When disaster struck, Brian Roberts ran toward danger.
Volunteer firefighter Brian Roberts never thought he would be part of history before he walked toward a black cloud of smoke at the Pentagon on the morning of 9/11.
The Greenbelt, Md., resident had been preparing for what he thought would be another ordinary work day when he got word that one of New York’s World Trade Center towers had fallen.
By the time he arrived at the Greenbelt Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad Station, the second tower had collapsed, and all the firefighters were staring at the television in disbelief.
“I never would have thought I would have wound up at an incident this big,” said Roberts, who at the time was a graduate student studying science and engineering. Today he’s a NASA engineer.
Roberts was a part of the first wave of firefighters called to the Pentagon. Ten years later, he joins the survivors in recalling the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
And, 10 years later, he writes for therapy. Roberts started his own website to cope with the horrors of that day, and also to share his story with others.
A quiet ride home
9/11 Greenbelt 911 scanner call
‘They had body bags laid out’
When his crew arrived at the Pentagon at 10:26 a.m., Roberts recalls feeling as though he entered a war zone. Police cars, military vehicles and helicopters filled the scene, followed by numerous fire trucks in the already-congested parking lot.
While waiting for direction, the members of his team of firefighters weren’t sure if they would be able to enter the building and do their job.
An hour later, they suited up and received orders to put their nose in their sleeve to protect themselves from inhaling smoke. They were also instructed to use their oxygen packs sparingly because they would be fighting the fire from the inside out.
Roberts knew things were as bad as they seemed because of actions being taken in the courtyard of the Pentagon by the police department and organizations such as Red Cross.
“They had the body bags already laid out,” Roberts said.
No one in Roberts’ immediate family — a mother and two brothers in Ohio — knew where he was, and he had no intention of telling anyone because his focus was on the fire.
Later, he borrowed a cell phone from another firefighter to notify his girlfriend he wouldn’t be able to make their date, an Orioles’ baseball game, and that she could take another friend in his place — not knowing the game had been canceled due to the attacks.
Seeing the motionless bodies of innocent people is something he will never forget.
“One guy was still sitting in his chair — literally just one second there, one second gone,” Roberts said. “The fire came through, torched his chair, torched his desk and torched half his body.”
Heat was one of the first things that grabbed his attention when walking into the smoke filled Pentagon. Roberts said he didn’t even think about his own life or those of the firefighters around him. He felt that his only goal was to stop the fire and save whoever might be trapped.
Within the first wave, the firefighters separated into groups. At some point, it was his team’s turn to relieve the firefighters who went in ahead of them to fight the fire.
“The first group that went in, the hose would get hung up — it was pitch black, they couldn’t see — it would get hung up on dead bodies,” Roberts said.
As the smoke cleared, Roberts said he imagined how quickly people had moved from the attack at the Pentagon. At the scene he saw cell phones, car keys and other valuables left behind.
Being at the Pentagon on 9/11 changed the way Roberts thinks about life, he said.
He said the most important life lesson he took from his experience was to “not sweat the small stuff.” Even today, he still recalls how the burnt offices of the Pentagon looked and smelled.
“There was USA Today, Washington Post on people’s desk, so it was literally like they were having morning coffee, and suddenly got up.”