People with local ties give first-hand accounts of attacks

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 

Pentagon employees Floyd and Rhonda Rasmussen talked about skipping work in the morning, but she had an important briefing scheduled.

So they went to work, where Rhonda’s office wound up right in the path of a hijacked airliner.

“It ran over her desk,” Floyd said.

Floyd Rasmussen is among several current or former Clark County residents who went to work 10 years ago in Washington, D.C., and New York City and became part of 9/11.

Yvette Brown-Wahler was a Navy commander working in the Pentagon.

Brian Baird was in his congressional office near the Capitol.

Lawson Fite was walking from his Twin Towers subway stop.

They tell us how Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded for them.

Lawson Fite boarded his New York City subway about six minutes before the world changed.

Fite, a 1996 graduate of Hudson’s Bay High School, caught the subway at 8:40 a.m. and started to read a spy novel as his train headed for the mall below the World Trade Center.

His first hint that something had happened was the scream of sirens coming from the street above him.

“I had never heard so many at once,” said Fite, and they all were racing toward the World Trade Center. He remembered the 1993 attack, when terrorists tried to bring down the World Trade Center with a truck bomb.

“It would have been really weird to be present at that attack,” Fite told himself.

“Weird” doesn’t begin to describe the scene when Fite walked up a stairway and onto the street. More accurately, he tried to walk up the stairway. It was a slow-motion march: Go up one step and wait; go up one step and wait.

“In New York, you move quickly. If there is a backup on the subway, peoples’ natural reaction is to get irritated: ‘What’s going on?’ As I got closer to the top of the stairs, I still could not see out. However, I started to hear people reaching the top of the stairs and, one by one, saying “Oh, ----!’ Now I was wondering what the hell was going on.

“When I reached the top of the stairs, all I could say was ‘Oh, ----!’”

Hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. — six minutes after Fite had boarded the subway. The tower was in flames right in front of him. The fire roared with the sound a fireplace makes when it has a good draw, Fite said.

“I saw paper floating everywhere like confetti. It was in bunches, apparently being blown around by the currents of the fire,” Fite said.

People soon were watching those images of destruction on their television screens, although the cause of the disaster wasn’t clear.

“At first, it seemed like an accident,” said then-Congressman Baird, who was in his office in Washington, D.C.

Then, at 9:03 a.m., hijackers flew another jetliner into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Fite realized he wouldn’t be working on this day and set out on a 4½-mile hike back to his apartment.

“I heard people yell out that people were jumping from the towers. I willed myself not to look,” Fite said.

‘A terrorist attack’

“When the second plane hit, it was evident that it was a terrorist attack,” said Baird, who was the representative from Southwest Washington’s 3rd District.

The Democrat from Vancouver immediately called his wife, Rachel Nugent, who worked at the National Institutes of Health.

“She was scheduled to have a meeting at the State Department. I said, ‘I prefer you not go.’”

If terrorists were plotting a series of attacks, the State Department might be a high-priority target, figured Baird, who now lives in the Puget Sound area.

“She was skeptical.”

Baird said he then called his staff together.

“We were on the seventh floor of the Longworth House Office Building, with a direct view of the Pentagon and the National Airport from the southwest corner. I told a staffer who worked at the window, ‘Keep your eyes peeled.’”

Then they discussed what to do if they saw an explosion: “The women would evacuate and the men would notify others in the building.”

A few minutes later, Baird said, “Something exploded. I ran to the window and saw an enormous fireball from the direction of the Pentagon.”

That fireball killed Rhonda Rasmussen, a civilian Army budget analyst, before her husband was able to grasp what had happened.

“There was an explosion, the building shook and metal shards were flying through the air,” recalled Floyd Rasmussen, an administrator in charge of building operations.

“The mail department was below us,” Rasmussen said, “and the first thing I thought was that it had been a mail bomb.”

It was American Airlines Flight 77. According to a U.S. Navy account of the attack, the Boeing 757 was traveling at 530 mph when it hit the building at 9:37 a.m.

“The plane hit the segment where my wife sat,” Rasmussen said during a recent interview in the Salmon Creek home he shares with Brenda, his wife of nine years. “All 33 people (who worked) in Rhonda’s office died except one; she was out on a medical appointment.”

Echoes of war

Yvette Brown-Wahler, who had fired more than 40 Navy cruise missiles during the 1999 Kosovo conflict, knew the sound of exploding ordnance. When the jetliner hit the building, “It sounded like a bomb going off,” said Brown-Wahler, who was working for the deputy assistant secretary for military personnel.

“An Air Force colonel also had been in combat. We got everybody up, and we stayed until we had to evacuate,” Brown-Wahler said.

There was a lot of that going on. As the women in Baird’s office left the building, he said, Capitol police officers asked where they were all going. When the women said they were evacuating because of the explosion at the Pentagon, an officer said: “We have no report.”

“We’ve seen it,” one of the women replied.

Where are our kids?

Baird and Brown-Wahler, who both lived about a mile from their offices, started walking home. However, she quickly found herself in an impromptu family-assistance role.

“I was in uniform, with my ID badge, and when I got to a corner, two women were waiting there. One had an empty stroller.”

The woman asked Brown-Wahler: “Can you tell me how to get to the Pentagon child-care center?” The other woman also was trying to get to her children.

“I walked them through the Virginia state troopers, through the soldiers,” Brown-Wahler said. They walked around the sprawling Pentagon campus to a park where the child-care center was supposed to be set up.

“We got to the park: no kids. We finally found them at a spot near the Potomac River, and I made the trek all the way back,” Brown-Wahler said.

