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Pentagon survivor comes to Whidbey

On a warm, sunny morning that had already seen enough tragedy, a young woman sat at a computer terminal doing her job and chatting with two friends and co-workers.

An instant later, life changed radically for Sarah Cole and her two friends, and life ended for others close to them.

The lights flickered, then went dark. The ceiling came crashing down. Cole was propelled with incredible force through a wall and before the series of events even had time to register in her brain, she was outside the Pentagon while it continued to collapse and burn. Explosions caused by fuel from the American Airlines passenger jet that terrorists hijacked and purposefully aimed at the Pentagon, continued to rock the area.

The date was Sept. 11, 2001.

Cole is a U.S. Navy Intelligence Specialist petty officer third class and she was on the job at the Pentagon, gathering information on the terrorist attacks that had occurred earlier that morning at the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City.

She was wounded, but remained at the Pentagon throughout the day helping rescue workers trying to save other military members and civilians who had been buried and burned inside the rubble of the U.S. Department of Defense headquarters.

Cole is now stationed with VAQ-143 at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

The 21-year-old woman from Kansas City, Kan., is the recipient of the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, a result of her injuries and her service at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Cole recounted her experience recently, eloquently and professionally, dressed in her working white uniform adorned with ribbons reserved only for military heroes.

Yet, she says she was just doing her job.

“As intelligence specialists, we were responsible for assisting in intelligence collection to provide information to the senior leadership, like the Chief of Naval Operations, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of Naval Intelligence,” Cole said. “So they can execute orders and so that they can maintain the fleet.”

That’s exactly what Cole was doing when the airplane hit the Pentagon. The staff was already aware of the two planes hitting the towers in New York, so they had swung into action to gather intelligence on the attacks in order that the intelligence officers could prepare a briefing for the brass. Cole left her own desk to use a computer at another work station.

“Actually I was sitting at a different computer,” Cole said. “If I had been sitting at my own computer I would have been crushed.”

For the first instant, Cole didn’t realize that something was terribly wrong. She attributed the initial flickering of the lights to a power problem the newly remodeled offices had been experiencing.

“I remember the lights flickering and I thought it was just an electrical problem,” Cole said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh great. What’s wrong now?’ I was about to say it and that thought ... wasn’t even able to come from my head to my mouth before I saw the lights go completely off and the ceiling start to collapse.”

The force of the collision came from behind where Cole was sitting, through her boss’s office.

“After that everything went dark and we were being pushed forward. And I remember immediately seeing daylight and it didn’t register at first that I was already outside. I had been blown outside,” Cole said.

While it was happening, Cole said various thoughts raced through her mind. Most of those thoughts alternated between thinking she was going to die and realizing she was still alive, said the single mother whose daughter was just five months old at the time.

“She was the very first thing I thought of when it was all happening,” Cole said of her baby. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t die now because I have her to take care of.’ ”

Cole and one coworker landed in the open air area between the “C” and “D” rings of the Pentagon.

“My friend and I were the first two from our area ... that were outside,” Cole said.

Cole and her friend immediately began to look for other coworkers, and a few others trickled out of the debris.

Cole suffered a large gash on her shoulder, cuts and bruises, and she was hit on the head with falling debris. She was able to get a message to her parents in Kansas City later in the day, letting them know that she was all right.

Only six people from Cole’s department made it out of the building alive.

An unusual turn of events had Cole’s boss’s office crammed with people.

“They were having a meeting in his office. It was a different room in our space than usual because someone else was using the normal meeting room. So, they were all in his office having a meeting after the brief,” Cole said. “They were all killed.”

Four Navy officers and three civilians that Cole had worked with had perished, including the officer in charge, the assistant officer in charge, two briefers, a senior Naval analyst, a coordinator and a White House intern who had been working in the intelligence-gathering department for just a few weeks.

Cole and her friends got about 15 people out of the building, including a group of Army soldiers who had been trapped on the second floor.

“I stayed at the Pentagon most of the day, helping out,” Cole said. “That’s what the military is for. When we’re attacked we’re supposed to react, not just go home.”

Cole worked through fear and anxiety, and the uncertainty of what would come next.

“We helped set up tents and deliver food to the workers. We already had rubber gloves passed out to help pull dead bodies out of the building,” Cole said.

For that, Cole needed to prepare herself.

“I remember I had to sit down when I thought the time was coming closer to that ... I didn’t want to see anybody I knew, I think that was the main thing. I wanted to do anything to help because ... our country had been attacked and it’s our job to protect and defend it,” Cole said.

It is that kind of duty-minded thinking that earned Cole the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, given for exceptional service. Cole received the award, along with the Purple Heart, on April 24. It was an experience she will never forget.

“The Vice Chief of Naval Operations presented that to me. And, he talked to the crowd a little bit about what I did on Sept. 11 and I was the only one he spoke for. And, he pinned my awards on me and he said, ‘It is an honor to decorate you today.’ I’ll remember that,” Cole said.

Cole was one of four survivors of the Pentagon attack who was awarded the Purple Heart for her injuries sustained during enemy attack.

Cole’s physical injuries healed and the Navy provided counseling to help her overcome the emotional trauma. She is, however, forever changed.

“Honor, courage and commitment means so much more. Being in the Navy really means something ... after that. It’s more than just coming to work every day. It’s really serving the country,” Cole said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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