ARLINGTON, VA. (Sept. 11, 5:50 p.m. EST) — Susan Bergen was sitting in a hotel room near the Pentagon on Tuesday morning, glued to TV news coverage of the World Trade Center attack.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a plane outside the window of her 11th floor room. She turned just in time to see a big jetliner skim the treetops and slam into the side of the Pentagon, less than a half mile from her hotel room. It looked like the plane sped up just before hitting the building, she said.
“The next thing I saw was this ball of flame,” said Bergen, who had accompanied her husband Joe, chairman of Sajar Plastics Inc. in Middlefield, Ohio, to a Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. board meeting at the Ritz Carlton at Pentagon City hotel. “I just kept saying, `This can't be happening.' ”
Bergen was stunned. She went to the hallway, grabbed a maid and told her to come to the window. The maid kept giving her water to comfort her, and Bergen said she was struck by the need to go find her husband. She and Joe were celebrating their 41st wedding anniversary, and had exchanged gifts that morning.
“To look out my window and see that was more than I could take,” said Bergen.
Bergen recounted the story sitting in a lounge in the hotel that afternoon, as SPI board members and staffers milled around, dissecting events and trying to cope. The group made comparisons to Pearl Harbor, and some said they felt the hotel shake like an earthquake when the plane went down.
Soon after the crash, the building and streets around it, an area of high-rise buildings and an upscale mall known as Pentagon City, filled up with people fleeing the Pentagon. People coming into the hotel were in tears, military personnel filled the streets and helicopters were circling overhead.
After regrouping, some SPI officials and board members tried to continue meeting. Some said they had not seen TV reports, and from interior rooms of the hotel, could not tell how severe events were.
Then, about 11 a.m., the hotel got word that there was another airliner 20 minutes outside Washington that air-traffic controllers could not communicate with. That marked the end of the meeting, which began Sept. 10 and was supposed to run through Sept. 12.
“The information we had was that there was another plane that couldn't be accounted for,” said SPI President Donald Duncan. “We were sitting right next to the Pentagon, and that had already been hit.”
Rick Sturgis, director of SPI's Southern region office in Greenville, S.C., said he and some others decided to make for the parking garage at the hotel.
“I was scared,” he said.
“People were sick to their stomachs,” said SPI spokeswoman Bonnie Limbach.
The report of the missing airplane turned out to be a false alarm. But hours later, staffers and board members of SPI still were shaken, even as they made plans to rent cars or have co-workers drive to D.C. to take them back home.
Darlene Tortorici, whose husband Frank is SPI's treasurer and global general manager of fluoropolymers with Atofina Chemicals Inc. in Philadelphia, was about to work out at the hotel gym and was thinking about how it was a pleasant, late summer day when she opened the curtains to her hotel room.
“I opened the curtains and saw the plane hit the Pentagon,” she said. “At first it was just black smoke and then it was fire. … It's like you are watching something and you don't really believe it.”
She switched on the TV for an instant, and then realized that “I just wanted to find Frank.”
So, she did what made sense: “I ran and found the one who loves me,” she said.