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Culver residents, past and present, saw 9-11 attacks firsthand

September 10, 2011

Bill Walaitis, left, and Randall Harper.

As the entire country prepares to remember the event which arguably defined the lives of a generation -- the attacks on America on September 11, 2001 -- during this, the tenth anniversary of its occurance, we pay a visit to two Culverites (one past and one present)
who were there for the attacks. It happens both men were at the Pentagon that day for work-related reasons, though both have somewhat different perspectives on the attacks.

RANDALL HARPER

Randall Harper -- who attended 1st through 7th grade in Culver, and is the brother of well-known, present-day Culverits Jim Harper -- had an all too close-up perspective on the events of September 11, 2001.

Harper, who completed high school in Terre Haute, moved with his sister shortly thereafter to Washington, D.C., where he’s lived ever since (with wife Diane and daughter Kelly). After stints at a few other jobs, he transition from working with the U.S. General Services Administration, to a post as a Pentagon police officer, which he held from 1986 to his retirement in 2007.

“When 9-11 happened,” he recalls, “I was commander of the Inspection section. I had attended the Army Inspector General school, which was one of the requirements. You just performed inspections on different units...it was a very mundane job with very little action, but after 9-11, everything ceased -- inspections weren’t important anymore.”

Harper’s office at the time was in the Navy Annex about two blocks from the Pentagon, across the street from Arlington Cemetery. On September 11, he’d given a young officer a ride downtown and was planning to head to the Pentagon next, a place he frequented in his line of work. He says in retrospect it’s amazing he didn’t hear the “boom” of the plane hitting the building, but instead saw people in a panic, running.

“I had been sitting in my office watching the events in New York saying, ‘I can’t believe this.’

“As I was leaving my office, folks said, ‘Did you hear that? You didn’t hear that noise?’ When we got to our car, everybody was driving like crazy, panicing, going home -- we had a massive traffic jam on all the freeways. Cell phones just got overloaded and went dead; you couldn’t make calls on your cells. As I was leaving my office my daughter called and said, ‘Dad, are you alright?’ Then the news media was there. Someone from my family saw me on the news.”

Harper noticed, upon arrival at the Pentagon, that no one had set up a security perimeter, which he undertook along with some FBI agents.
“So many people were hurt and burned (outside the building), not to mention those who died in the plane and the Pentagon,” he recalls.
“We had officers pulling people out of windows...by that time you had fire, police, and ambulances -- my concern at that time was to set up a perimeter to make sure nothing else could get through (and we) were concerned about preserving the evidence.

“We had an after-action meeting at 10 o’clock that night and the building was filled with smoke -- you could smell the jet fuel. The building smoldered for two or three days, not to mention the body parts and that whole thing, so the next day it’s still chaotic and we were put on 12 hour shifts with no days off and no leave. For a month and a half, the officers were dead on their feet.”

Harper was placed in charge of the crash site as the FBI took over investigation of the crash itself. He stayed on the site for a month and a half.

He recalls the magnitude of the one-month anniversary of the crash, in October, when several U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., Jimmy Carter) and a host of senators arrived at the site, an event for which Harper was Watch Commander of Operations. He and his Lieutenant had to come up with a plan to make sure it all went off without a hitch, which it did.

“So from that day forward, I became daytime Commander of Operations.”
Though no one close to Harper died in the crash, he remembers a regular staff member at the Pentagon nicknamed “the candy man” for the treats he would hand out to the officers on duty each evening, was killed, and a woman he knew was severely burned. Several people had amazingly close shaves, but emerged unhurt.

Harper remembers the tightening of the Pentagon security force in the wake of September 11, increases in pay for officers, worries over nuclear threats, explosive-sniffing dogs, anthrax scares, reorganization and a radically increased vigilance as has taken place in many areas of life.

“It was no longer routine,” he says. “We became much more alert...we came up with a slogan, ‘Semper Vigilant.’

“Americans thought they were untouchable (before the attacks),” he notes. “After that...we realized that can happen here.”

After 42 years of work, Harper says “it’s nice to be able to sit back and relax” under his brother Jim’s tree during a Culver visit this past summer, though he still keeps in contact with former co-workers. He plans to keep visiting his old Midwestern stomping grounds as long as he can make the trip, but those airport security checks are just some of the many changes 9-11 wrought in everyone’s lives.

“Nothing will ever be the same,” he adds. “This was our new Pearl Harbor, but with an unknown enemy.”

BILL WALAITIS

Present-day Culver resident and Culver Military Academy graduate Capt. Bill Walaitis (formerly of the U.S. Navy Reserve Director of Reserve Programs National Reconnaissance Office) shared his reflections on the events of September 11 at the Pentagon, with the Culver Alumni magazine, and his comments were printed in the December, 2001 edition. What follows are those comments alongside added remarks made today.

“My office is on the opposite side of the Pentagon from where the plane hit. I did not feel the impact.

“I did hear a loud “bang,” like someone dropped a big desk on the floor above me. As I mentioned, there is a large space between floors so I should have heard nothing. In reflection, it was the sound of the plane hitting the building, transferring around ring C. I was located on the outer side of Ring C, to the Northeast, about as far away from the contact site as you could get, unless you were in Ring E, the outer ring of the Pentagon.

“We all packed up and left in an orderly manner. I spent the rest of the day in our apartment building in Crystal City, about 15 minutes away, and returned to work the next day. It’s not business as usual but as close as we can get.

“The smell of smoke continued throughout the Pentagon for many days after the attack, and soot was visible even on our side, which was about as far away as you could get from where the plane hit.

“However, I lost a good friend who was in the Navy Command Center. He and I started Aviation Officer Candidate School together in August 1972. We were the ‘old guys;’ I was 29 and he was 28 and we both had prior enlisted service. He left a wife and two young daughters, in the sixth and seventh grades. We had talked the week before about the ‘future’ and retirement. Then, in the blink of an eye, it all changed.

“Marleen and I did walk around a bit that evening. We had various vantage points, the hill west of the Pentagon, a hotel a friend was staying in to the south, and our first apartment building, a bit southeast. The recoverty team actfually searched the roof of the buildings around for pieces and parts. You could see the fires burning in the roof. There was a quiet feeling all around. Fortunately, the plane hit in the wedge of the Pentagon that had just been rebuilt and reinforced. And, it hadn’t been fully manned up yet so there were less than 300 killed, combined between the plane and the Pentagon.

“Around the impact area, across the street, next to Arlington Cemetery, and next to the Navy Annex, people left many items. Marleen (his wife) and I went to the area one evening a week after the attack to view the damage. We found flowers, pictures, candles burning, signs with encouraging messages, and many personal items on the fence of Arlington Cemetery and on the hill below the Navy Annex. There were flowers from all countries and faiths. There were teddy bears, boots, and one I remember – a 12-pack of diet Coke with a pack of Marlboro on top. The entire area for weeks was quite solemn. There are still many curious folks who stop and look.

Again, I was out of harm’s way -- one of a number of similar events I had during my career.”

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