Stay Tuned: Remembering Sept. 11 on ‘9/11 Inside the Pentagon’
This September marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and PBS documentary “9/11 Inside the Pentagon” explores the lesser known tragedy of that day with first person accounts and rarely seen footage of the damage to the military heart of the nation. In the film, survivors, witnesses and first responders tell stories of heroism and resilience. Their experiences are a solemn and hopeful reminder of what the human spirit is capable of when faced with the unimaginable.
The attack that crashed American Airlines flight 77 into the nation’s military headquarters killed 184 people inside the Pentagon and on board the flight. Two of the survivors, Captain William J. Toti (U.S. Navy, retired) and Marilyn Wills (U.S. Army, retired) provide first person accounts of what it was like inside the Pentagon when the plane hit. Wills, attending a meeting at the time of the attack, crawled through smoke and jet fuel in the pitch black, leading a group of coworkers in search of an exit. She made it to a window, only to find that it was blast-proof. Her recollections are vivid, she describes a young officer throwing a printer against the window only to have it bounce back in her lap, but what stands out is her leadership and her selflessness. What she recalls most is feeling that she had let down those who followed her.
First responders, an air traffic controller and the Pentagon’s assistant building operations manager also offer their accounts of that morning and discuss the obstacles they overcame. Unlike those in New York City, those in the Pentagon were not completely taken by surprise. They followed the news and understood that they were a likely target as unaccounted for flights would focus on strategic and symbolic sites. It’s a shocking realization to contemplate and one that makes their response all the more admirable. The National Military Command Center remained operational throughout the attack and the Pentagon, as Wills notes, was open for business that day and the next.
If the documentary has a central theme it is perseverance. No one who is interviewed gave up or walked away. Wills only jumps to safety after she is ordered to do so because she doesn’t want to leave potential survivors behind. Her response is a military ethos but it’s also a testament to her character and one that’s hard to dismiss.
The documentary’s behind the scenes footage of the extensive damage, not seen previously, contributes to the historical record but, as with all good documentaries, it is the personal accounts that have the most impact. While there are many heroic stories from the terrible events of Sept. 11, those at the Pentagon have rarely been told and the film does a service to those who both survived and perished there.
“9/11 Inside the Pentagon” airs Tuesday, Sept. 6 at 8:00 p.m. EDT on PBS.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.