It was September 11, 2001, and the meeting Eddy Morehead was heading to was cancelled after two airliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Morehead turned and walked back along the second floor of the Pentagon’s corridor and then climbed the steps back to his third-floor office. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but he had twice traversed a section of the building that in 15 minutes would cease to exist.
The crash site on the Pentagon’s northwest side. This circle is just above Eddy Morehead’s third floor office.
Colonel Eddy Morehead hurried along the wide corridor of the Pentagon’s E-Ring. He was headed toward his second staff meeting of the still young morning. The first, which had started at 0800, had been chaired by his immediate supervisor, an Army one-star general. Morehead had ducked out of this first conference before it concluded because the next meeting had been called by a two-star general — and in the Army, two stars trump one.
No one who knew Eddy Morehead would have been surprised to find him at the Pentagon at 0600 — 6 a.m. by the civilian clock — that late summer morning, cranking up the coffee maker. His father had retired from the Army after 21 years on active duty including service during World War II, then moved his family of six boys and two girls back to his hometown of Westminster. Five of the Morehead brothers had served in the Army simultaneously, two of them retiring as lieutenant colonels. At Clemson, Eddy had served as commander of the Corps of Cadets his senior year.
“We had a very strong ROTC cadre that supported the cadets,” he recalled. “We also got great support from the South Carolina National Guard which provided helicopters for our field training exercises.”
Following his 1977 graduation from Clemson, Eddy attended Army flight school where he earned his wings as a helicopter pilot. His duty assignments included the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; overseas postings in Korea and Germany; a tour with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Somalia; stints as both a company and battalion commander; the Industrial College of the Armed Forces; and the Army Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth. Now, he was punching his ticket in the Pentagon, where “colonels were a dime a dozen” and accustomed to starting the morning coffee.
When Morehead reached the two-star general’s meeting, he found that it had been cancelled. Everyone’s attention had been diverted from routine duties by the drama being played out live on television some 225 miles to the north in New York, where two airliners had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Morehead turned around and walked back along the E-Ring corridor’s second floor and then climbed the steps back to his third-floor office.
“Once I got back to my office, I remember standing with another colonel and leaning over the cubicle of one of our co-workers. She was skilled enough on the computer to have pulled up the news on her monitor, and we were watching the coverage from New York,” Morehead recalled. “After a few minutes, I returned to my desk. My phone rang, and it was my wife Prissy, calling to see if I had seen what was going on. We talked for a few minutes and then I hung up.” Almost immediately, at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon only 60 feet from where Morehead sat. “I actually felt the building shudder and then within a second felt the pressure change as the jet fuel from the airplane exploded. Tiles fell down from the ceiling and windows were blown out.”
Morehead exited his office and stepped into Corridor 4, one of ten hallways laterally connecting the five rings of the Pentagon. “I couldn’t see anything except thick black smoke from the ceiling all the way down to waist level.” But to his left, Morehead could make out the bright glow of flames. Most people headed toward the interior rings of the building and its large courtyard, away from the flames and smoke. Morehead, crouching low, moved toward the inferno. “I wanted to see what was going on, plus I could hear people screaming.”
Dropping into a duck walk to keep his head below the smoke, Morehead watched as dozens of people, service members and civilians alike, streamed past, many bloodied or burned and nearly all covered in black soot. “They looked like coal miners,” he recalled.
Reaching E-Ring, the Pentagon’s outermost section, Morehead and a few others braved the smoke and the increasingly intense flames and began to clear the third-floor offices directly above where the airliner had struck the building. “Debris and rubble covered the floor. We were moving from office to office just trying to make sure no one was trapped.” Morehead worked his way along E-Ring until a wall of flame forced him to turn back, then he searched the offices on the opposite side of the corridor.
“By this time, there was fire all over the place because we were directly above where the plane had impacted,” he recalled. The trash and debris scattered across the floors by the impact now hid from Morehead and his fellow rescuers that the floor beneath them was cracking and about to collapse. “Chief Warrant Officer Paul Heygood and some Navy guys and I next went up to the fourth floor and then to the fifth floor to clear offices. Then we tried to go down to the second floor, but it was just a ball of fire — there was no second floor left.”
Returning to the third floor, Morehead led the others out into the corridor where the smoke was growing thicker by the minute. “This section of the Pentagon had just been renovated and the renovation had included the installation of these big, heavy metal fire doors that stretched across the corridor. We came out of the stairwell and into the corridor and there was Major Mike Kerzie who had used his body to wedge those doors open. He said ‘I saw you go in there, sir, and I wasn’t going to leave until you came out!’” Kerzie’s action kept Morehead and the others from being trapped in the spreading conflagration.
Fires from the burning jet fuel had now spread, and the Pentagon itself was burning. The heat and choking smoke forced Morehead and the small group of rescuers toward the Pentagon’s central courtyard. As they reached the fresh air and sunshine of the courtyard, they encountered a scene unimaginable just an hour before. Medics in bright blue vests were moving among dozens of injured civilians and service members while administering first aid. It was then that Kerzie stopped Morehead with the chilling words, “Sir, we’ve got to go back; I can hear them screaming.”
“The Navy guys knew what to do,” Morehead remembered with admiration for the members of his sister service. “They treated it like a ship-board fire.” Following the sailors’ lead, Morehead, Kerzie and Heygood grabbed fire extinguishers and, wrapping their heads in wet shirts, inched their way into the hole drilled through the first three rings of the building by the nose of the aircraft. “Two of us at a time crawled into the hole and discharged our fire extinguishers until they were all used up. We couldn’t stay in there for more than a few seconds,” so intense was the heat and smoke.
