ANGOLA — Rear Adm. Edward “Sonny” Masso was commanding officer of the Navy Command Center Detachment 106 at the U.S. Pentagon 18 years ago.
Yes, on a morning he describes as “stunningly gorgeous,” Masso was at the Pentagon, a day he refused for years to speak publicly about.
He’d spent the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, at his desk in Crystal City, Virginia, just minutes away from the Pentagon when he heard news of the first airplane striking the World Trade Center in New York City.
Masso called an officer in the center to see what he knew.
“He told me most of his news was from CNN, but he’d keep me posted,” Masso said while addressing the crowd at Trine University in its first Distinguished Speaker Series of the year on Wednesday.
When the second plane hit in New York, Masso made a call to Capt. Jerry Deconto and he was told to meet at Deconto’s office right away.
“I checked my watch and it was 9:30, just minutes before the attack (on the Pentagon),” he said.
The jolt, said Masso, was unlike anything he had ever felt before. He was at the top of an escalator as the entire Pentagon shook. Lights went out, the escalator went off track and loud speakers came to life telling all personnel to evacuate immediately.
“There was no way I was leaving that building for any reason,” he said.
He hustled down that non-functioning escalator and ran to an outer access door for the command center.
Like any responder, he put his hand to the door before trying to open it.
“It was white-hot,” Masso said. “I could feel the heat from inside.”
The command center had taken a direct hit from American Airlines Flight 77. It was just after 9:40 a.m.
“I turned from that door, which was smart in retrospect, and realized I was outside a ladies restroom,” he said. “There was loud screaming and mass confusion. Water from sprinklers and broken plumbing was spewing.”
He moved some debris to help seven women escape.
“They were overcome with fear and in shock, but physically fine,” Masso said.
Five minutes later, he had returned to the command center door to find it was gone. It had collapsed.
“I feared all my people were lost,” he said. “I increased my resolve to get inside to see if I could help anyone.”
The command center operates 24-7. Masso had 155 people under his command, rotating in around-the-clock teams.
“We were the ones that got news first,” he said. “We dispatched directions and orders to the top leadership of naval combat to execute. The job was relentless and among our duties was responding with crisis action teams.”
Masso recalled stimuli each of his senses experienced as he was trying to help his men, coworkers and friends that day.
For smell, it was of the smoke and fire.
Sights included what he described as “horrific destruction, death and profound injury.”
Touch included the people jumping from higher floors into the arms of human safety nets.
“I lost 34 in the command center,” he said.
He was at ground level. Those above were the ones most affected, he said.
“The Pentagon had just been renovated,” Masso said. “I could see flames tickling the glass above me with people desperately trying to get through the windows.”
He credits their adrenaline and determination with being able to get the windows pushed out so they could jump to hopeful safety.
Masso felt the sensation of taste as the overwhelming smells took over, permeating his mouth and throat.
“But sound, sound was the most egregious of sensations as the cries of the injured from the inner depths of the space, due to destruction, heat and smoke, tortured me and gave me a sense of helplessness,” he said. “Friends, shipmates, colleagues were trapped in an inferno I couldn’t rescue them from.”
As the noise lessened, he said the newfound silence suggested death.
Life was discovered, however, much to his relief. Several injured, many badly burned, came out of the fire.
“One individual was completely burned, his clothing gone and he resembled a lobster,” Masso said. “He was in shock and came up asking what he could do to help.”
Upon reflection over the day, Masso said he was reminded of a vignette from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream, my nightmare, crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor surviving.”
The razor that day, Masso said, was surrendering to the terror or moving onto duties that you knew could take your life.
“For me, and this is intensely personal, I kept telling myself this was show time and everything I’d trained for as a military man and believer in God was on that line,” Masso said. “I said to myself over and over this is show time so do your duty, be a leader and if God wants you to die today, so be it.”
Like Masso, other brave responders and warriors ignored loud speakers telling them to evacuate and fought their way through the rubble, coming to the fire.
“Like the cavalry, they got straight to work,” he said. “They put t-shirts over their heads and went in as far as they could.”
With their efforts, Masso said he counted at least 10, perhaps as high as 12-15 people saved, though he imagines the results might have been even more.
One of those, he said, was Petty Officer Paul Gaston. A man from a small town in Mississippi, Masso knew his family, his wife. Gaston was drenched in water, sweat, ceiling materials and blood.
“He had been standing next to two officers that were found killed,” Masso said.
When the ceiling collapsed, the fire suppression system and water in it saved Gaston’s life.
“As for me, his life means the world,” Masso said. “Especially that day, because for a brief moment death was defeated. For one, tender mercy, I will always be profoundly grateful.”
Technology 18 years ago was vastly different than today.
Masso at the time of the attack had on him a “worthless” analog cell phone and a pager that worked.
“Within minutes of the disaster, based on my pager, my men and women were deployed and due to my folks’ efforts, your Navy’s command center was only down 22 minutes,” he said. “We trained and trained for contingencies, for when the center could be compromised, and it was highly successful.”
It wasn’t until 2014 that Masso would take speaking engagements about his experiences.
“I changed my mind in 2014 when speaking to seventh grade history classes in Henderson, Nevada,” he said. “To my astonishment, less than 10 students had ever heard of 9/11. And you should know, it was a stellar school with great academic culture and representation.”
Students in the classes, he said, had been born in the early 2000s with the topic never really on their academic horizons.
“I knew then if I was provided the opportunity to speak, I would jump on it even if only to memorialize those that died that day.”
Every day in some way, he thinks about his people, those lost on Sept. 11, 2001. About those in the upper floors of the World Trade Center buildings who couldn’t get out, responders running in full gear, knowing they may not come out.
“I’m far from over it about any of this,” Masso said. “I’m not over this experience in any way, shape or form.”
He said he visits the graves of those lost in the command center a few times every year.
“I loved those people so much,” Masso said. “God bless you all, God bless the souls of the 9/11 departed and God bless America.”
In his introduction and briefly at the end of his nearly hour-and-a-half talk, Masso expressed his appreciation to the Trine community for making feel at home and as part of the Trine family.