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Memories from Inside ‘a burning building’

Natasha Lancaster | Mon Sep 13, 2021

(Written by Sara Arthurs, a reporter for The (Findlay) Courier. Story originally published Sept. 10, 2021)

When American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the people working there was Elizabeth Buchanan, J.D., Ph.D., now a professor at the University of Findlay.

Buchanan worked as an attorney in the Department of Defense’s general counsel’s office. She said that office provides in-house counsel to the Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense. Her job was in the fiscal law department, dealing with appropriations and the authority to use money.

Throughout her legal career, Buchanan worked in various roles as a civilian attached to the military. Her husband was on active duty much of this time. She liked working alongside the military, as there was a strong sense of “country above self.”

The Pentagon is a huge building. At its height, 30,000 people worked there, she said. It had been constructed quickly during World War II, as a place to run war operations from, she said.

Buchanan’s office was on the side near the Potomac River. This is the side opposite from where the plane hit, “which is why I’m still alive,” she said.

That day, she went to work at about 7:30 a.m. Around 8:15, her boss turned on the television, having received a note that there was an accident in New York City. And it was as the television commentator was speculating that the pilot might have gotten sun in their eyes, or been confused, that behind him on the screen the viewers could see the second plane strike the second tower at the World Trade Center.

After that, Buchanan said, those in the Pentagon resumed their duties. After all, they had work to do.

Then suddenly, “PWWW!”, Buchanan recalled, throwing herself back in her chair to show the intensity of what had happened. A colleague said it had been a bomb, and they needed to get out of there.

“We didn’t know if there was another one,” she noted.

As she and her coworkers left the building, they passed by a nursery that cared for children of people who worked at the Pentagon. Needing to evacuate the babies for their safety, they loaded three to five infants into each wheeled crib.

Transit was down, as was phone service. Buchanan and her boss tried to get to her boss’ car but were waved away.

“So we hitchhiked. … But it took hours to get a few miles,” as roads were gridlocked, she said.

After her boss got dropped off, the driver dropped Buchanan off by her own car. Her husband was relieved when she got home, as “nobody knew who was dead or alive.” (She had been able to call her father-in-law, eventually, to let him know she was OK, but not for several hours as phones were down.)

Their children were in high school, and the couple decided staying at school was probably the safest place for them. But what they hadn’t realized is that the school principal brought in the students whose parents worked in the Pentagon, probably intending to be reassuring. But his office had the television on in the background, repeating the news again and again.

The next day, the Secretary of Defense called them all back to work.

“We worked for three or four days in a burning building,” Buchanan said.

She had lost friends in the attack. She had previously worked in the Army finance office, which had been struck.

“I mean, we just went to funerals,” she said.

Three of the babies she had helped evacuate lost parents in the attack, too.

And after that “it really hit home” that they needed “sophisticated reconstruction plans,” she said.

In 2001, people used computers, but it wasn’t the norm to store information in the cloud. Most of their records were paper, and some of these records needed to be reconstituted.

Shortly afterward, as America began gearing up for war, it became a very busy time at the Department of Defense. Buchanan’s team was involved in handling logistics and making sure the money that was needed was available.

For some time afterward, Buchanan felt fear every time she heard a plane fly overhead.

Staff at the Pentagon had always known they could be a target, she said, but having it actually happen was different than thinking about it in the abstract.

“A lot of my friends retired, or found other jobs,” she said.

Buchanan eventually moved on to the newly created Transportation Security Administration. She retired after 32 years of working for the federal government, then decided to pursue a Ph.D. in history, as “I’ve always loved history.” She said she came to UF as it gave her the opportunity to teach both law and history.

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