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My Pentagon Experience
Elizabeth Cavasso
September 11 - October 5, 2001

Ab note about the author: Elizabeth Cavasso is the Forest Management Officer for the Modoc National Forest and a member of CIIMT 3. As a member of California Interagency Incident Management Team 3, Elizabeth's duties normally consist of being a situation unit leader, gathering info on the fire, facts about what's going on and who's doing what. This is the diary she kept following September 11, 2001 as she and her incident management team mates went to ground zero at the Pentagon. On this assignment, she mapped info that came in on the victims and conditions of the structures. She did whatever she could to help others do their jobs. (Photos on the Pentagon photo page.)

I was taking a shower September 11, 2001, when my husband Jim came in alarmed and disturbed, telling me that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. I was stunned and fell silent, questions racing through my mind. Did I hear Jim correctly? Is this really true? Why would someone deliberately harm innocent people? I grabbed my towel and uniform and headed down the hall to the living room and news. I watched in awe as one of the two large World Trade Towers was engulfed in flame at the upper stories. Moments later, the second tower was struck by a passenger airliner. Oh my God, what is happening in New York?

My next recollection of the terrorist acts was a camera shot towards the White House with smoke billowing from something burning off to the left side. As the camera and news reporter personnel captured the developing events, they speculated on what had just happened at the Pentagon. For a third time in just an hour, cruel and insane people attacked Americans. People, who blindly target innocent and faceless American citizens and our Nation's lands, attacked us at 6:39 am. I was instantly angry, wanting an eye for an eye. I sat glued to the TV until just before 8:00 am. At this point I felt a need to go to work, although I wanted to continue to watch the developing news. Revenge and make them examples, what is the right way to turn? I am angry.

It was 8:30 am; the Modoc National Forest fire folks were meeting to discuss the progress of the Blue Fire. At 8:37, Joan leaned over and handed me a Resource Order, Situation Unit Leader, a national order for California Incident Management Team 3 to support of the terrorist acts inflicted upon the World Trade Center and Pentagon. 

No kidding? We are going into the battlefield? All flights across the United States have been halted. How will we get there? What do I need to take? I have to go home to get photos of my family. I need Justin and Jamie's identification bracelets. What if I never come home? I need mementos to help me through rough times. At noon I was packed, yet confused as to whether I was ready to go. There was no turning back, in the Blazer and off to McClellan Air Force Base to meet with the rest of my team.

My day is full with memories and experiences. Emotions run wild at times, looking at the damaged building, feeling the emotions behind the search and rescue faces, and wanting revenge. 

Our work area is 300 feet from the jetliner entrance hole. In the briefing we heard they are finding "bodies in bundles". Tim Walsh came back from a tour of the building, his eyes looking far beyond my face somewhere far in the distance. He toured the crime scene from one end to the other. His description of the victims made me visualize charred saguaro cactus. Tim described the people as logs. I am struck by how impersonal this mission can be, and in the same nano-second, know that they are humans killed by cowards. I grieve for the victims. I grieve for the families and friends and the United States of America. Life will be forever changed. Someone really "moved this cheese". (Note: This is a reference to the book Who Moved My Cheese - an A-Mazing way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life, by Spencer Johnson, MD.)

Jim called. I asked if he could see the flag hanging on the side of the Pentagon. If he would count 13 windows to the right and out 300 feet, he could see where I was. I was comforted knowing he had his sights on me. At least he could see where I am. God be with all of us. I am tired and need to let my mind go.

Oh, my dream this morning was weird. I was wearing a beautiful red, flowing dress made from stained glass. I was amazed that glass could flow so gracefully, as if it were silk blowing in the wind. Weird huh? You can be sure of that? The meaning, I don't understand this one. Thank you God for my day.

I am tired, I'm whooped. Off the Pentagon at 5:45 a.m. in a van filled with passionately dedicated FEMA and Team 3 personnel. It's been humorous driving to and from our work site. Picture this, one driver and a van filled with back seat drivers who all know how to get to the destination, but each with our own set of directions.

The sights and sounds of this day have brought me to my knees. Words of the rescue workers go in my ears and are translated visually in my mind. Although I am not able to see the actual sights within the dark corridors and open cavities within the crash site, my mind sees the signs of the terrorist act. Sheared off columns, some twisted and skinned down to the skeleton core, human remains reduced to mere pieces of the whole, and the emergency workers whose faces tell the horrors of the task at hand. I feel for these people, I am driven by my desire to make a difference to these Heroes. Tonight I sat with Tim Stanton, the day structural specialist, documenting the progress of stabilizing the work area. Vertical shores make columns safe and T-shores brace sagging ceilings.

