By Cash Michaels
At 9:37 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a terrorist-hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, flying at an estimated 530 miles an hour, barreled into the western façade of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., exploding into an enormous fireball, killing 64 onboard (including the five terrorists), and 125 military and civilian personnel in the building.
Christina Jones of Garner was almost one of them.
The Virginia native’s office was close, very close to the crash site, and in the panic to get out of the intense flames and smoke, the young woman almost ran towards the destruction. If not for a nearby contract worker forcibly grabbing her, steering her to come with him as she frantically tried to fight him off, Jones is certain she would have perished.
Jones has never been able to return to the Pentagon since that horrific day ten years ago, nor ride a plane, nor deal with anything military.
Nor had she been able to talk about the deep pain and anguish she has felt all these years since, not even when friends and family would encourage her to do so.
But finally, last week, as the nation paused to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York, Christina Jones, through her deep faith in God, found the strength and courage to finally tell her story for the first time.
Telling it, in hopes that through her long held struggle, she can help others deal with theirs.
Jones, who was in her twenties at the time, began her career working at the Pentagon in 1989, moving up the ladder to work for General Ralph “Ed” Eberhart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), from 1998 to 2001.
“The Pentagon was like my family, my home,” Jones recalls. Both her mother, Gilbretta Ashton-Jones (who had retired), and her sister, Crystal, had also worked there. Even though the Pentagon was huge, everyone knew each other, she says.
Her office was on the fourth floor of the five story building, located in “D-ring,” the fourth of five rings to the middle of the complex. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a beautiful day weatherwise as she recalls, Jones came to work at 7:30 a.m.
At 8 a.m., her coworkers were in a meeting. Within the hour, her mother called from home to say that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
The staff was quickly gathered. Jones’ supervisor informed everyone, and advised them to remain calm until more information was forthcoming.
But Jones says she knew inside that something else could occur, and that the Pentagon was a likely target.
“I feel very uncomfortable,” Jones remembers telling her supervisor. “I think we’re next. I think this IS a terrorist attack.”
Jones wanted to leave right then. She wanted to evacuate the building. She wondered why it wasn’t happening.
Her supervisor tried to dissuade her fears, and advised that Jones go back to her desk and work. Jones felt so strongly that something would be happening at the Pentagon, she began shaking. She called her mother, and told her she loved her.
Jones had no doubt.
“I saw pictures of my life just flash before me,” she recalls. Jones began singing hymns from church to give her comfort, began saying prayers and reciting Bible passages to herself to calm her spirit.
Then it happened.
Jones heard a loud, explosive noise.
“I didn’t know where the plane was, but I knew it was very, very close,” she says.
Jones cried out, “Jesus, Jesus, I’m ready.” Her office shook. Her desk toppled. She was thrown out of her chair, bumping her head on the ground, where she laid in shock.
Moments later she realized her co-workers had fled the scene, leaving her behind.
Amid the smoke and noise, Jones runs in front of her office, and tries to find a way to the fifth floor to get her sister, Crystal.
In times of trouble, their mother always said find each other, and stay together.
A contract worker, seeing her, stops Jones, telling her she had to leave with him for immediate safety.
She struggles with him, screaming, determined to find her sister, but he refuses, and hauls her out of the burning, smoke-filled building.
Jones recalls seeing people wounded, crying, laying down in exhaustion. Sirens are sounding; firemen and rescue workers are scrambling. She is a mess, confused and frightened.
Who was this man trying to save her, a man that she only refers to today as ‘my angel”?
The contract worker takes Jones to his car, gets a number to call her mother to assure her that she is OK, and drives Jones home.
She eventually learns that her sister, Crystal, is safe as well.
Before she heard from him, Gilbretta Ashton-Jones was certain that her daughters had perished.
Along the way, Jones continuously tries to escape his car in motion. He has to lock the doors to keep her safe.
In the years since, Jones hasn’t been able to watch any news about 9/11. It was too painful. Jones had lost church members, friends, even a nice person she called “the Candy man” who handed out pieces of candy to co-workers.
Jones credits her faith in GOD, and her family for helping her deal with the aftermath. She felt guilty that others she knew died, but she didn’t. She went to counseling.
She found ways to cope with the darkness, ways through “knowing the Lord.”
Today, Jones believes that her superiors should have realized after the second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center that an attack was underway, and they should have evacuated shortly after.
A timeline of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 show that hijacked airliners hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m.
The first crash into the North Tower was mistakenly considered by all to be a tragic accident, with no terrorist intent at all. But the second crash, at 9:03 a.m., removed all doubts that America was under attack.
At 9:05 a.m., President George W. Bush had been alerted as to the second attack.
At 9:25 a.m. the Associated Press reports at federal officials confirm that both Twin Tower crashes were terrorist attacks.
At 9:26 a.m. all military bases are ordered to increase threat status to Delta.
At 9:33 a.m. Reagan National Airport tells the Secret Service at the White House that "an aircraft [is] coming at you and not talking with us," referring to Flight 77.
At 9:36 a.m., Vice President Dick Cheney was being evacuated from his White House office for safety. The White House and Capitol Hill are being evacuated as well.
Amid all of these warnings, what did the Pentagon do?
Records show there were no evacuations ordered there until after Flight 77 hit the military facility at 9:37 a.m., over thirty minutes after the president of the United States had been alerted.
Why, to this day, is not clear.
Today, Christina Jones is still dealing with the trauma, but she wants to become a motivational speaker to tell her story, and inspire others to overcome their struggles. She studies the Bible for direction and purpose, and truly believes that God spared her to serve others.
“I don’t feel that I’m lucky,” Jones says. “God allowed me to live for a reason.”