WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2011 — Navy Adm. Mike Mullen was on the fourth floor of the Pentagon on the “spectacularly clear” morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when hijackers flew a 757 airplane into the side of the building, changing the world forever, he said.
“I remember it literally as if it were yesterday, as I’m sure all Americans do,” Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during an interview with the Pentagon Channel in the days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the U.S. homeland.
On that morning, as hijackers flew 767 jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, Mullen was sitting in the Pentagon office of Navy Adm. Vernon E. Clark, who was then chief of Naval Operations.
Clark, Mullen said, “picked up the phone after the second plane hit [the twin towers] to talk to the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] … to query what we were doing, in that it appeared that we were under attack.”
They had some notification, the chairman added, that a plane was headed for Washington.
“Within minutes of the phone call,” Mullen said, “the plane hit the Pentagon.”
To the southern California native, the impact felt like an earthquake.
Fifty yards away in his own office, Mullen said, “two of my aides looked out the window and saw a 757 fly in under their feet.”
Afterward, the chairman said, “most of all I remember the chaos that it generated, certainly here [at the Pentagon], and the need to find out what had happened. Were any more [planes] coming? How do we protect ourselves? How are our families doing?”
A fireball of flames and smoke poured from the west side of the Pentagon, and at that moment Mullen’s wife Deborah was driving across the 14th Street Bridge. She’d been redirected there by police who were trying to control traffic in Washington, D.C.
She and Mullen had recently moved back to Washington, and that morning she had been on her way from the Washington Navy Yard to a meeting 6 miles away at the Naval Observatory.
“I had not listened to the news because I was hurrying to get to my meeting,” Mrs. Mullen said. ” … As I came across the 14th St. Bridge I could see the Pentagon.”
She didn’t know yet about the planes hitting the towers in New York, she said.
“I knew that something very bad had happened at the Pentagon,” Mrs. Mullen said. “It did not occur to me that we were under attack.”
She turned the car around at the 12th Street exit and headed back to the Navy Yard, listening to news reports about the attacks.
“I of course was worried. I knew my husband’s office was on that side of the building and all the other folks who were over there,” she said.
“When I got back to the house there was a message from him that he was okay and that we needed to get in touch with our children,” she added.
“I knew at that point that our lives had changed forever,” Mrs. Mullen said. “I didn’t know how they were going to change. I didn’t know the extent, the enormity of what had happened. I just knew that we were under attack and [experienced] all those feelings you get of the uncertainty of life at that moment.”
It’s been an uncertain world ever since, she said.
Ten years after the attacks, the chairman says he is most inspired by the response of young people to the country’s fight against terrorism.
Mullen was “really struck” after the bin Laden raid in May at the number of young people — some who must have been 9 or 10 years old at the time of the attacks — who were visible in the media, celebrating the success at Abbottabad, he said.
The message he got as he listened to them “was that they knew something really bad had happened [on 9/11] and it was a big event in our country and in their lives,” Mullen said.
“To see them and hear them speak to that almost 10 years later was pretty extraordinary in terms of understanding the impact it had,” the chairman added.
“Everyone is aware that we’re at war, everyone is aware of the threat and yet they do sign up, they do raise their right hand and they come to serve because of [the attacks],” Mullen said.
The United States has an extraordinary military, he added, because service members recognize the need, have a strong desire to make a difference, and are wired to serve and to make that difference.
“I certainly have seen that in the extraordinary young men and women who have made the sacrifices, too many of them the ultimate sacrifice, as a result of the decision they made at a pretty young age to join the military,” the chairman said.
“We’re blessed as a country to have them. We’re blessed to have the families who raise young men and women to come and do this,” Mullen added, “and it makes me very proud, not just to be in the military or to be the chairman but, quite frankly, to be an American.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)