9/11 at the Pentagon: Stepping into the breach

In the late summer of 2001, the Army's Information Management Support Center was moving to new offices. Neal Shelley, the center’s deputy director, had already moved to the new site on the opposite side of the Pentagon to manage the transition.

While the center was split between locations, each day began with a meeting with Shelley, Director Michael Selves and others to go over the plans for the day.

And so it was on the morning of Sept. 11. Shelley was still limping from recent knee surgery, and the walk from his office to Selves’ office on the other side of the Pentagon took effort. But he made the trip, as he always did.

“My last memory of Mike Selves was of him standing silhouetted in the window,” Shelley recalled. “I asked him what he had to do that day, and he said he had a lot of paperwork. The plane hit was right there at his office."

Back in his own office, Shelley learned of the attacks in New York when the wife of one of his staff members called to talk to her husband about them. Shelley's team was still catching up on the news when the third plane crashed into the Pentagon.

“Someone who had been moving a copy machine from the old location to the new location came running in shouting that a bomb had hit the Pentagon,” he said. “We thought maybe something was wrong with him. He grabbed all his personal belongings and left."

Soon, security personnel ordered the building evacuated, and Shelley went to the designated rendezvous point near Macy’s at the Pentagon City shopping mall. Many of his co-workers were not there. Shelley wanted to account for his team, but phone service was spotty.

“I left one of the division chiefs at Macy’s to identify all the people he could locate, and I started walking around the Pentagon,” he said.

Still hobbling on his weakened leg, he walked through Arlington Cemetery and found a few more of the center’s staff. But by evening, there were still about 15 people unaccounted for.

He remembered turning a corner at the Pentagon and seeing the damage for the first time. “That was the first I knew that the plane had hit our offices,” he said. “At that point, you’re wondering who was there, had anybody gotten out. You just don’t know. That’s a horrible, horrible feeling.”

In the final tally, he said six of the center’s employees died in the attack and nine more were injured.

That night, Shelley began assembling things that he thought might be useful the next day, including breathing masks and plastic sheeting to protect computers from water. By 5 a.m. the next day, he was back at the Pentagon to start recovery operations. With Selves missing, Shelley began developing plans to restore the center’s functions as quickly as possible. He started by sending people into the damaged areas in teams of two because “we didn’t know what was in [there] except for smoke and darkness.”

During the next few days, Shelley’s team salvaged servers and other equipment from the damaged offices. On the undamaged side, they repurposed test beds to take over for servers that had been destroyed. More than 120 people were using a room that had been designed for 20, he said.

“Within about 96 hours, we had basic services available for anybody who could get to them,” he said. “At least a third of the building was affected by smoke, fire, water or loss of electricity.”

Meanwhile, the Friday after the attacks, Defense Department officials decided to move displaced personnel to other nearby buildings. Shelley’s orders were to have the Taylor Building in Crystal City, Va., ready by Monday morning.

“By Monday morning, we had an assembly line set up where customers who had been displaced would sign in,” he said. “They would be issued a computer and get their seating instructions,” with technicians standing by to get them set up.

The crew — federal employees and contractors alike — made no complaints about the working conditions, he said. “They would work for 12 to 18 hours a day, go home to sleep and come right back,” he said. “Nobody asked for overtime pay. Nobody asked for anything. It was a community coming together.”

Shelley, who today is civilian deputy for the Army’s data center consolidation program, said the 27 years he spent in the Army, including his service during the Vietnam War, prepared him for the events of Sept. 11.

“When I had to respond, I was able to fall back on the training the Army had given me” — training civilians don’t have, he said. “There’s a difference between command and management.”

But he offered some advice for managers and commanders alike: During a disaster, keep a “war diary” to record events and the decisions you make.

“People get praise [for leadership] in the first 60 to 90 days,” he said. “But eventually, people start to [ask] why did you do that? Why did you make what in retrospect may not seem to be the best choice?”

In rapidly unfolding situations, leaders often have to make decisions quickly based on partial or uncertain information. Decisions that seem bad in hindsight might have been the best choice at the time based on the information available. A diary would document that.

The attacks changed Shelley's life in profound ways, he said. He lost not just a boss but a best friend in Selves. And then there were the others who died.

“I had to go to a lot of funerals. I went to all six of the funerals for our people,” he said. “You have the role of doing the job, and you have the role of leader. Going to funerals became a part of the job, and it’s a hard part of the job.”

The difficulty, however, doesn’t overshadow the importance. For Shelley, remembering the co-workers who perished is a sacred task.

“To this day, when someone says, ‘Bow your heads and pray,’ I run over the names of the six people in my mind, to remember them,” he said. “The [ancient] Egyptians believed that as long as you’re remembered, you’re alive.”

Read more of Remembering Sept. 11: Disaster and response.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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Wed, Sep 7, 2011

Thank you for writing this article. It touched me.

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