As I was running away from the burning Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, there was a moment where I really questioned whether I was going to survive. I don’t know if I can ever get the sights, sounds, and smells out of my memory that I experienced that day. Seemingly overnight, survival and preservation changed for me and my family forever. It was a turning point.
For 17 years I worked as the director of Equal Employment Opportunity/ Alternative Dispute Resolution for the Navy Secretariat. Like many Pentagon employees, my day started like any other, and nothing could’ve prepared me for the days, weeks, and months that ensued. My 7-year-old daughter, Bria, was in school in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, that morning, and for her every hour that passed felt like an eternity, not knowing if her mother was still alive.
Bria and I have reflected countless times over the years on the events of that day. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Bria sat down and asked me about the moments that would shape her childhood and my career.
Bria Woods: How did that day start for you?
Rhonda Parramore: It started quite normal. I had a medical appointment early that morning before work. … Everything went well. Apparently, the first tower had been struck somewhere between when I left my medical appointment and when I arrived at my office.
When I arrived at my office, my entire staff was gathered in my office, intently staring at the television, which was extremely unusual. When I looked at the television and saw the images of the plane that had struck one of the Twin Towers, it was apparent to me what had happened.
I proceeded to get ready for the day, still not taking in the full impact of what was going on. I asked my colleagues to give me some privacy so I could prepare for the day. When they left my office, I went into prayer mode. I realized that prayer was important for a moment like that. At that moment we didn’t realize that the horrific event had anything to do with terrorism, but I knew that some of the victims would not survive and I thought about their families and about the sadness and feelings of loss they would endure.
So I went into prayer mode and at some point, I did hear a low-flying aircraft. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I knew that was a bit unusual, but still, I didn’t connect the dots. Then I heard an incredibly loud boom. But I was used to hearing explosions because Arlington [National] Cemetery was just across the road from my office window and I was used to hearing the 21-gun salutes. … Even though this boom was much louder, I still didn’t put the pieces of the puzzle together. It wasn’t until I looked out of my window and I saw masses of people running away from the building — past my window to the exit of the compound — that I realized we were in danger.
Then my staff ran into my office and literally grabbed me by the arm and grabbed my bag and sneakers so I could change my shoes. And I remember skipping out of the office with one shoe on trying to put the other one on. They were literally dragging me out of the office, and we all knew what to do. We had been through the drills. We knew that we were to meet at the designated place for our office. And it was only moments after we met there and everyone was accounted for that we heard over the loudspeakers that we were to move away from the building. There we were … hundreds of people running down Columbia Pike, which is a major thoroughfare … running aimlessly, not knowing where we were going, just running away from the building and trying not to trip over each other.
As we were exiting the building, I looked back and I could see the incredible flames bursting out of that section of the Pentagon. It was terrifying because by that time we knew this was no accident. We knew that this was an act of terror on the U.S. I don’t have words to explain what that was like. It was incredibly surreal.
BW: Where did you go?
RP: We ran about a half-mile until we reached a little strip mall. The merchants had locked their doors, but we were banging on doors and wanting to get in. No one could use their cell phones because the cell towers were jammed. … I was so grateful that one of the merchants opened her door for me and my colleagues and let us use the phone. I called my family in Texas and Virginia to let them know I was safe, and my colleagues and I waited there for a while. During the time we were in the store, as well as when we were running, we continued to hear explosions. … We later learned they were the explosions coming from the airplane that was inside the Pentagon.
BW: At this point, did you think it was connected to what happened in New York?
RP: We all did assume that it was connected.
BW: Who was the first person you called?
RP: Your dad, to let him know that we were alive. I didn’t get him, but I left a message. And then I called your brother and my siblings in Texas to let them know that I was alive. I was really concerned about you as well. I knew you were in school and probably worried about me. My only thought was, “I need to get to Bria. I need to get to Bria.” Later that evening, you told me the television in your classroom was tuned to the news and footage of the planes flying into the Twin Towers were playing on loop. You said you didn’t know if I was alive or dead, and that really, really bothered me.
BW: After you contacted family, what did you do next?
RP: … My colleagues and I decided we needed to get to our children. So we decided to walk back towards the Pentagon to get our cars but we could only get so close. One of my colleagues was able to get her car because it was further out, but I was not able to get my car. A police officer told us that we could not go beyond that point.
One of the reasons it took so long to get to you is because the roads were filled with emergency vehicles, ambulances, fire engines, police officers. It was like every police officer in the tri-state area converged on that area around the Pentagon. I was told that I could not go to my car, and my car ended up being parked there for days after the plane flew into the Pentagon.
BW: So your co-worker drove you to my school?
