September 11, 2012

Wichita man survived Pentagon attack

When a passenger jet flew into the World Trade Center 11 years ago today, Gary Pond, an Air Force nuclear weapons officer, left his secured workplace in the Pentagon to watch television in a general’s office.

When a passenger jet flew into the World Trade Center 11 years ago today, Gary Pond, an Air Force nuclear weapons officer, left his secured workplace in the Pentagon to watch television in a general’s office.

His wife, Patty, a Wichita native, called anxiously from their home in Alexandria, Va., about 10 miles away, after a second jet hit to warn him that the Pentagon might be another target.

Pond laughed and told her not to worry. He told others in the room what his wife had said, and they laughed, too.

Seconds later, a plane crashed into the Pentagon about 20 yards from his office.

“We could hear it, and we felt it,” Pond said. “We had one of the few offices that had a window that looked between corridors, and we saw smoke and debris fly up.”

The rest of the day was a dazed, surreal attempt to get home.

Pond, who has retired from the Air Force as a colonel and returned to Wichita with Patty, said smoke filled the hallways of the Pentagon as thousands of people, jammed elbow-to-elbow, tried to make their way outside after the attack.

The evacuation was orderly — they had just held a drill days earlier — but it still took Pond 20 minutes to get out of the building. The guards forced them out the opposite side and wouldn’t let anyone go toward the crash site, he said.

Once outside, they were ordered to go home. Pond didn’t want to take a train home, thinking the rail system might be attacked next. He tried to call Patty, but cellphones weren’t working.

It was chaos outside. Traffic was bumper to bumper. So he started walking.

People offered him rides, but he was walking faster than they were going in the automobiles, so he kept walking.

Fighter jets from the North Dakota National Guard flew in low and fast over the city, scaring everyone, Pond said.

But the hardest part of the day was his failure to communicate with anybody.

“I couldn’t get through to my wife or anyone else,” Pond said. “Everybody was using their cellphones, so cellphones were just worthless.”

So he kept walking.

He finally walked into a bank, asked to use a land line, and persuaded an operator to patch him through to his home.

Patty had spent the hours after the attack scared and lonely. Friends and family from Wichita were phoning for information and she didn’t have any.

She was pregnant with a son, Ethan, now 10 years old. They also have a 31-year-old son, Ryan Woods, who works in Wichita.

Patty had been trying to reach her husband after the attacks, but phone service in the area was so disabled, she said, that the first time she heard from him was in a voicemail message he left some hours after the attack. She hadn’t heard the phone ring when he’d called.

She drove to meet him, but it took her two hours just to go two miles to Fort Belvoir, an Army installation in Fairfax County, Va., where they finally reunited .

As he approached the fort, Pond said, he saw Humvees and soldiers in battle gear wearing gas masks and armor.

“That’s something you just don’t see in the U.S.,” he said.

Patty had picked up another officer before finding her husband, and they took that officer home before they finally got to their house in Alexandria.

It had taken Pond eight hours to get home.

A couple of days later, he was back at work in the Pentagon, the gaping wound near his office still burning and smoking.

“It just stunk. It was terrible,” Pond said.

Part of the odor was from burning rubber and fuel, he said. But part of the smell was something he had never smelled before.

“It was just a really sickening stench,” he said.

‘We thought it would never happen’

Pond knew the world had changed. His background in the Air Force was in missile systems, and his country had just been attacked in a way that had rendered missiles useless.

Originally from Kentucky, Pond had graduated in 1981 from the University of Louisville, where he went through its Air Force ROTC program. He was assigned to the Titan II weapon system in Wichita with the 381st Strategic Missile Wing at McConnell Air Force Base.

He met Patty, and earned a master’s degree in education at Wichita State University while stationed here from 1982 to 1986.

Pond worked up the ranks to become commander of the 740th missile squadron at Minot Air Force Base in 1998. In 2000, he was selected for war college in Washington, D.C., then was assigned to the Pentagon, where he went “kicking and screaming,” he said, because he hated the idea of holding a desk job in a bureaucracy.

He had been at the Pentagon only a few months before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Pond spent the next two years at the Pentagon, then worked for the secretary of the Air Force as a legislative liaison, preparing the secretary for hearings before House and Senate committees, writing language for the National Defense Authorization Act, and escorting members of Congress on delegation visits around the world.

He was commander at several other Air Force bases before ending his career as vice commander of the 20th Air Force in Cheyenne, Wyo., where he was second in charge of the country’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force. Pond had three bases, 450 silos and missiles, nearly 20,000 personnel, and an annual budget of $750 million under his command.

He retired in 2011 after 30 years in the Air Force. He and Patty moved back to Wichita a year ago, and he now works as consultant to the ICBM program.

At war college, Pond said, he did a lot of war gaming and studied the “asymmetrical warfare” used by terrorists.

But, he said, “Even though we studied it, we thought it would never happen to us, and never happen at the Pentagon.”

“You feel kind of hopeless when you have a nuclear weapons background and find this big powerful weapon can’t prevent that type of warfare,” Pond said. “We were fighting a different enemy using different tactics.”

Every anniversary of the attack is painful. Although he didn’t lose any friends in the Pentagon that day, he still tries not to think about it.

“I just get very angry because it changed our country, and I don’t think it changed it for the good,” Pond said. “Life was pretty good and pretty happy before then, and we’ve been at war for a long time. Even before that, we were at war in Bosnia, Grenada ... That was the last thing we needed.”

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