Jacobs: ACC football official remembers 9/11 attack on Pentagon

Guest columnistSeptember 10, 2013 

Pat Ryan is expert at back-pedaling. Stationed in the middle of the field behind the defense, his role as an ACC back judge is to stay out of the way but ahead of every pass play, run and punt. That’s in contrast with his day job for 30 years, in which he was required to rush toward the action without hesitation.

“I used to kid him all the time: I’ve never understood the logic of running into the burning house,” said Doug Rhoads, the ACC’s Coordinator of Football Officials and a retired 28-year veteran at back judge. “That’s the mentality of first responders – you go toward the event.”

Ryan, in his 18th year as an ACC back judge, recently retired from a captain’s position in the Arlington, Va., fire department. His professional career began in January 1982; his third day he was called out when an improperly de-iced Air Florida flight crashed into the 14th Street bridge between Arlington County and Washington, D.C., killing 78 people.

Several decades later, as summer waned, Ryan was dispatched to the site of another jet crash. This disaster was a deliberate act, killing 189 people at the Pentagon. On the same bright, sunny morning in 2001, another 2,753 people died after a pair of hijacked passenger jets brought down the World Trade Center in New York – a combination of terrorist attacks that forever changed public life in the United States.

“I don’t talk about this really hardly at all, but I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Ryan, 50, said of that Sept. 11.

‘It sounded like a war zone’

Attending a meeting with hundreds of what he called “mid-level” government managers, Ryan was seated with a group of fire officers when a neighbor’s pager sounded. “My God!” the man exclaimed after reading the display. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”

Like many others, Ryan and his colleagues assumed a small plane had wandered off course and collided with one of Manhattan’s paired, 110-story downtown towers. In fact, it was the first of two flights originally bound from Boston to Los Angeles that were purposely flown into the iconic skyscrapers.

Shortly before the first tower collapsed in New York, another pager alert galvanized those seated at the back of the meeting room in Arlington. A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had come to Earth just down the road, hitting the western side of the Pentagon.

“The person who was going to teach us how to be nice to our employees or whatever kind of thing it was, goes, ‘Oh, my God! There must be a fire!’ When she saw all 20 of us guys get up and run out of that room, I will never forget that: ‘There must be a fire.’ ‘Yeah, lady, it’s a fire. It’s a plane into the Pentagon.’ ”

As firefighters raced to their vehicles, Ryan heard explosions coming from the building two miles distant, saw smoke rise high into the sky. “It sounded like a war zone,” he said.

Ryan went first to his home station, already designated a command center.

“Within probably an hour we had two Jeeps at the end of our ramp with two guys with machine guns that sit on the back of the Jeeps, and two sentries walking back and forth in front of it,” he said. “What they were doing, they didn’t know if (the terrorists) were going to attack the fire houses. They didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Lots of helping hands

While firefighters feverishly coordinated their efforts, people walked in from the street to donate whatever they could. Soon an entire engine bay was filled with food, drink, and other materials. WalMart sent pallets of water. Outback Steakhouse sent food. A forgotten phone company gave each firefighter a free cellphone so they could speak with their families.

“That’s when I knew this country was something else,” Ryan said, his voice catching. “It’s starting to get me a little emotional. I’ve never seen people bring so many things for us in that firehouse.”

Several hours after returning to the station he ordinarily commanded, Ryan boarded a bus as part of a team of 50 firefighters headed to the Pentagon. Emergency personnel in the D.C. area had trained for multiple disaster scenarios, including anthrax releases, but nothing quite like a plane flying into a densely-populated building. Training only went so far.

“Any type of emergency incident, it’s chaos,” said Ryan, who, like other Virginia firefighters, is also trained as an emergency medical responder. “I don’t care what you do.”

Confusion reigned outside America’s World War II-vintage military headquarters, with fire crews from around the region and random civilians arriving at the unsecured scene to battle the blaze and search for survivors. Fighting the flames was accompanied by body recovery, with on-site FBI agents trying to protect crime-scene evidence.

Abundant jet fuel made the fire burn unusually hot as collapse and chaos consumed segments of the building’s complex interior.

“It’s a maze for anybody, let alone trying to go in there with smoke,” Ryan said of the Pentagon, which the Arlington department regularly inspected.

Sometimes improvisation was required. To fit through a passageway that led to the Pentagon’s inner courtyard, one hook-and-ladder truck was deliberately shorn of its slightly-raised tiller, the seat and steering wheel “where the guy holds onto the back, like Cosmo (Kramer) on ‘Seinfeld,’ ” Ryan explained.

‘Always … a positive guy’

Working on the roof of the five-story Pentagon with a single ladder available to take them to safety, some firefighters resolved to jump to the ground if, as rumored, another hijacked plane was headed their way.

“It’s a lot better option than having a plane wreck right into you,” Ryan said, “and that’s what these guys had flashing through their minds.” (Passengers did divert a fourth hijacked passenger jet aimed at Washington; it came to earth in the countryside near Shanksville, Pa.)

Within days of safely subduing the conflagration at the Pentagon, the Arlington Fire Department returned to treating heart attacks, extinguishing house fires, and other routine matters. “Everything else seemed mundane after that,” Ryan said.

“He was always upbeat, a positive guy to work with,” said Alan Dorn, who worked with Ryan as an Arlington battalion chief assigned to operations during the mid-2000s. "He was a great officer for his people. He took care of his people."

Ryan was soon back on the field for another of the 200 ACC football games he’s officiated. He recalled tears coming to his eyes during the playing of the national anthem before Clemson defeated ninth-ranked Georgia Tech 47-44 in overtime at Atlanta.

This year Ryan – “one of the very top officials in our league,” according to Rhoads, the ACC supervisor – already has worked the N.C. State-Louisiana Tech game in Raleigh and Notre Dame-Michigan in Ann Arbor. His biggest challenge as a back judge, he said, is overseeing the “controlled chaos” of a punt play.

As for personal remembrance of Sept. 11, “I kind of compartmentalize it and put it away,” Ryan said, more likely than the rest of us never to forget.

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