Enquirer Herald

Northwestern grad recalls 9/11 attack at Pentagon

Some will spend today commemorating the 10th anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, remembering the nearly 3,000 who died in the terrorist attacks.

Michael McDowell, a 1975 Northwestern High School graduate, won't be one of them. He plans to watch a rugby game with some friends.

"It's just one of those things," he said. "I was there for the first one."

McDowell was in the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C. when one of the planes hit, 100 feet from where he was working. He was on the fifth floor; the nose of the plane crashed into the first floor beneath his office.

Were it not for the then-recent renovations and reinforced areas of the Pentagon, he said he wouldn't be alive today.

"I was just lucky," the 53-year-old said.

McDowell graduated from The Citadel in 1979 and spent 20 years in the Air Force, stationed from South Dakota to the United Kingdom to California. One of his last assignments was working as an escort team chief, taking inspectors to different facilities in the United States as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

He heard about a job as a national security policy analyst for a defense contractor supporting the Air Force and took it. The job was in the Pentagon.

On the morning of Sept. 11, McDowell and his colleagues were called into a conference room to watch news reports of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center tower.

"We were watching and listening to the news commentator saying things like if it was it a big plane or a small plane, a commercial plane or a military plane, how it's a busy air corridor, how a plane hit the Empire State building in 1930," he said.

"About that time, that's when the second plane hit. That was not an accident."

McDowell uses words such as "shocked," incredible" and "unbelievable" to describe the mood in the room that day.

"It was all the words that defy any common sense or all things that are good in the world," he said.

He then realized, "The Pentagon was not a good place to be that day."

Thirty minutes later, a plane hit the Pentagon - a loud explosion followed by smoke and dust.

"The hallway outside our office was filled with smoke within minutes," he said. "We evacuated to the Pentagon center courtyard and could see the smoke and rescue personnel rushing to do what they could."

McDowell thought he would return to his office to get his briefcase, keys and phone. Instead, he and others were told to go home.

"We got our stuff back about six weeks later," he said. "Our office had smoke damage and water damage, but beyond that we were lucky."

A colleague drove McDowell home. He made several calls - to his wife, his parents and his three children. He said he was OK.

His son Adam McDowell, who was 17 at the time and living in Greenville, walked out of his class, wanting to know how his father was.

"[My kids] found out about it through the news," McDowell said. "My oldest son walked out of his class because his teacher wouldn't give him a hall pass to go out to his car and call."

Adam McDowell remembered walking into his calculus class, having just heard about what happened.

His younger brother Christopher came to the classroom door and told him they needed to check on their father.

"But he didn't have a note from the office, so (the teacher) said she couldn't let me leave," Adam McDowell said. "I basically said, 'I don't give a damn' and walked out."

All he could think was "Is my dad OK?"

"As soon as I got out, I went to my truck and grabbed my cell phone and called my stepmom," he said. "My dad had just called her about five minutes before to say he was OK."

He was relieved to hear the news.

"There was definitely something looking out for him," he said.

After talking to his family Michael McDowell walked across the street to a bar. Though the bar wasn't open for business, the owners let residents watch the news: repeated images of the towers falling, everyone still in shock.

McDowell did not know any of the 184 people who died when the plane hit the Pentagon. Work resumed Sept. 12. He and his peers moved to an alternate location in Crystal City to continue their work.

When people ask McDowell where he was on Sept. 11, he tells them of being in the Pentagon, the disbelief, and how close the plane hit to his office.

"It's one of those things that you can't put into words easily," he said. "Even though it's 10 years on, it seems like it was yesterday."