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The Day I'll Never Forget

Others perished in the Pentagon on 9/11. Why didn't I?

September 11, 2001, began like any other day. My alarm sounded at 5:30 A.M., sending me to the shower, then in search of a clean Army uniform, standard dress for my job at the Pentagon. At 6:25 A.M. I boarded Washington, D.C.'s monorail system, which transported me to work.

As an active-duty Army officer, I'm assigned to the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel. In the performance of my daily duties, I distribute documents to the offices of high-ranking officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

In late June 2001, my directorate moved into a newly renovated section on the Pentagon's west side. In addition to being beautifully decorated, the area boasted enhanced safety features such as emergency-activated smoke doors, water sprinklers, and blast-resistant windows.

I arrived at my desk at 7:30 A.M. Two hours later, a colleague seated at a desk near mine checked the Internet for the latest news. I heard him exclaim, "Two commercial jet planes have hit the World Trade Center towers!" Word spread and people left their desks to watch the televised reports on New York City's unfolding tragedy. I was tempted to follow them, but a pile of paperwork demanded my attention.

The officer seated across from me had other ideas. "Linda, let's go watch the television," she insisted. Because she outranked me, I relented.

We stood riveted before a television, shaken by the devastation in Manhattan. I knew the Pentagon, the nation's defense headquarters, would be called upon to respond to the attacks. I decided to return to my desk and finish my work in expectation of new orders.

Before I reached my cubicle, my supervisor intercepted me. "Linda, senior leadership has activated the special operational team, and you're a part of it. Report to the meeting room on the lower level right away."

Had I continued walking, I would have been directly in front of the windows when the glass imploded.

"Yes, sir. I'll just shut down my computer and grab my wallet, then I'll go."

I started toward my desk, but he blocked my way. "You don't have time. You need to go now. Leave the bay immediately and report for duty downstairs."

I stared at him, surprised at his harsh tone of voice. Another coworker approached. "I'm heading in the same direction, Linda. We can walk together." She gripped my arm and hustled me toward the door. We tried to leave the bay, but another supervisor stopped us and offered instructions. I quickly realized his orders didn't pertain to my duties and couldn't understand why he was relaying them to me. As I listened, I wondered why all my supervisors suddenly were acting so strange.

As he finished his last sentence, three ear-splitting blasts ripped through the building, shaking the walls and floors. The windows in the bay cracked and imploded, raining glass into the area.

"Get down!" someone screamed.

Everyone in the bay dropped to the floor. The building took on a chaotic life of its own. Ceiling tiles crumbled and fell. Lights went out. Smoke billowed through the area. Explosions rocked the building.

Confusion reigned all around me. Unsure of what else to do, I prayed aloud. As I cried out for help, a sense of urgency swept through my spirit, and I heard God clearly speak, Get out now! At the same moment, a picture flashed through my mind of a set of double doors leading into the corridor. I knew God wanted us to leave through that exit.

I grabbed my colleague's arm. "Ma'am, we have to go!" Holding hands, we ran toward the doors. Several people who had been lying near us jumped up and followed. But when we reached the exit and burst into the corridor, another critical choice confronted me: Should I turn right and run toward the outer perimeter of the Pentagon, or go left toward the center of the building, which would lead to the inner courtyard? Logic dictated I should go right, which would provide the quickest exit, but God spoke again: Left! Go left!

I turned left and ran toward the building's center. A group of people trailed behind me. Our flight down the hall took on the surreal quality of an action-movie sequence. Debris rained from the ceiling. Plaster exploded from the walls. Fireballs burst from doorways. The building's infrastructure collapsed around us.

Adrenaline pumping, we sprinted down the corridor, dodging debris and cringing with each explosion. Smoke grew thicker by the second, making breathing and visibility difficult. Without warning, we came upon an automated emergency smoke door, which had extended across the corridor, trapping us in a dangerous location.

I beat on the door and cried, "Lord, get us out of here!"