We were mentioned on the television as members of the Incident Support Team from California. I shook the Vice President's, Dick Cheney, hand today. Photos of Jeff Pope and I working inside our tent.

So, oh that word I am trying to wean myself of. As I was saying, the silent and building emotional crash hit me today. I've talked in the past few days of the constant barrage on my senses. I hear a dog bark, the T-Rex pulverizing the side of the Pentagon walls bite by bite, the back-up alarm of a delivery vehicle, a bull horn calling for the attention of the target audience, a helicopter flying overhead, or any of the other thousands of audio impacts throughout the day. My eyes scan the distant images, the open crevasse, American flags, a soldier receiving a message, a tired USAR worked with dirt on his face and sorrow in his eyes, the silhouette of a sniper perched on a roof top, a law enforcement presence at every turn, the helicopter cruising overhead with a large man sitting in the doorway with a weapon ready for action, and so much more. I feel hot, I feel cold, my eyes feel gritty and sore, the salt from tears stings my sun burnt face, my lips dry more with each wetting lick, my sweaty body aches, particularly my back and my legs are notably swollen each night. I have noticed distant smells only a few times, once going to the heliport tower. I was struck by a warm rotten smell, it frightened me.

My day was full again and impacted by events at home. My conversation with Jamie hurt. It is difficult dealing with my daughter from so far away. I was so glad to hear from her and so hurt when she hollered at me and hung up. I didn't ask for that and certainly did not deserve it. Standing amidst my fellow team members, I walked with my head low, avoiding eye contact, and far away from any possible conversation. I exited the camp and walked through the parking lot. Oh that hurt.

Later Steve (the IC) asked if I was OK. I couldn't hold back. The tears began to flow down my cheeks, I tried to hold them back. I began to retreat, and then without my consent, I cried. Steve took me in his arms and held me tight. It felt safe and comforting. We talked, I talked about the call from Jamie and my feelings. I am scared. I am sad. I am worried. Steve listened and reminded me that God is here, with me in my time of need, and that this is all a part of an important plan.

Then Steve suggested I talk with the Chaplain. I told him I was scared. I looked into his eyes, trying to draw strength and courage. I agreed, but wanted him there. We were interrupted by a team member saying, "the bonding is over, it's time to go." I relinquished my seat in the van and said I would walk. Steve and I walked to the Chaplain tent, passing through men suited in camouflage uniforms. My head was down and my tearful eyes were afraid to make contact.

Speaking with the Chaplain was hard for me. Asking for help is so difficult. My motto has long been, "I can do it myself." Emotions are a sign of weakness and emotions in public are not appropriate. This is how I was raised. I talked, he listened, he asked to hold my hand and pray for and with me. I agreed. His hand was soft, warm and firm. I felt wisdom and strength. I walked away grateful for the moment and the day.

I love Jim, Justin and Jamie, until the morning sun. TTFN! (Note: TaTa for now?)

Happy 20th Birthday Cheyenne Grace Menkee (Note: her son's best friend).

Tell me why humans are drawn closer to each other during moments of pain and sorrow? It doesn't happen just because we spend time with each other. It's not because we reflect on a common tale that is enhanced and becomes grander with time. It's beyond an exchange of a facial expression, a smile or wink of an eye, relaying an emotion of the moment. It doesn't happen just because we exchange gratitude, respect and love through a handshake or hug. Although each of these in their own way can bring closeness, joy and hope in a moment of despair, they don't explain human bonding in tragic times. It's a bond so deep you can't see it or touch it. It's more complex than the simple rationale that emanates from my mind. It's deeper than our human hearts can fathom. I think these bonds are created when humans look far beyond another eyes and deep into their soul, when you truly understand another's need and reach out to offer a helping hand. It's an unconditional offering and willingness of old friends and new, to give all that you are humanly capable of, to improve the quality of another human's life. Sometimes you give your life for a fellow man.

The United States of America gets it - It's unconditional unity!

I shook Hilary Clinton's hand today. A recovery dog made a hit on a human and retrieved the body part like a stick tossed into the sea. Chief Dale Bosworth visited our team at the Pentagon site. Dale spoke highly of our team and of how proud he is of our support efforts.

