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‘My Life Changed That Day’ – DHA Staff Recalls 9/11 at the Pentagon

"Merwynn Pagdanganan, a federal health care IT specialist at the Pentagon, was there the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He jumped into action to support the emergency responders aiding and evacuating the injured (Courtesy of Merwynn Pagdanganan)." Merwynn Pagdanganan, a federal health care IT specialist at the Pentagon, was there the morning of Sep. 11, 2001. He jumped into action to support the emergency responders aiding and evacuating the injured (Courtesy of Merwynn Pagdanganan).

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Twenty years ago on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Merwynn Pagdanganan's day began like every other routine workday at the Pentagon's TRICARE Health Clinic.

But at 9:02 a.m., as he walked around the Pentagon's Medical Command Suite, he heard the news that two planes had struck the World Trade Center in New York City.

At about 9:37 a.m., he noticed the lights started to flicker and he felt "some kind of a mild blast." At first, the blast didn't alarm him because the Pentagon was undergoing renovations and "slight shakes were typical."

"But I noticed that something was different, odd, when the lights flickered in the hallway and in the command suite," he recalled.

"I knew then something was up, something was wrong."

Pagdanganan, a federal health care IT specialist, is one of many in the military medical community who were at the Pentagon when hijacked passenger planes hit the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia; with a final hijacked plane being forced to crash into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Most Americans remember the terror, the sense of disbelief, and the confusion that followed. But many also remember the sense of duty, selflessness, and courage that took over individuals and communities across the United States and the world, inspiring them to do something positive to help.

On the 20th anniversary of that day, the Defense Health Agency recognizes, remembers, and honors those who perished in the attacks as well as the survivors and everyone who contributed selflessly to serve others and lend a hand in whatever way possible on that day and in the weeks, months, and years that followed.

For Pagdanganan, the experience profoundly influenced the way he's lived life since then.

"I have so many lessons from that day," he said. "I always tell my family, my kids and friends and all my colleagues to live life to the fullest and continue serving as much as you can. Things can change any minute, any second, and you never know if tomorrow will be the last."

He also remembers "coming together as a nation to help each other out," and says what he lived through that day made him want to continue a life of service and volunteerism supporting the military community. With more than 21 years as a federal employee in health care information technology, he sees his job as "dear to his heart," and his way to continue supporting the military.

On that fateful morning Pagdanganan responded immediately.

Firefighters standing around after an exhausting day and talking
On Sept. 11, 2001, Merwynn Pagdanganan, a health care IT specialist at the Pentagon, helped emergency responders set up Ground Zero at the Pentagon’s courtyard to treat casualties and set up a morgue (Courtesy of Merwynn Pagdanganan).

"It's kind of like that instinct, that motherly instinct," he recalled. "I immediately ran into my office, grabbed the emergency handheld radio, and heard the Force Protection Agency's call for 100% evacuation," he said.

"I immediately went to our command suite and advised them to evacuate, but we still didn't have any idea of what was going on."

As they left the building, everything "was just basically smoking." They later learned what had happened from the news broadcasting outside.

But rather than evacuating for his own safety, Pagdanganan and his colleagues, who did not sustain physical injuries, helped evacuate patients who were in the building "to get them outside, to the north parking lot."

"We established multiple teams to go inside the Pentagon, because we started seeing casualties," he said. "Your instinct is to basically jump in and take action right away, not thinking about calling someone else or calling your family."

"With my colleague, we ran into the center courtyard, Ground Zero, where we helped set up a triage area, along with the Arlington County Fire Department and Police and the Pentagon's Emergency Operations Center," he said.

But another call on the radio mandated for 100% evacuation: "Everyone must leave the building now," he remembers it saying. "We had to evacuate then because we heard there was another plane coming towards us," he said.

"My life changed that day," says Pagdanganan. "I didn't get to talk to my family for almost nine hours - they had no idea what was going on with me - and when they finally saw me, they thought they were seeing a ghost."

"It was a good feeling to finally embrace them, let them know I was safe after seeing all the casualties and people that were hurt," he said.

"But the mission still continued, and even though my family didn't want me to go back for safety reasons, for me, I still felt I had to go in every day."

He said one of the biggest things he learned that day is "we have so many great people out there helping each other."

"We tend to forget what we, as individuals, can do out there if we help each other out," he reflected. "So, of course, for me, this will never end, it's a dear part of my heart, it's in me."

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