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Lackland flight chief remembers personal experience with 9/11

  • Published
  • By Meredith Canales
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs
Sharon Witter walks in and out of the Airman and Family Readiness Flight building every day, passing hundreds of people in any given month and interacting with many of them. Few people know she was at the center of one of the terrorist attacks that will forever mark the date of Sept. 11, 2001.

And she's wanted to keep it that way until now.

"I don't like it to be publicized. I don't bring it up very often," said Ms. Witter, sitting in her office and looking over her shoulder at an 8x10 frame holding a blue sheet of paper with a signature scrawled across the bottom. "I just hung that up the other day. I dug it out of my garage. Maybe it's time."

The nondescript blue piece of paper is a commendation from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Seven years later, it's obviously still difficult for Ms. Witter to talk about the events immediately surrounding a hijacked plane flying directly into the wing of the Pentagon where she worked. Her green eyes have a haunted look as she describes events leading up to the attack.

"I was in the Pentagon Annex of the Airman and Family Readiness Flight, and there were only three of us in the office. Just a few months before, we had moved out of a smaller office and into a new refurbished office," she said, closing her eyes every few seconds, as though blinking through the pain of her memories.

"It's funny the details that stick out in your mind about this kind of thing. I was sitting at my desk with a manual, a binder, open. I'd had one appointment that morning, and I was about to leave to go buy art for the new office. I figured I'd use the bathroom and then gather up and leave to go to the museum."

As Ms. Witter was coming back from the bathroom, someone stepped out of the adjoining office and told her to come look at the television. She said when she saw first twin tower hit by a plane, she thought it was an accident. After spending a few minutes in the office, though, the second plane hit. By then, she said, no one still thought it was an accident.

That's when it happened.

"We were just watching it and I heard a loud noise and fell forward," she said, gesturing with her hands. "I looked behind me and realized no one had pushed me."

What she felt, she found out later, was the impact of the plane as it hit the building.

"They were renovating at the time, and I thought it was some kind of (electrical or construction) accident," she said. "It never occurred to me, to any of us, to put two and two together and think this was part of what was happening in New York."

As Ms. Witter and her colleagues headed out into the hall, smoke was present in several parts of the building.

As they made their way out of the Pentagon, Ms. Witter said she witnessed mass confusion and pandemonium. By the time they made it outside, the FBI had already arrived, and the crowd was being pushed back toward the Potomac River.

"It doesn't seem like that long now, but our cell phones didn't work for an hour," she said. "My youngest daughter was in school, in the 3rd grade, and my older daughter was stationed at Randolph AFB. I couldn't get through to call them. People were panicking. Then, they announced to us that another plane was headed our way. 

"That was when it really sunk in, what was happening, and I had kind of a final moment of what really matters in life."

Ms. Witter said it was then that she knew her life might end. The plane had hit her wedge of the Pentagon.

"I just kind of closed my eyes and said, 'Go ahead. Hit me.' I realized my family was what really mattered," she said. "Then I heard a plane coming, and I opened my eyes. I was so relieved to see it was an F-16. In that moment, I felt safe. I felt protected."

The spooky thing about the attack, for Ms. Witter, was the location the plane hit.
"The nose of the plane hit directly in the office we'd just moved out of. If we'd have been in there, we'd be gone," she said.

In the days and weeks after the attack, Ms. Witter had to go back several times to gather up her office belongings and to get her car, which had been impounded with the rest of the vehicles parked at the Pentagon.

"It looked like a war zone," she said. "It was what I imagined war would feel like. You kind of feel like you're in a movie, like it's not entirely real."

In the month following the devastating ordeal, Ms. Witter helped set up and run the Pentagon Family Assistance Center at the Sheraton Hotel across the street from the Pentagon. Though it was difficult work emotionally, she said, it was something hands-on that she could do to make a difference.

"I look back at that defining moment. That moment that they said the second plane was coming," she said. "That morning started out beautifully. The sky was blue and the weather was pretty. But it turned into something horrible. It kind of makes you realize how vulnerable you are. It also makes you realize what's really important."

This will be the first year Ms. Witter does not return to Washington, D.C., for the anniversary of Sept. 11.

"One of my colleagues that went through this with me and I usually get together on the 11th. Nothing fancy. Just to be together," she said. "My schedule's so booked this year I couldn't make it. Who knows, maybe I won't like it. It's just an experiment. Maybe next year I'll go back."