor we walked through falling in."

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Publication date: September 14, 2001
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