Former Pentagon health clinic chief, retired fire captain reflect on 9/11 attack 20 years later

WASHINGTON — The morning of September 11, 2001 was picturesque in the Washington, D.C. metro area, with warm temperatures and sunny skies.

“It was an absolutely beautiful day,” said retired Arlington County Fire Department Captain Robert Gray.

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But the beauty was abruptly disrupted, and the sunshine was replaced with smoke and panic.

“It just felt evil to me when I walked up on site,” said Gray.

Gray had been in a meeting with members of a terrorism task force that morning when they learned about the terror attacks in New York City.

A short time later, that terror would hit much closer to home.

“You could see smoke up north near the Pentagon,” said Gray. “One of our captains, who was on an EMS call in that area, the plane flew right over him.”

Gray was among the first responders to answer the call for help at the Pentagon after it had been hit by a plane.

“The number of people we came across who already lost their lives was just, it’s hard to describe,” said Gray.

Gray and fellow first responders were faced with an unimaginable challenge.

“When the plane hit, the fire that it caused because of all the fuel that kind of routed through the building was unbelievable,” said Gray. “I mean it wasn’t just one fire. There were fires here, fires there and the casualties we had out on the lawn and all through the building.”

Meantime across town, the Commander of the Pentagon’s DiLorenzo TRICARE Health Clinic was trying to make his way to the collapse site.

“I needed to get down there,” said Dr. Jim Geiling, the former head of the Pentagon’s health clinic. “That’s where my people were.”

Geiling had been working at Walter Reed Medical Center that morning, which was roughly ten miles away from the Pentagon at the time.

But traffic was a mess and law enforcement officers were keeping people away for safety.

“I had all kinds of badges, security clearances and stuff, and the cop said, ‘you’re not crossing my bridge doc,’” said Geiling. “So that was a tough time for me.”

Geiling was eventually able to make it to the Pentagon a few hours after the plane hit.

“All you could smell was smoke,” said Geiling. “You just had to put your game face on and do it. You were sort of caught up in the moment, had a lot of responsibility.”

While he worked to get to patients in need of care, Dr Geiling’s own family was terrified for his safety.

“My son was calling around,” said Geiling. “He was in high school, trying to figure out if dad’s OK.”

One hundred eighty four lives were lost at the Pentagon that day.

Every person who was killed is now honored at the building.

Memorial quilts from around the world line some of the halls.

There is an outdoor memorial with a bench for every victim and their names are engraved on each one.

For the medical staff and first responders who jumped into action, the memories remain vivid, and the emotional toll still lingers.

“The impact from that event stays with us forever,” said Gray.

Both Gray and Geiling said they hope that younger generations who may not personally remember 9/11 still understand the magnitude of the attacks.

They point to the constant reminders around us, from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at our airports, to our troops who have now returned home.

“This needs to be a factor of education,” said Gray. “People need to learn more about this but not look back too much. This is one thing you never want to forget.”

“While the event itself may not resonate, clearly the aftermath does and I think that’s just really important,” Geiling said.

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