Burb's Eye View: Surviving the attack on the Pentagon

On a beautiful late summer day in Washington, families from all 50 states gathered on the steps of the nation’s capitol. They were recognized in a nationwide event honoring American families with children adopted from other countries.

Rep. Adam Schiff had invited Burbank’s Karen Christoffersen and John Capellaro, who nine years earlier adopted a 3-year-old girl from Russia. When John and Karen arrived in Russia for the adoption, they soon found the girl had brothers.

“In 1992 we went from zero to four kids,” Karen said.

Five years later, they adopted the eldest sibling, Yuri. He was attending Glendale Community College during the Washington adoption event in 2001.

With kids Natasha, Kevin, Ryan and Eric in tow, John and Karen planned a tour of the Pentagon the next day. They got in line later than they wanted, and at 9:37 a.m. they stood at the eastern side of the Pentagon waiting to get in.

“I heard a rattle,” Capellaro recalled last week. “Then the biggest man I’ve seen in my life said, ‘Everybody has to get out now.’”

Another tourist ignored the order, intently reading a brochure about the building. A security guard repeated the command, followed by, “You’re not dying on my watch. Get out now.”

Sitting at their kitchen table after church last Sunday, John and Karen recalled the confusion but overall orderliness of the evacuation.

“It’s probably just a fire,” they remembered feeling.

The family paused in the parking lot to snap a photo — the sun was harsh on their faces as a black plume grew from the building behind them. They remembered smelling fuel, but no one suspected a commercial airliner caused the blaze on the other side of the building.

The family walked to a hotel across the street. They passed military officials asking the crowd for any medical professionals who could help. Once at the hotel they thought it odd that a huge line would be waiting for the bathroom. They soon learned the line was all military personnel waiting for pay phones — waiting to call in or receive orders.

The next sound was like a cannon going off, Capellaro said. About 30 minutes after Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, the roof collapsed. Christoffersen remembered being ushered into the hotel’s conference rooms with other evacuees. Most were military, and all were aware that the country was under attack.

“You could see the anger in the military [personnel] around us,” she said. “We didn’t know if the third world war was going to start.”

They watched events unfold on the hotel’s television screens. Eventually they left to find food — a Subway restaurant turned them away because it was feeding police and fire officials.

They kept walking Washington’s largely deserted streets, passing by airline pilots who stood on street corners watching the skies for more airplanes. They found a restaurant open four miles away — Bullfeathers, a favorite lunch spot for many members of Congress.

There they found themselves mixed in among a local crowd; by this point most tourists had returned to their hotels or made arrangements to leave the city. But the Burbank family had no choice but to stay put as their travel agent worked the phones to get them home. Airline after airline grounded flights for the foreseeable future.

The family wandered the National Mall, and Capellaro recalled seeing only one car on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was parked in the middle of the road, its driver presumably abandoning it upon hearing the news of the attacks.

“The fact that there was no other sound than the F-18 jets overhead was surreal,” he said.

Their extended family did not know of their Pentagon visit that day save Karen’s sister, whose husband suggested the tour in the first place. She, Karen said, was “falling apart.”

After informing everyone of their safety, the family had what amounted to a peaceful few days in the nation’s capital. They had many national monuments to themselves and were thanked for their patronage nearly everywhere they went. On Saturday, they were able to return home.

Though the family shared somewhat positive memories of that day, the breadth of 9/11’s impact is never far away. Capellaro said his daughter Natasha will probably never fly again, and each September for the last 10 years the family has reflected on the good fortune that they entered the east side of the building that day.

“If the plane was coming the other way, there would be no stories. We would be gone,” Capellaro said.

They learned later that if the plane struck the center of the building, the damage would have spread much farther.

“It was a matter of inches, pretty much,” Capellaro’s son, Eric, said. “It was a miracle.”

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. He can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.

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