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September 25, 2002

Forever changed:  ISU alumnus experienced
first-hand the terrorist attack on the Pentagon

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. As his plane descended over the Potomac River on the evening of Sept. 9, 2001, Greg Smith thought, as he had on previous trips to Washington, D.C., that the flight path to Ronald Reagan National Airport was too close to major landmarks for safety, but he quickly dismissed the thought of potential danger.

Smith, a 1985 Indiana State University graduate, could not foresee that it would not be an accident, but the deliberate crashing of a plane into one of those landmarks, along with the crashing of other planes into the World Trade Center and the ground of western Pennsylvania, that would once again put freedom at risk.

Smith and 30 colleagues from the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Crane were on their way to Washington for training in conjunction with their jobs.

During the group’s final first day briefing on Sept. 10, 2001, Charles Nemfakos, then deputy undersecretary of the Navy, was asked what it would take for America’s defense policy to be clear and concise in the 21st century.

“Mr. Nemfakos stated that he felt an event equivalent to Pearl Harbor, either terrorist or military, would be the only event that would awaken the United States from the complacency and security they have had since the end of the Vietnam era,” Smith recalled.

The next morning, Sept. 11, 2001, the Crane delegation arrived at the Pentagon around 9 a.m. and learned during a briefing with Navy Undersecretary Susan Livingstone that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers and that other planes had been hijacked.

“It occurred to me, and probably others, that Washington, D.C. would also be a terrorist target, but we continued with the briefing” Smith said.

Barely 30 minutes later, Smith heard “a tremendous thud, not deafening, but similar to thunder when directly overhead. At the same moment I heard the sound, the room shook and ceiling tiles and lights fell from the ceiling,” Smith said. “Initially when I saw the smoke I thought of a chemical attack.”

Dane Speer, a 1989 ISU graduate, was also part of the Crane delegation. “Different people in the class had different reactions but immediately my thoughts went to ‘We’re getting hit by terrorists also.’ ”

Smith, Speer, and their colleagues from Crane would later learn that a plane had been deliberately flown into America’s military headquarters.

During a period of what Speer dubbed “controlled confusion,” as thick black smoke engulfed the fifth floor of the “E” ring of the Pentagon, Navy personnel familiar with the building helped get the Crane representatives to safety. They made it out over cracked floors that collapsed within minutes of their escape.

Running and walking, first one way and then another, the group stopped to rest beneath the shade of some trees along the banks of the Potomac, before returning to their hotel.

As smoke continued to billow from the Pentagon and the White House and Capitol were evacuated, Smith was struck by how still the normally bustling capital city of the free world had become.

“All of the interstates were stopped. People were out of their vehicles and just staring at the Pentagon. As we walked back to our hotel [there was] a lot of military, a lot of police. It was a scene you see in movies from an Eastern Bloc nation,” Smith said. “We walked by the Lincoln Memorial on the way back and without the vehicle traffic it was almost surreal.”

More than 600 miles away in Smith and Speer’s hometown of Mitchell, Smith’s wife Debby, a 1986 ISU graduate, was substitute teaching at Mitchell Junior High School. The Smiths’ three children were preparing to take the ISTEP when Brett Deckard, a fellow teacher and yet another ISU alumnus, told Debby of the World Trade Center attack.

“As we’re standing there, we’re just kind of conversing and the first thing that came to mind was Washington, D.C. and my concerns. My husband was there,” Debby Smith said.

At that moment, another teacher entered the room with word of the Pentagon attack. Debby rushed home to check Greg’s itinerary, confirming her worst fears that he was at the Pentagon. She asked colleagues at nearby Mitchell Elementary School to keep the news from the couple’s youngest child, and then sought to reassure her two older children.

That’s when Greg finally reached Debby on a borrowed cell phone.

“Before he could even start talking, I said, ‘Are you OK? Where are you?’ and he said, ‘I am fine. We’ve just actually made it out of the Pentagon,’ ” Debby said. “In the background I could hear them running. I could hear their footsteps and I could hear them running from the building.”

Nearly 200 people died at the Pentagon. Though the Crane delegation made it out, each member was forever changed by the experience and so were their loved ones.

“Especially the first few months after the event,” Greg said. “My peaks seemed higher. My valleys seemed lower. I was off that even keel, the even temperament, it seems. The highs, however, are better now because now I try to appreciate the clouds in the evening and spending time with the kids and the family and doing those things that probably are the things that really matter.”

Debby Smith considers herself “one of the luckiest people on earth. It’s taught not just me but our entire family a really big appreciation for every single day.”

The history making experience “definitely makes one think of their priorities in life,” Speer added. “You end up going through, ‘Have I got those priorities in line?’”

Debby Smith believes the lives of her husband and his co-workers were spared so they might fulfill another purpose.

And as the U.S. military continues its fight against those responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, ISU alumni Greg Smith and Speer join 3,000 colleagues at Crane in helping the Navy meet its challenge.


Dave Taylor, assistant director of public affairs
(812) 237-3743 or

ISU Public Affairs:
(812) 237-3773 or