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How One IU Employee Escaped The Pentagon On 9/11

Pentagon outside view

A photo taken by one of the members of Buher's group once outside the Pentagon. (Courtesy: Jim Buher )

Jim Buher says everyone remembers where they were during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, assassination of President Kennedy, and terrorist attacks on 9/11. During the latter, he happened to be in the Pentagon as part of an Indiana University and Crane Naval Base program.

Buher is a former head of administrative services for the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He spoke Friday on Noon Edition and said his group of 33 people were in a brand-new conference room on the fifth floor of the Pentagon. They were meeting with Navy Under Secretary Susan Livingston, who told them about the World Trade Center attacks as they arrived.

Just as Livingston finished her presentation, Buher said the entire room shook.

“There was no explosion,” he said. “Things shook. I can remember the ceiling tiles shaking a little bit, the light fixtures shaking, and a little bit of smoke started to come in around the registers.”

Buher said Livingston assumed it was a bomb.

The group attempted to exit the same way it entered, but several voices told them to turn around and use the stairwell near the conference room. The stairwell was full of smoke, forcing the group to return the way it was just told to avoid.

While exiting, several voices told the group to watch their step. Buher said this confused him because the hallway is flat; however, he soon encountered a 20-inch ledge. 

Eventually, the emergency lights went out, the walls started to feel hot, and smoke began filling the corridor.

“I remember thinking to myself very honestly, ‘Well, this is it. I’m not going to be able to get out of here and this is the only way out,’” Buher said.

Another voice called out saying there was a light at the end of the tunnel and to keep moving forward.

Once the entire group safely exited the building, Buher said there was another loud noise. He had no idea it was the sound of the escape route collapsing.

As it turns out, the group was directly above the impact zone and 15 minutes away from being trapped. The fifth floor has no windows, so there was no way to see outside. 

“We didn’t realize how close it was,” he said. “And once we realized we had actually gone over that section, it was a very sobering thing thinking about ‘Well, why did we get out but others didn’t?’”

Pentagon collapsed wedge
The group's escape path collapsed 15 minutes after they exited the building. At the time, the noise sounded like a second exlposion. (Courtesy: Jim Buher)

Buher said most of the group did not realize how close they were to the impact zone until breakfast the following morning. At that time, it became clear how lucky they were. 

The engineer responsible for Pentagon renovations said it is a miracle the group escaped.

“She said there is no theoretical, no engineering reason why that building did not collapse immediately,” Buher said. “But luckily, it had collapsed about 12-18 inches, but it had not collapsed fully.”

Buher has only returned to the Pentagon once since that day.

Pentagon escape route
The escape route Jim Buher's group used to exit the Pentagon. (Courtesy: Jim Buher)

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