Sept. 11 changed the life of Dusty Wilson, his family

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

ODON ---- For Dusty Wilson and his family, everything changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Dusty was in a meeting at the Pentagon when a terrorist-highjacked commercial plane slammed into the building. It hit 70 feet from where he was sitting.

Dusty, a civilian, works for the Department of the Navy at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane. His job frequently takes him to Washington, D.C.

Ironically, his job is running an Anti-Terrorism Force Protection Task Force.

"We've been looking at anti-terrorism and different force protection tactics and defense, to protect ships and Naval bases for a year and a half," Dusty said. "Sept. 11 was actually an opportunity for me to live my job."

Dusty, the son of David and Sonja Wilson of Bedford and formerly of Linton, was there with a group of 30 from Crane taking part in a program management course that took them to the Pentagon, the Capitol Building and other places to meet with high-ranking officials.

"That particular day, we had a meeting with the Undersecretary of the Navy, Susan Livingstone," Wilson said.

He sat next to Livingstone and across the table from Eric Moody of Bloomfield, also a member of the same task force.

Recent restoration to the part of that part of Pentagon, which has 24-inch-thick concrete walls, is what helped save their lives, Dusty believes.

"The Pentagon is a maze, and the building is 26 acres across," he noted. Running late to meet Livingstone, they arrived at the Pentagon at 9 a.m. and rushed to get to the meeting room, not paying any attention to any exits, fire escapes. They didn't know the first terrorist attacks had already took place, with two planes hitting the World Trade Center towers in New York.

The third was about to hit them.

"We got settled in about 10 after 9 and the Undersecretary of the Navy's Chief of Staff came in and told us about the two Trade Center hits," he said. "We were all in shock."

Livingstone went ahead talking to the group about the Navy's defense plans.

"Then the room shook, a real sudden jolt, a low rumble. It was more like an earthquake than a blast," said Dusty. "Ceiling tiles came loose and part of the light fixture fell out onto the center of the conference room table. Black smoke started pouring out of the ceiling."

Livingstone immediately stood up, put both hands on the table and said, "It's terrorists, and we've been bombed. So the whole time, trying to get out of this building, we thought we had been bombed," Dusty said.

The lights were still on in the hallway, and there was a stairwell exit to the right. But when they opened the door, "the stairway was gone and black smoke was belching up out of there," Dusty said.

No one was panicking at that point, he noted. The group started down the hallway, in the other direction.

"It was dark there, like a cave." There were no windows, and it was getting hard to breathe through he thick smoke. Some were crawling down the hallway, trying to stay beneath the smoke. Everyone covered their face with ties, coats, anything they could to avoid breathe the smell of burning jet fuel.

"So when we left to go into the darkness and into the heat, we had no way of knowing we were going into the fireball that had rolled over the building where the plane hit, and we were crossing right over the top of where the left wing of the plane would have attached to the fuselage," he said.

"The corridor had already began to fall about 12 inches, and they were telling us we couldn't go that way."

A feeling of helplessness began, he admitted. "Everything got really quiet. People's emotions started, your thoughts started coming to you, and that's when you started thinking about your family.

"I was about third from the end of the line, and there was a lady in front of me on a walker, and you could hear it ---- click, click, click. She was in a predicament, she couldn't put her hand over her mouth and run her walker. But a lady who worked with her was putting her hand with a rag, over her mouth, helping her out."

They made their way down the corridor by feeling along the wall.

"It was getting tremendously hot, and we knew if we stayed there much longer we weren't going to make it," Dusty said. "That's when we heard a voice."

A commander who had been stationed on the fourth floor, they found out later, had come up to the fifth floor to help. He was calling to them, telling there was light at the end of the tunnel.

"There was a ray of hope," he said.

All of his group got out alive.

For Sandy, "The worst part for me was waiting for him to come home."

That morning she had been getting their son, Clayton, ready for pre-school when her mother, Doris Medley of rural Carlisle, called to tell her what had happened in New York.

Sandy continued getting Clayton ready, but soon heard that the Pentagon had also been hit, and she knew her husband was there. Forcing herself to stay calm, especially when Dusty's mother, Sonja Wilson called to ask where her son was, Sandy assured her, telling her that the Pentagon was a big place and she felt sure Dusty was all right.

"Then I saw that floor collapse at the Pentagon," she said. "It didn't hit me until then. But somehow, I knew he was OK. Whether it was denial, I don't know.

"The kids and I pray for him every night when he's gone, and we pray as a family when Dusty's here, at night before we go to bed," Sandy said. "For some reason, I knew he was fine."

She took Clay to pre-school and let their daughter, Ashtin, stay in another class, knowing it would give her a couple of hours to figure out what her morning ---- and perhaps the rest of her life ---- was going to become.

Back home, the phone was ringing off the hook from friends and family wondering about Dusty. It rang again, and there was silence at the other end of the line.

She knew it was Dusty. Neither of them could speak.

"It's hard for us to accept what we went through as tragic or difficult," Dusty said, knowing that while he survived, many people lost their lives that day. "I just feel extremely fortunate that God answers prayers.

"It hasn't made me a perfect person ... I still have many faults," he said. "But Sept. 11 has made me think twice about the consequences of what I do and say."

Today, at 33, his priorities are re-focused, and he takes nothing for granted any more.

"I don't think about getting that project done on your desk, how much money you have, or making it to the lake this weekend," he said.

Money isn't important any more.

Family and God are what it's all about.

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