As we approach the 20th anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil, we are reminded of the string of tragedies that occurred that day. Four hijacked planes. Two imploding skyscrapers. The home of the most powerful army on earth went up in flames.
Nearly 3,000 people died that day in plane crashes, collapsing buildings and desperate leaps from burning buildings. Still, such disasters tend to leave only a few people standing out as unlikely survivors.
Though significantly shorter than the Twin Towers, the U.S Pentagon is actually the world’s largest office building. Key to this distinction is its thickness: the building comprises five concentric rings – a girth-over-height emphasis that, considering the WTC’s complete collapse, certainly saved lives that day.
Something else saved lives, too: American Airlines Flight 77 impacted the Pentagon’s west side, which was undergoing construction and was emptier than usual. Still, 184 Pentagon personnel died. Their fates were, unsurprisingly, highly dependent on what ring they occupied. Many staff in the outermost circle, E Ring, simply didn’t have a chance; for example, of the 40 workers at the Program, Budget and Managerial Accounting divisions, just six survived. Of these, Sheila Moody was likely the luckiest.
At 9:37am, Moody heard a “whistling sound…. then a rumble, and a large gush of air and a fireball came into the office and just blew everything… and knocked us over.” Though the path to safety – the gaping hole created by the plane – was just yards away, Moody couldn’t see it through the thick smoke. She tried to call out for help – then realized she couldn’t breathe, let alone yell. Overcome, she began to black out.
“So,” Moody recalls, “I started clapping my hands.”
Her rescuer, Staff Sergeant Chris Brahman, extinguished the flames between them and carried her out. Moody was hospitalized for burns throughout her body – including her life-saving hands.