While President Donald Trump and the first lady were in Pennsylvania observing the Sept. 11 anniversary, an equally solemn ceremony was taking place at the Pentagon more than 100 miles away.
On Sept. 11, 2001, at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 flew directly into the west side of the Pentagon building, killing 125 people inside. Fifty-nine passengers and crew aboard the plane, along with the five hijackers, also lost their lives.
Standing next to the National 9/11 Memorial outside the Pentagon, a group including Pentagon employees, service members, Prince Charles, members of Congress and the Cabinet, and friends and family of those who died that day gathered underneath a flag draped over the point of impact.
The names of all 184 people killed that day at the Pentagon were read aloud, punctuated by the ring of a single bell.
After a brief prayer, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva spoke of the ideals of freedom and liberty that were the target of the al-Qaeda terrorists who hijacked four planes that day. He called on the country to reaffirm its commitment to protecting those ideals, and pointed to the wave of people signing up for the military after Sept. 11 as an example of the importance of those ideals.
“They volunteered during a time of war to defend our country because they believe in what we stand for as a nation,” he said. “We will ensure that future generations of Americans enjoy the same freedoms and liberties.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis assured the family and friends of the fallen that they aren’t alone in mourning, and said he hoped their sacrifice would be an inspiration to those protecting the country.
“If we honor them by living as they would have us live, if we in the Department of Defense do our best every day to protect America’s promise to the world, then we keep our promise to them and to ourselves and future generations,” he said.
Vice President Mike Pence recalled the moment he learned of the attacks 17 years ago. He was in his office when he got word of the World Trade Center attacks in New York. He remembered a few minutes later hearing a staffer shout that the Pentagon had been hit, and when he went outside, he saw a black cloud of smoke rising above the building on an otherwise sunny, cloudless day.
“The selfless acts of courage that took place defined the day,” he said. “There was no time to organize a formal rescue operation, so as the fire spread, countless men and women who had evacuated the Pentagon just moments before, plunged back in.”
“It was the Pentagon’s finest hour.”
He choked up as he recalled the life of Master Sgt. Max Beilke, one of those killed in the Pentagon attack, and how Beilke would recite an Irish verse to veterans across the country: “May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”
Pence pointed to the increased military budget that the Trump administration helped to secure this year, the work the United States has done to combat al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the millions of Americans who have signed up to serve in the military since 9/11.
“Those courageous men and women turned a day of tragedy into a triumph of freedom.”