The door to the office bay nearest us opened, and a tall man inside beckoned us to come in. I thanked him as I ran past, noting in the brief second our eyes met that I didn't recognize him. We cut through the bay and ran the last few yards to the exit, finally reaching the Pentagon's center courtyard. We crossed the small green space to another section of the building much farther from the impact. Away from immediate danger, we slowed to a walk and used the maintenance tunnels to exit the Pentagon.

In the parking lot, we stared dumbfounded at the giant, flaming hole where our offices had been. I watched emergency crews pour into the area and firefighters battle the blaze. S.W.A.T. teams brandishing automatic weapons sealed off the area. My mind felt numb as I recognized the severity of the situation. Black smoke plumes darkened the sky while questions raced through my mind. What had caused the explosions? What happened to my coworkers and friends? And the pressing question on every American's mind: Why?

When my shock subsided, I realized my husband must be worried about me. Cell phones didn't function, so I decided to make my way home and call from there. Since my supervisor had prevented me from retrieving my wallet, I had no keys or money. I walked to a nearby motel and found a cab willing to take me home for free.

In the safe, familiar surroundings of my bedroom, I began to process the day's events. During my harrowing run from the building, I didn't have time to think about anything except escape, but in the aftermath I recognized the series of miracles God had performed on my behalf.

First, God used my coworker's desire to watch the television coverage to draw me away from my desk. The plane's fuselage exploded directly beneath my second-floor office area, and four people who sat in cubicles near mine died instantly. Had I stayed, I too might have died.

Second, God prompted my supervisor to order me out of the bay. Had I returned to my desk, I would have been in the center of the explosion at the moment of impact. God used his refusal to let me retrieve my wallet or shut down my computer to save my life

Third, God used the second supervisor to stop me in a strategic location. Had I continued walking, I would have been directly in front of the windows when the glass imploded. God used him to save me from serious harm or death.

Fourth, God's order to turn left at the corridor proved critical. No one realized the impact had jarred the building so hard that the structure shifted, causing many doors along the outer perimeter to jam. Some Pentagon employees who turned right and ran for the outer perimeter found themselves trapped and lost their lives in the fires and explosions that ripped through that section of the building.

Fifth, when the smoke door trapped us in the corridor, God sent the mysterious man who opened the bay door that led the way to safety. As we stood in the Pentagon parking lot, watching the rescue teams in action, someone asked if anyone knew the man who played such an important role in our escape. Like me, no one recognized him. He was in a secure bay, and only personnel with special identification badges can gain access. We work with the people in that bay regularly and felt certain this man wasn't employed there. To this day, no one can verify his identity. I can only assume he was an angel sent by God to provide a way of escape.

One hundred twenty-five Pentagon employees died September 11, 2001, and my division lost half its staff to death or injury. I could have been among that number, but God chose to lead me safely away from danger. Many times I've asked myself, Why did he save me and not others? Nearly three years have passed, and I still don't have answers.

In the weeks following the incident, I struggled with the sorrow of losing so many coworkers, but at the same time, I recognized death is an inescapable part of life. Where, when, and how we leave this earth is God's decision. The Lord is completely just in his actions, and I trust in his unfailing love. I believe his hand was upon the survivors, leading them to safety. And for those whose time had come, I'm certain he was there to comfort them. My faith in Christ helped me to deal with the tragedy and gave me strength to move forward.

Because I survived, I'm certain God still has work for me to do. And knowing he saved me for a purpose only increases my determination to do all I can for him while I live. Life is a gift, one I'll use to bring him glory.

Thankfully, days such as 9/11 are rare, but the lessons we learn from them remain. God never promised that when we serve him, our lives will be free from trouble, pain, or sorrow. But he did promise never to leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Those who put their trust in him have this hope: No matter what happens, God is always with us.

Linda Herbert received a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and continues to serve her country as an Army officer. Linda also shares her testimony with churches and organizations.

Lisa Tuttle, a freelance writer and author, lives in Indiana with her husband and three children. You can visit her website at www.lisatuttle.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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