RP: We all piled into her car. It was six of us. … And one by one, she got us to our destinations. She took me to get you first because she knew how concerned I was about you. What normally would have been a 15-minute drive turned into over a four-hour drive because there was detour after detour after detour, just getting out of the area around the Pentagon.
And finally, finally, she was able to get to your school. It was such a blessing to see you. … There was no greater joy than to see the smile on your face when you realized I was alive and well. And that’s when you told me they were playing those images over and over and over on loop. … And you were so worried about whether or not I was OK.
BW: I remember our principal came on the intercom and said the Twin Towers had been hit and now the Pentagon has been hit. Our school was on lockdown. My first thought was, “So how will my parents come get me? Do we have to sleep at school tonight?” My homeroom teacher immediately turned on the news and we just sat there watching utter chaos, not understanding at all what was going on and what it meant for us.
What was the mood when we finally got home? I don’t really remember.
RP: When we arrived home, your greatest concern was that you thought [Osama] Bin Laden was coming to our home, and it took a lot to comfort you and for you to believe that he would not be coming to our home. It was a very frightening time for all of us. … Nothing that I’ve experienced has ever felt like that. Nothing, nothing at all. I cannot compare it to anything.
BW: It’s interesting hearing this, because there are a number of details that I remembered incorrectly or just not at all. For example, I do not remember how we got home. I don’t remember sitting on your lap with six other people in the car. I don’t remember thinking Bin Laden was coming to our home. I guess this gives me some insight into how my perception of the danger was so imminent that I believed he was coming to our house. It seems like my brain shut out those memories over time.
Were you able to sleep that night?
RP: No. By that time I had seen the images over and over again. Tower one, Tower two, the Pentagon, the crash in Pennsylvania. It was a new world for me. And for many, it was a new world. It was a new reality that we had not known before. So it was very, very difficult.
BW: For me, it was weird because I didn’t fully understand what was going on. I was also afraid because we had to learn about so many subjects that a 7-year-old really has no business even trying to understand. It seemed like within a matter of days I had to learn, what is terrorism? Who is the Taliban? What’s al-Qaida? Where’s Afghanistan? What does the word hijacking mean? And I was trying to understand who would want to kill my mom and why.
It seemed like we couldn’t go anywhere for what felt like months, and there wasn’t a TV that wasn’t turned to the news. Those images were on a loop on every corner. Over and over, the planes crashing through these buildings and then images of the Taliban, and I began to associate them with planes, with hijacking.
RP: And then you saw that big gaping hole in the Pentagon every single day you went to work with me. And as a result of that for years, you were truly afraid to fly on an airplane.
BW: When were you able to go back to your office?
RP: Our offices were shut down for two days, so we went back fairly quickly. I was like, “What?” You want us to go back already?” I had fear of being in a federal building, you know, I really did. I really did.
I still couldn’t access my car, because it was mere feet away from the press staging area … where all of the press vans and vehicles were located. For about a week, I could not get my car. And your dad had to drive me to work. And because you had to go to school, you were in the car with us and you saw the plane before they extracted it [from the Pentagon]. It was still in the building … burning. It took a long time for them to put the flames out.
BW: Was the overall feeling as employees at the Pentagon, “We are recovering from this together. We are to just continue as we were.”?
RP: Well, not necessarily as we were, because we knew things were different, but we knew we were stronger together. It was a time of solidarity. In fact, we all have little pins that helped us to remember to help each other to get through this, to help each other overcome. If you needed someone to care for your child while you needed to attend to business, then we were there for you. So we really came together at that moment. And that was a beautiful thing to see. It was a beautiful outcome of a horrendous, horrendous offense.
BW: I’ve learned some new details that I never knew about that day from your perspective. In conclusion, what are your thoughts looking back on that day 20 years later?
RP: The thing that sticks out more in my mind over the years is, first and foremost, thankfulness. I’m grateful that our lives were spared while at the same time continuing to pray for the families who did lose their loved ones.
Since 2001, there’s been so much that has gone on in the world that nothing would surprise me at this point. Before 9/11 everything in America felt relatively safe. I had never experienced such an attack on our own soil. After that day, my rose-tinted glasses came off and I felt that anything could happen. I wouldn’t be as surprised and shocked as I was then. That was definitely a turning point.
BW: That’s a powerful statement. I can see that, though. Once I got to college and learned more about all those subjects I couldn’t understand in second grade — international relations, foreign policy, the history of al-Qaida, the war on terror — then I had a clearer picture of the kind of world we live in.
Every year on 9/11 I always take moments of silence to remember those children who lost their parents that day. I have so much reverence and love for them. That’s really hard. Even 20 years later, the weight of gratitude is heavy on 9/11.
RP: I pray we don’t lose sight of the need to continue to stand together. We are stronger in numbers. Even more importantly, I pray we will all walk with God and look to Him for comfort and guidance.