It's early, 5:41 a.m., and a day of controlled excitement. I have my flag, my bags are all but packed, as we prepare for the flight to California. We will meet with Joe Stutler's team, board a chartered plane and take off for Mather. I am excited about heading home.

This assignment is different for me, I don't have the same sorrowful feeling now that it's time to go home. I came, I helped, and although I did not say goodbye to the Pentagon, my experience was full and complete and I leave with closure. I think the services at the National Cathedral helped me pull together bits and pieces and begin my heart's healing. That was such a fine day filled with love, joy, smiles, pride and good friends.

I am going to hand sew a flag. The time is nearing, we are to meet in the lobby in 45 minutes, yeah!

I awoke this morning at 5:20 am, terrified by a dream. I was walking with my Pentagon buddy. I am not sure if it was Doug or Jeff. We walked down a street and you could feel the fear in the air. I told my buddy to stay away from the inner part of the sidewalk. I sensed that there was danger close to the buildings and we needed space to run if needed. I saw a black silhouette, a man, and suddenly there was a shotgun blast to my face. I went down. I tried to remain still, but was breathing hard. I tried to appear dead. The man came up to me. Thank God I woke up, fearful, yet alive.

How did Jim feel when I was at the Pentagon? He tells me he was concerned, because he cares about me. He said, "I didn't know what would happen to you."

My son called within the first couple of days. He always tells me he loves me, but on this night he kept saying it over and over. I tried to reassure him that this would not be the last time I would talk with him. He would hear my words, "I love you", and I would hear his again.

The impacts of the terrorist attack are far reaching. The victims paid the highest price. Their families and friends are on an emotional roller coaster dealing with death. Our behaviors, actions and feeling are changed forever. There is fear of the unknown and additional harm. There is National level support and comforting for the victims families. The Nation-wide critical incident stress debriefing continues. Areas far from the attack sites have been impacted physically, emotionally and financially. The grounding of aircraft impacted even our small town, which was celebrating its 100th birthday. For months the Chamber of Commerce planned for a hot air balloon event. The balloons were inflated, but never left the ground with their passengers who had paid for a Wizard of Oz experience.

What do I want to share with people I've never met? Let me pause for a moment - - Why did I accept the assignment? 

This is what our team does, we manage emergencies. We are trained to manage emergencies and then go do the job. The synergy of the "can do" team attitude in motion is awesome. I love the power of the human spirit. I want to nurture, care for and assist. I want to be a part and to have a meaningful existence.

I was called. It wasn't my idea to go. I went for Modoc County, for the Forest Service, for family, friends and humanity. I took everyone who knows me with me. I was glad to have the chance to serve and make a positive impact on the victims, workers, people and the country. I have such an appreciation for America, our people, our unity, and what we stand for. I'd do it again. I worked with great people, but I love Modoc County with its brilliant blue daytime skies. I've come back with a new appreciation and love for my family and friends, here and around the world.

My Impressions of the assignment:  
I am grateful that I had a chance to serve. 
General Saxton, Military District of Washington Engineering Corp, spoke at a memorial service at the Pentagon site September 21. He said, "Our country has changed and we need to decide what normal means. We must have pride in ourselves. We are the foundation on which our country is built. We will be OK. We ask for nothing, just an opportunity to serve." He went on to say, "I'd hate to be on the other side. This may be a long fight. The job is not done yet."

 There is a place for each and every one of us to serve. Some will serve on the battlefield, some at the crash sites, others will give blood, and still others will volunteer their services in a multitude of ways. Some will consol the weary, others document this historical event, and others are planning new ways to protect our country. Ask yourself, what can I do to make this a better country, a better world? There is a way to contribute. Ask, use your imagination, reach out, and give. We are in this together, United We Stand.

  • I've learned that you can rise to a level of excellence when you are lead by an Incident Commander who cares for his team, thinks outside the box and acts with integrity always.
  • I've learned that it's easier to be away from home and family when I am with my extended family.
  • I've learned that I feel joy when I work with people who ask for nothing, just a chance to serve.
  • I've learned that you have to be careful of what you ask for, because there are no coincidences.
  • I've learned that I am proud to be a member of CIIMT3 and I want Steve Gage to remain as our leader.
  • I've learned that you sure learn a lot when "the cheese" is moved.

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