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Local man in Pentagon for attack

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randall@poststar.com

HUDSON FALLS - Christopher Howk, a Navy administrator who works at the Pentagon, was uneasy as he watched televised images of the second plane tearing through the World Trade Center towers.

He was thinking the Pentagon would probably be the next target.

At home in Hudson Falls recently to visit his parents, Howk talked about what it was like to be at the Pentagon - he was about 100 yards away from the impact of the hijacked plane - in the worst-ever attack on American soil.

Howk graduated from Hudson Falls High School in 1991 and has served 10 years in the Navy. He was at his desk on the west side of the Pentagon on Sept. 11 when the phone rang. His wife, Lisa, was calling, upset about the first of the hijacked planes plowing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York.

A minute or so later, five or six Navy administrators, including Howk, walked into the office of their boss, Allen Zeman, the director of naval training. Turning on the television in Zeman's office, they saw the impact of the second plane at the World Trade Center.

"We all knew this wasn't possibly a mistake," he said. "A lieutenant turned around and commented, 'I wonder when we're going to get hit,' and it was prophetic. We at the Pentagon know we're one of the top targets in the country, and we knew it wasn't a matter of if, it was a matter of when."

After the attack on the Twin Towers, Howk and his peers, who help plan the movement of Navy personnel, speculated on the military's likely response and where Navy ships might be deployed. They knew the Pentagon, as headquarters of the world's most powerful military as well as the world's largest office complex, had been in the crosshairs of terrorists for years.

"We stayed glued to our posts in the office and discussed how we'd 'spin the fleet up' to do what was needed," he said, recalling how he and six others were standing in Zeman's office talking.

Twenty-seven minutes after the second Trade Center tower was hit, their prediction about the Pentagon became a reality.

At 9:30 a.m., a hijacked Boeing 757 slammed into three of the five concentric rings of offices in the Pentagon, collapsing part of the five-story outer ring. The crash killed 125 people in the building and all 64 on the plane.

The impact slammed Howk and others to the floor, he said.

He opened his eyes to see a massive picture window, a 2-inch-thick glass pane, fall into Zeman's office. But Zeman had dived under his desk. Howk said the 15-foot-high pane missed crushing his boss by inches.

Howk poked his head into the outer office to see if people there were OK, which they were, then returned and called Zeman's name. His boss rolled out from under his desk.

"We then made the collective decision to get out of the building," Howk said.

It was a smart decision, as flames and heavy smoke soon swept through the offices in that part of the Pentagon.

The group of a half-dozen or so went into an area called E-wing Hallway and were jogging away from the impact zone.

"There was a huge smoke ball rolling down the passageway behind us," Howk said. "It caught up with us and covered us in soot and gagged us with the stench of burning jet fuel."

Through one hallway after another, past medical personnel running through passageways to get to the injured and workers rushing to exits, they worked their way toward the Pentagon's central courtyard.

"There were about 6,000 or so people, many of whom were crying," Howk said. "Some were freaking out."

From the central courtyard, Howk and thousands of others walked about a half-mile to the south parking lot, where a Navy captain had organized about 75 servicemen, including Howk, in a human barrier to keep all but firefighters and other emergency officials away from the Pentagon wall.

"All of a sudden, there was a big rumble as a big portion of the west wing collapsed, and we started running," he said.

Soon Howk and many others made their way through a tunnel under an interstate highway to get refreshments and supplies from a Navy exchange store and bring them back to rescue workers who were tending to the injured and searching through the rubble.

Roads and rail lines around the Pentagon were shut down, and thousands of people walked miles beside the empty highways outside Washington. Howk eventually found a Metro bus and rode to his parked car at the Springfield, Va., train station.

Using a borrowed cell phone, he called his wife, who had not heard from him in more than seven hours, to say he was alive and OK.

"She was frantic - crying and sobbing," he said.

Soon after, Howk arrived home to find dozens of friends gathered.

"There was a flood of people outside my home there to greet me," he said.

But many of his co-workers weren't welcomed home that day. About 40 of those killed were people Howk and his staff had worked with every day.

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