Memories of 9/11 attack on Pentagon remain close to the surface for Albuquerque native

A helicopter hovers near the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, as smoke rises from the area of the complex struck by a hijacked airliner. Albuquerque native Robert Cortez, then a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, was at the Pentagon at the time and escaped uninjured. (Associated Press)
A 2018 photo shows the grounds of the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial before the start of that year’s anniversary observance of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. Albuquerque native Robert Cortez, then a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and on duty at the Pentagon at the time, said the immediate aftermath of the attack was organized chaos. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

 

Col. Robert Cortez in 2001

Robert Cortez doesn’t need a calendar or annual memorial services to remind him of 9/11.

All it takes to put him back into the horror of that day is a low-flying plane or a loud noise that sounds like an explosion.

That’s because Cortez, then a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, was at the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 plunged into the military complex, killing 125 persons in the building and all 64 people, including five hijackers, on the plane.

“I heard this noise like a train coming down the hall,” Cortez recalled during a recent interview at his West Side home in Albuquerque. “And then BOOM, the doors blew open and the ceiling tiles flopped up.”

Vietnam veteran

An Albuquerque native, Cortez grew up in the city’s Barelas and Wells Park neighborhoods. He graduated from Albuquerque High in 1968 and joined the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Assigned to Construction Battalion 22, he served in Vietnam from March 1970 to April 1971.

Cortez lay block for buildings that would serve as quarters for Vietnamese navy officers and worked with plumbers and electricians when he could. Once, on a supply run north of Da Nang, his unit came under enemy fire.

“The Marines came in with their Cobra helicopters and ground troops and cleaned things up,” he said.

After his time in Vietnam, Cortez transferred from the Naval Reserve to the New Mexico Army National Guard Officer Candidate School. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in June 1974. In May 1975, he transferred to the Army Reserve.

He was promoted to colonel in April 2001 and assigned to the Army Reserve Armed Forces Policy Committee at the Pentagon. His second day there was Sept. 11, 2001.

Organized chaos

Cortez was attending a meeting in a conference room on the north side of the Pentagon when the airliner crashed into the building’s west side. A blast of wind battered Cortez and the others in the meeting and Cortez’s ears popped.

“The plane came in at 540 mph at an angle and took out corridors four and five,” he said. “The administrative offices (the Joint Chiefs of Staff) are on the east side of the Pentagon. The west side, where the plane hit, had been under renovation or there would have been a lot more people there. On Oct. 1, 5,000 people were due to move in.”

Cortez describes the scene after the airliner hurtled into the building as organized chaos. He said people were yelling, screaming and crying.

“We heard ‘evacuate, evacuate,’ ” he said. “I thought ‘Holy smoke, there are 23,000 people in this building.”

Cortez said the panic he saw in the faces of the people at the Pentagon that day reminded him of pictures he had seen of people on the grassy knoll in Dallas just after President Kennedy was shot in November 1963. All these years later, he still finds that deeply disturbing.

After evacuating, Cortez was on the east side of the Pentagon.

“This medic said, ‘I need some help,’ ” Cortez said. “He had this badly injured Army officer, who was burned over 60% of his body.”

The badly burned officer, Cortez said, was Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, now a Texas state senator, whose ordeal on 9/11 is detailed in “Refined by Fire,” a book by Birdwell and his wife, Mel.

Cortez said he and others helped get Birdwell to the Pentagon’s north parking lot, where they waited in vain for an ambulance to transport the injured man to a hospital.

“No ambulances came,” Cortez said. “We flagged down a (Ford) Expedition. He fit and we put him in there.”

Orders were to leave the area, so Cortez started walking and finally reached a clothing exchange at Fort Myer in Arlington County, Virginia, a couple of miles from the Pentagon.

“They let me use the phone and I called my daughter at Sandia National Labs,” he said, his voice breaking slightly as he recalled that time. “I got her on the phone. She said, ‘Dad, I’m so glad you are alive.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ ”

Changed forever

Robert Cortez in 2021

“I went back to the Pentagon on Wednesday (Sept. 12),” he said. “The FBI was there. Everyone was armed. I saw all these young troops waiting to go in to search (the ruined section of the Pentagon). I thought that was very sad. Once they go in, their lives will be changed forever.”

He was assigned to the Army Operations Center, Crisis Action Team at the Pentagon and served there from shortly after 9/11 until November 2003.

“Our primary duty was to give briefings on the Afghan War,” he said. “It was very intense, 14-hour days.”
Cortez, now 71, retired from the Army Reserve on July 1, 2004.

A room in his handsome and comfortable home is filled with mementoes of his military career. But he needs none of those to remember 9/11.

A low-flying plane is all it takes, or a loud noise — like an explosion, or a train coming down the hall.

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