When Baird and his staffers reached his house, “We turned on the TV and there was rumor that truck bombs had gone off at the State Department.” That’s where his wife was scheduled to have her meeting.

“Those were some pretty anxious moments,” Baird said.

Cell phone networks were jammed, and it took four or five hours before Baird could contact Nugent.

“The National Institutes of Health had evacuated, and she’d gone to a colleague’s house,” Baird said. But for a few hours, “There was a possibility my wife had been killed, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.”

That was the reality for thousands of families in New York and Washington that day, Baird said.

Floyd Rasmussen said he called all the hospitals in the area to see if Rhonda had been admitted.

“Nobody matched her name or description,” he said.

A TV news report chilled any prospect of seeing Rhonda again. When the TV screen showed the jetliner’s impact point, “I knew there would be no remains,” he said.

She was one of five Pentagon victims who died without leaving identifiable remains.

That process became part of Brown-Wahler’s life for the next few weeks. Her impromptu family-assistance role on Sept. 11 became a formal job the following day when she became deputy director of the Pentagon Family Assistance Center.

Find her lipstick

There were meetings with family members for the next 30 days, as well as daily briefings.

The Vancouver woman has three steno-style notebooks she filled during those meetings and briefings. On a page near the front of the first notebook, she wrote the letters “DNA.” Military forensic officials wanted help identifying some of the victims.

Blood and DNA samples were already on file for military service personnel. But victims of the attack included civilian Pentagon employees, as well as crew members and passengers on Flight 77.

“We asked if family members could provide a toothbrush or a hairbrush,” Brown-Wahler said.

The Rasmussen family was part of that effort.

“Toothbrush; hairbrush,” Rasmussen said. “Lipstick and ChapStick: anything that might pick up enough skin to provide a DNA sample. They took a blood sample from our daughter.”

It could be a grim process, Brown-Wahler said.

“There was an 11-year-old child on the plane. His dad was a Navy chief,” she said. “When they identified his son, the only thing left was a piece of his jaw.”

Family members also had to deal with some practical matters. One woman whose husband was killed had never written a check in her life.

Officials and agencies helped out on major issues like death certificates and Social Security benefits as well as food stamps and Metro transit passes.

What if ... ?

Fite, Baird, Brown-Wahler and Rasmussen all know that things might have turned out differently that day.

“We know now a second plane was heading our way,” said Baird, referring to United Flight 93. Passengers brought the plane down at 10:03 a.m. near Shanksville, Pa., before terrorists were able to make a second strike on Washington, D.C.

Brown-Wahler said one of their briefings included an FBI analysis of the attack. The target point was supposed to be the south wall, on her side of the Pentagon, she said.

“The FBI explained that the plane was at maximum speed at the lowest possible elevation, and the pilot lost control,” she said. “Instead of hitting my side, it hit the adjoining side. If it had gone as planned, I would be dead.”

Just before the crash, Floyd Rasmussen left a meeting and headed back to his office. He came to a corridor. He thought about turning one way so he could drop by Rhonda’s office; but he needed to get to work, so he turned the other way, toward his desk. That decision saved his life.

Fite said that he was still trying to get to his office at the American Express Building when “an NYPD officer told me to ‘Go that way,’ pointing away from the World Trade Center. He may have saved my life.”

His usual route might have taken him through a plaza that was an impact zone for falling debris ... and the bodies of people who’d jumped from the burning building.

An alternate route would have taken him near Tower 2 when it was hit.

‘World was changing’

As 9/11 unfolded, Baird recalls that “There was an awareness that the entire world was changing at that moment. Our nation would almost certainly be going to war.”

Fite said American Express brought in people to help its Manhattan employees deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Many folks I worked with were in the American Express Building when everything went down, and they had a front-row seat,” Fite said. One of them had been eating breakfast when the first tower was hit.

“Eating breakfast nauseated her for the next seven months.”

Fite eventually changed career paths. He graduated from Harvard Law School, worked for the Department of Justice, and is scheduled to start a new job Tuesday with a Portland law firm. But every Sept. 11 is another occasion to bring back 9/11 memories — particularly when video footage is shown.

“I think the footage gets used a little too promiscuously some times,” he said.

Those issues of PTSD and the graphic images of 9/11 violence eventually caught up with Brown-Wahler.

She’d been executive officer on a guided-missile destroyer earlier in her career, and was tabbed late in 2001 to command another destroyer, the USS Chafee. She was only the third woman chosen to command a U.S. Navy warship.

Brown-Wahler said she was in command training when the stress caught up with her. Part of it was that video.

“They kept showing 9/11 video over and over” to motivate the officers, she said.

There were other issues in her life, she said, but Brown-Wahler said she didn’t want her 9/11 experiences to undercut her Navy career opportunities. Particularly, she said, when “a couple of guys in my class got medals for dragging people out” of the Pentagon.

‘It broke my heart’

The Rasmussens also had been looking at career transitions. They had been selected for new jobs in the San Francisco area.

That’s why they had talked the previous day about skipping work on Sept. 11.

“We were supposed to depart on Sept. 12,” he said.

“I thought about staying home and planning the trip,” Floyd said, but Rhonda had to be at that budget briefing.

Rasmussen said he had served in Vietnam with a lot of close friends, and nobody he knew was killed in the war.

But the woman he’d been devoted to for 27 years was in a secure government building when he saw her for the last time, he said.

“I glanced over my shoulder and she was walking down a corridor. She was wearing a blue floral-print dress,” Rasmussen said.

“It broke my heart.”

He did move to California for that new job, about three months after 9/11.

During a cross-country phone call that was part of transfer, one of his West Coast contacts asked Floyd how Rhonda was doing.

It was a short reply. Rasmussen said, “She’s dead.”