Pentagon Attack Numbing For Press Secretary

June 18, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — At first, it seemed surreal to him. Then it got real — real fast.

Christopher Barbee, press secretary to U.S. Congressman Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, was in his Washington, D.C., office on the morning of Sept. 11 when he was told to evacuate the Longsworth Building, which is near the Capitol.

“We ran to the park across the street and looked up to the sky and saw an unmarked white plane flying overhead. We all just wanted to run and we all did. We ran further into the neighborhood because, at that point, we didn’t know what that plane was or where it was heading,” said Barbee, a Kalamazoo native and former newsman for WGVU TV and radio.

When the plane got nearer, Barbee said it made a right turn, like it was heading directly for the Capitol Building.

“I just stood there waiting for a fireball to come out of the Capitol dome. But, luckily, that didn’t happen. Later we found out, and it hasn’t been totally confirmed yet, that was a military plane,” he said. “But with everything being so uncertain, it was very scary to look up and see that plane.”

As Barbee continued to walk away from his office building, he looked to the south and saw a thick cloud of black smoke rising from the Pentagon. When he saw the smoke he said he went numb, not knowing what was going to happen next.

“I look at the Pentagon as a place that is not to be penetrated. At that point, we didn’t know that a plane hit it. We just knew there was some kind of emergency there. I just remember thinking, if the Pentagon gets hit, what’s next?

“That was really scary because of the uncertainty of what was going to happen next. Was there going to be a bomb at the Capitol? Was there going to be a car bomb on the street? You just didn’t know,” he said.

Barbee said things are slowly returning back to normal now. At least as normal as things can be so soon after such a horrific event. Security has been tightened at his office, pushed to a higher level than he has ever experienced. Identification badges are needed just to get on the grounds.

“Around our building the perimeter has been extended just like it has been around the White House,” he said. “They’re checking people a lot more closely now. If you don’t have your ID badge, you better go home and get it.”

Barbee said he appreciates the stepped-up security, measures that were added while the mood of the city was very somber. He also said he was fine, and wasn’t injured during the evacuation. He ended up walking the five miles to his home that morning, following the same route that he usually drives — one that took him past the burning Pentagon.

“It was strange watching the TV at nine o’clock that morning and seeing the trade center event take place. Then less than 45 minutes later, it was affecting us. I think we evacuated at 9:42. I called my wife and called my mom and told them we were getting out of the building. From that point forward, everything became a blur,” he said.

“It was kind of surreal watching New York. But then it became very real, very fast, when we got the evacuation call to get out of the building.”

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