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Two minutes from death: Central grad saw plane hit Pentagon

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Dennis Clem, a Department of Defense employee stationed at the Pentagon in 2001, reflects on seeing the Boeing 757 strike the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

In 10 years, details of tragedy do not vanish. They embed themselves in the brain. They can make for an unbelievable story.

Ultimately, and unfortunately, they lead to the never-known, too-often-asked, "Why me?"

It's in the details that Dennis Clem can lose himself and gain the ears of anyone. It's in them that he relays how he saw the imminent death of more than 100 people, many of them acquaintances, and had no idea more were to be lost as well.

A Department of Defense employee stationed at the Pentagon since 1980, Clem was in the parking lot on Sept. 11, 2001, when an American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed into the building.

A long-standing interest in flying led him to take lessons to become a pilot, and while he was still in the process of achieving the goal that day, he didn't need to be licensed to understand what he was about to see moments before it happened.

"I remember everything about that plane," said Clem, a 1969 graduate of Central High School now retired and living near Alexandria.

The landing gear was up. The flaps were not extended as if the plane were coming in for the runway at nearby Reagan National Airport. Speed was increasing.

"He was like a kamikaze pilot at that point," Clem said. "I have an image of that plane I could never forget. It's as clear to me today."

The hijacked planes that struck the Pentagon, World Trade Center and a remote Pennsylvania field left the nation in mourning. Few had such an intimate view of any of the impending destruction, especially in Washington, as Clem did. He counts himself lucky to have been a witness and not among the more than 100 victims in the Pentagon.

About two minutes earlier, Clem was in the part of the building that was hit. A small gathering of people in the room, including a man who was supposed to ride with Clem to a meeting in Alexandria, died. Clem, unlike that man, whom he remembers as Chuck, had elected to proceed to the meeting -- he had more than 30 people waiting for him -- instead of watching television coverage of the World Trade Center crashes.

Clem later timed his walk from that office to his car to be two minutes. He wanted to know how close he was to death.

"That was not a measure I was comfortable with," he said.

Clem estimates that he was 350 feet from where the plane entered the Pentagon. Focused on the plane's wings and landing gear, and having been told that the New York incident appeared to not be an accident, he thought terrorists had stolen empty planes to fly into buildings. Clem never saw that there were passengers.

A fireball twice the size of the building went into the sky, and the intense heat prevented him from getting any closer than about 40 feet away. Traffic along Interstate 395 and Va. 27, the two main roads around the Pentagon, came to a halt.

"For the first five minutes," Clem said, "there was an eerie silence like I never experienced."

People began emerging from the Pentagon and, despite high tension, there was a sense of calm, he said. That changed when police announced that another plane was bound for the building.

In 2001, about 23,000 people worked at the Pentagon, Clem said. The panic that resulted from the police announcement caused a rush. Fortunately, no further harm occurred -- that second plane was the one that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania.

Clem's employees inside were adjacent to the plane's path, not directly in line, so he lost fewer than 10. He talks a lot about the flight path -- in another part of the building, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom he later worked for, and other "big dogs" in leadership could be found -- and how the terrorists, despite the damage done, actually failed that day.

"Two years of planning and they didn't even know which side of the building to hit," Clem said. "That's how stupid these guys were."

The American resolve following the attacks kept the country going. Without his position in the Department of Defense, Clem said he would have struggled coping.

"I was able to turn right around," he said. "I focused my time and effort on doing something about it. That occupied my time. I didn't have time to sit around ... and feel sorry for myself.

"I'm proud that I was able to take my education to apply it to protecting this country."
Growing up in Hamburg, near Edinburg, in Shenandoah County, Clem's family was poor.

He borrowed money to pay his way to Virginia Tech, where he approached a counselor his freshman year to find out how, after all those years of living without money, he could alter his fortunes. He was directed to computer science and was a member of the second graduating class to earn degrees in it. In 1973, Clem started to work in Washington.

Since Sept. 11, he said he has not needed any psychiatric treatment, and the image of the plane hitting his workplace has caused no nightmares.

A memorial at the Pentagon of the victims gave him pause, however. For example, Chuck, the man who was supposed to ride with Clem to the meeting, had a wife and daughters. Clem has divorced since Sept. 11 and has no children.

He said he became absorbed with the memorial, reading about those lost and thinking it would have been so much easier for him, a single man, to die than for a family to be left without someone they depend on.

"Each time I went down there, I spent less time because I got so emotional," Clem said. "I wish I never read that damn thing."

In 10 years, details of tragedy do not vanish.


An unbelievable story indeed! Not many "witnesses" actually saw a "plane" hit the Pentagon that day.

Please tell us your version of what hit the Pentagon, and don't leave anything out.

Dennis Clem's first hand account of 9/11 held me spellbound. So many people were affected by that horrible attack. It reminds me of the day John Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas. We (who are old enough) all know where we were when we got the announcement that our president had been shot. Such horror united most of us, as Americans, and so did 9/11. One would have to be heartless not to be moved by the hellish pain and sorrow inflicted upon our fellow Americans, as well as others, either directly or indirectly: we will never be the same country again. I'll be watching the TV coverage on 9/11 like millions of others remembering and hoping nothing this tragic ever happens again.

I watched most of the news events of 9/11 Sunday and recalled the sorrow and loss of that terrible day. What struck me the most was the Bird's-eye view of the memorial in N.Y. City.

I know I will catch a lot of flak for this, but truely, I mean no disrespect to any souls lost there. While looking at those two square holes I felt that we gave the terrorist a memorial also. Which I hate. We gave them just what they wanted... two empty holes in the ground.

The pentagon was rebuilt and I believe the towers should have been rebuilt more beautiful than they were before as a memorial to the lives lost there. This would leave a living, breathing memorial to remind the terrorist that we're not going to look down into the dark of two black holes of nothing, but look up at two phoenix of America's determination!

Apparently it is okay to post insensitive and offensive comments but not patriotic and Christian comments. I guess NVDaily.com doesn't want to offend any other nationality or religion. Thanks for making my decision not to waste my money on a subscription to your paper a little easier.

This is the second time my comments were held back even though I followed your so-called "comments policy".

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