By now, Arlington County firefighters had reached the scene and began to assert control over the fire fighting and rescue operations. Morehead and the others were told to evacuate the area — but they continued to search for ways to assist. At the request of medical personnel, Morehead and his comrades moved medical supplies from the Pentagon’s dispensary to a larger triage site established near the lagoon outside the building’s river entrance. At one point, Morehead used a pair of oversize bolt cutters to break open a locked cabinet containing badly needed medical supplies.
“Somebody grabbed me and said ‘we have a life-or-death situation.’ We had to get an injured lady to the hospital right away.” Morehead accosted the driver of every moving vehicle in the vicinity, including an Air Force general and a local police officer whose K9 partner snarled and barked when Morehead opened the van’s door. Morehead quickly settled on a personal vehicle driven by a lieutenant colonel who was eager to assist. By now, the whole country knew what was happening at the Pentagon. Traffic around the building, always heavy, had come to a complete standstill as roads were blocked and emergency vehicles converged on the scene.
“I sat up in the passenger’s side window and yelled for people to move their cars and let us through,” but the going was too slow and Morehead feared for the life of the injured passenger. Spying a Virginia highway patrolman traveling in the opposite direction, Morehead jumped from his vehicle and flagged the officer down. Quickly explaining the emergency, Morehead convinced the patrolman to escort them to the hospital.
“He got on his loud speaker and began shouting at cars to move out of the way, and they did, but as soon as the patrol car got through, the other drivers would pull back in. They didn’t realize we were trying to follow him.” Again Morehead left the vehicle. “I was running between the rows of cars just pounding on them with my fist. There were a lot of Mercedes and BMWs that got dents from a Clemson ring that day.”
Coming upon a large pickup truck, Morehead again took the initiative. “I explained to the driver that we had a ‘life or death,’ and we were trying to get her to the hospital. He just nodded and said ‘follow me.’ And he literally started pushing cars out of the way.” Due to the efforts of Eddy Morehead and the others involved in the makeshift emergency transport, the woman’s life was saved.
But Morehead’s day wasn’t done.
Leaving the hospital, Morehead attempted to return to the Pentagon and render whatever assistance he could. By now the building was cordoned off by police, fire and other emergency responders. Traffic in the area remained gridlocked. Ambulances and other emergency vehicles were having a hard time reaching the emergency area. “We couldn’t get back to the Pentagon; they wouldn’t let us back in.
“I walked back down to an intersection right at Army-Navy Drive. That thing was one big spider web. It was all tied up. And there was a policeman there, and he wasn’t doing anything, just leaning against his car, and so I got out there and started directing traffic. And the next thing I hear is ‘Hey, Colonel Morehead,’ and here comes Chief Heygood.” Until 3:30 that afternoon, the tired, smoky, adrenalin-fueled officers directed traffic, clearing the way for emergency vehicles to reach the Pentagon and render assistance.
While at the hospital, Morehead had tried to telephone Prissy, but he could not get through. “She knew right where my office was, and they were showing on television where the plane hit. I’m sure she thought I had been killed.” Eventually, he was able to reach his son, Chad, then a junior at Clemson. Chad, an ROTC cadet like his father before him, was able to reach his mother and let her know that Eddy was safe.
“I saw so many brave guys do some unbelievable things. No hesitation. They went in to save somebody. There’s no doubt in my mind that some of the people who died that day weren’t killed in the impact but because they went in trying to save others.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Arlington County Fire Department assistant chief James Schwartz, the on-scene commander of the emergency response team. “Truly heroic acts were exhibited on the parts of both military and civilian personnel who were residents of the Pentagon, who saved far more lives in those first few minutes, than we saved at any time in that incident. … What those people in uniform and out of uniform did on that morning were truly heroic acts that should not go unrecognized.”
In fact, Eddy Morehead’s deeds were recognized by the Army, which awarded him the Soldier’s Medal. The commendation read:
“FOR HEROISM: above and beyond the call of duty on 11 September 2001. … Colonel Morehead entered the damaged area at corridor 4 E-Ring and began rescue efforts. Initially he assisted survivors as they escaped from the wreckage and debris. However, even though encountering intense heat, thick toxic smoke, and at one point, an immense wall of flames that reached from the first floor through the roof, and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, he proceeded deeper into the area of impact along the E-Ring, pulling injured and wounded from the wreckage.”
Eddy Morehead left the Pentagon in 2002 and was assigned as the senior Army adviser to the South Carolina National Guard, a post from which he retired in 2009.
Morehead’s memories of that day are vivid. His story is rich with details, ordinary moments that belie the death and destruction to which he was a witness. Yet, he says, what’s important is not how the events of September 11, 2001, changed him, “but how it changed our country and our world. My son’s been to war twice,” he says of Chad who graduated from Clemson in 2003. An Apache attack helicopter pilot, Chad flew over 100 combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The events of September 11 “changed our children and our world,” says Morehead. “People need to understand that there are still young kids, 18, 19 years old fighting this war 15 years later.
“People tend to forget that.”
Kelly Durham, a 1980 graduate of Clemson, is the author of four historical fiction novels set during the 1930s and 1940s.
On September 12, 2001, newspapers around the country covered the attack. View those front pages.
Read the 9-11 Commission Report.