Kim Beaver didn’t know whether her husband was dead or alive.
“He could’ve been killed,” she said. “There just wasn’t a lot of specific news.”
She didn’t have cable television, so the first news of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks came from her husband, who worked in the Pentagon. But 20 minutes after his call, she received a call from her neighbors.
“The next thing I know the neighbor called and said, ‘Did you know a plane flew into the Pentagon?’” she recalled. “Then I was really in a panic because I had just talked to him. We were in a daze. I couldn’t believe this all was happening.”
Philip Beaver, born and raised in Santa Barbara and a graduate of Santa Barbara High School, described his career move as a routine end-of-career assignment. But two months into his new position, what he and his co-workers experienced at the Pentagon on 9/11 was anything but routine.
It was a fluke that he even went to West Point, according to his father, Jerry Beaver, founder of Pacifica Real Estate Group. The family was visiting New York in 1978 when Jerry Beaver decided on a whim to visit his alma mater.
“Dad could we stop here?,” the soon-to-be high school graduate asked.
“You don’t want to stop here because you have to go into the Army,” his dad replied. “I was in the Army; you don’t need to be in the Army.”
But once Beaver watched some of the Army’s promotional films, he was mesmerized.
“We went to West Point by accident, but it ended up being the best thing,” Jerry Beaver said. “The whole thing was fate. He went to West Point, did well, got his master’s and Ph.D in mathematics and ended up in the Pentagon — a very safe place to be.”
Beaver, who now teaches at the University of Denver, spent 29 years at West Point, first as an infantryman, then an operations research analyst and eventually a teacher. In July 2001, he moved on to the Pentagon as a personnel analyst.
“I turned down tenure to go to the Pentagon to see what else was out there and set up for retirement,” he said. “I was ready for some hard-core analysis and to solve some of the Army’s hard problems.”
The Pentagon is made up of five pentagonal structures, Ring E (the outermost) through Ring A, arranged in concentric rings that surround a courtyard.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Beaver was watching the news on TV along with the rest of his co-workers. Once he saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City, he went to his office just outside Ring C to try to find out more.
“After the whole world saw the second plane hit, the whole world knew it was an attack,” Beaver said. “We still didn’t think the Pentagon was a target so there was no move to evacuate.”
About 20 minutes after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, all of the windows around him blew out as a fireball exploded onto his desk.
“I’ve heard plenty of explosions being in the Army,” he said. “It sounded like any other.
“I honestly thought it was a bomb because a fireball came up through the interior window. So I immediately went toward the exterior of the building, toward Ring E, where I realized I was going the wrong direction and started seeing the carnage and destruction.”
Somehow he was unhurt. The Boeing 757 that was the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 penetrated between the first and second floors and went through three rings. Seconds later, the fuel tank exploded and sent a fireball through the building. The attack on the Pentagon killed 125 people.
The government had just begun gradually reinforcing some of the sections with steel. Beaver’s office sat in one of the first “wedges” where construction had been completed.
“The landing gear stopped at the B Ring,” he said. “Had there not been steel, the plane would’ve plowed through to the courtyard and there would’ve been much more death and destruction.”
The emergency doors deployed and all of the exits were blocked, so Beaver evacuated people past his desk, shouting at the top of his lungs to direct people out through a wall of smoke and screaming.
Once he got everyone he could out to the courtyard, security began moving everyone through the parking lot. It was there that he found a friend and used his cell phone to call his wife.
“I was in a constant worry not knowing if he or the people we knew who worked in the Pentagon were safe,” Kim Beaver said. “But after I heard from him, it was a huge relief and he told me some people who were fine.”
Hours later, after Beaver helped as many as he could, his superiors ordered him to leave. As he started the 12-mile walk home covered in plaster and with his shirt untucked, all he could think of was the extent of the attack and who in his office was killed.
“What I didn’t know was if the nation was under attack,” he said. “What was happening in L.A., Chicago, Miami, Detroit?
“I had no idea what the scope of the attack was.”
As those thoughts were swirling around his head, a car stopped in front of him and the driver offered him a ride.
“I don’t know where you’re going, but we know where you’re coming from and we’re giving you a ride,” the man told him.
When Kim and Philip Beaver finally wrapped their arms around each other, they were still in a daze.
“We were both so happy to see each other,” he said. “I remember we were both in shock.”
They have two daughters — Elaine was in fifth grade and Elizabeth was in second. A substitute teacher turned on the television that morning, and Elaine saw that a Pentagon crashed into where her father worked.
“That was the best thing hearing that she heard that I was OK,” Beaver said.
In terms of the nation’s immediate action, he said war was the only appropriate response to the attacks.
“If people are harboring terrorists plotting to destroy you, you need to take out terrorists and those harboring them,” he said. “I would’ve preferred to see us finish the job in Afghanistan in 2003 instead of messing around there and Iraq.”
Beaver went to 26 of the 28 funerals for those who died who were in his “wedge,” but he didn’t know any of the victims personally.
“What I want people to know is those who attacked us that day will do it again in an instant if they have the chance,” Beaver said. “We’re all reminded of that every time we’re harassed at the airport, every time we get screened going into the D.C. monument, but we need to remember that their successors are still out there and they want to see Western society destroyed.
“We need to continue to be vigilant. We can’t take our eye off the ball.”
Of Beaver’s 29 years in uniform, he calls it his one bad day.