It started out like many days for Aaron Cooper, who is now a budget analyst at Joint Base Anacostia Boilling Air Force base in D.C., told the AFRO about how he remembers Sept. 11, 2001.
At the time, Cooper, who worked for the Department of Defense as a budget analyst was sitting in an office on the first floor of the Pentagon along with his co-workers. He said word reached them that a plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
“A group of us was sitting in my boss’s office watching the monitor,” Cooper, now 62, told the AFRO. “Everybody was looking at it…we saw the second plane hit. And [we] began to wonder if the U. S. was under attack.”
What they didn’t know was that another hijacked plane was heading their way.
Cooper had just walked back to his desk when that third jet, loaded with 125 passengers, barreled into the Pentagon. It was 9:40 a.m.
“I just literally had just put my hand on the keyboard…and that’s when everything happened,” he said. “The plane came in where I was sitting watching the monitor.
“The first thing you heard was the building; [then] you felt the building shake and the lights and everything flashing on and off. The next thing was the fire…smoke…I could see the fire stuff come into the room, and the air pressure…it just got hot instantly. The force of the wind blew me backwards; it just literally obliterated the office,” Cooper said.
He said thick black smoke churned through the corridors, wires dangled from the ceilings and large chunks of debris blocked passageways.
Survivors in that section of the building scrambled to get out and Cooper was among them.
“I can remember climbing, [and] this little voice whispered, which I believed was the Lord, telling me to turn around start climbing and head towards the door. As I climbed and got over things I could see daylight in the haze and made my way out through that.”
Cooper said that after he got out of the office, he ran into two co-workers who also managed to get out of the office. But instead of running out of the building, they decided to go back in the office area to help others.
“We figured there were people still in there. We tried, but it was just too much smoke and it was too hot to get back in there,” he said. Even so, the trio tried two more times to get back in the office area.
Once outside, Cooper said he saw dozens of people scrambling. He said he saw the gaping hole in the building. It was then that he realized an airplane crashed into the building.
With his clothing was torn and his face covered with soot, paramedics moved in and took him to a holding area until they could get him to a hospital.
He said he remembers seeing his supervisor whisked by on a stretcher. Cooper was eventually taken with others to an urgent care center in Pentagon City. “The medical personnel were ready when we got there,” he said.
Cooper, who grew up in Arlington, Va., was able to make the walk to his parent’s house. He says he was surprised to see his mom sitting on the stoop waiting as if she knew he was on his way.
“I just said, mama, I’m alright, I’m alright. I may look a little raggedy here, but I’m fine,” he told his mother as she hugged him.
“I got in the house and my father is sitting there, [he] was a World War II Marine. I had never seen my father like that, never, and very seldom had I seen my mother emotional, but they both were, so I just said, I’m fine, I’m here everything is alright,” Cooper said. He said they just sat down together for a while in the quiet of the house.
Later that night, Cooper’s brother drove him back to his home in Upper Marlboro, Md. “Of course my wife is there and two children. We just hugged as a family, and were happy that I was there,” he said.
A week after 9/11, Cooper was back at the Pentagon to attend a meeting. He said he was determined not to let fear keep him away.
“I don’t know that you could ever say that things got back to normal, because when you go through a traumatic experience, to me, it’s not like you can say, okay that’s old, it’s done. You just say this is something I got to live with and then you develop coping mechanisms to live with it,” he said.
Of the 125 people who were killed on the ground at the Pentagon, seven of them worked directly with Cooper.
“When I reflect back, the ones who were sitting in that room with me, it was like a line was drawn down the office. If you were on the side I was on, you survived. If you were on the other side, you didn’t make it,” he said.