Edward “Sonny” Masso was a Navy captain working at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, when a hijacked jet airliner slammed into the huge building on Sept. 11, 2001.
He described the scene of death and destruction to Trine University students Wednesday, the 18th anniversary of the attack. Most were young children or babies the day that Middle Eastern terrorists crashed planes in Arlington, New York and Pennsylvania.
“But I think about this every single day. And I'm far from over about any of this,” Masso, now a retired rear admiral and business consultant, said in remarks streamed live from Trine's T. Furth Center for Performing Arts in Angola.
“And I'm not OK with the now-18-year-old security processes at our airports. I'm a private citizen now and I can say this, but I don't personally care for the Patriot Act,” Masso said about the federal law that greatly expanded the government's surveillance powers after 9/11.
“I resent that these cowards changed the behavior of our country in so many profound ways,” the California native said about the al-Qaida terrorists who planned and executed the attacks.
Masso recalled the Pentagon attack during Trine's Distinguished Speaker Series 9/11 Memorial.
He said he was on an escalator, aware of two earlier jet crashes into the World Trade Center in New York, when a plane hit the headquarters of the Department of Defense.
“I thought at first it was a bomb. The earthquake-like jolt was unlike anything I'd ever felt before. The entire Pentagon shook, the lights went out, and the escalator went off track,” he said.
“It was dark, smoke was abundant and billowing, and I could hear loud cries from behind me,” Masso said.
He said he removed fallen building materials to help seven women escape a restroom. Masso said he then went to the Navy command center he led to find “it was no longer there. It had collapsed completely, and I feared that all of our people were lost.”
Masso said he saw “horrific destruction and death and profound injury to people in some cases I had known for over 25 years.”
Masso and others formed “human safety nets” for people leaping from higher floors.
“I could see the flames tickling the glass above me with people trying desperately to break through the windows. ... Folks were jumping out of the windows into our arms,” he remembered.
The cries of trapped people “tortured me,” he said, and then they died down.
“I was horrified by the knowledge that this newfound silence suggested death,” Masso said.
But “life was discovered, much to my great relief. Several injured and badly burned colleagues came out of the fire,” he said.
The attacks killed 184 people at the Pentagon and nearly 3,000 across all three sites. The Pentagon deaths included 34 members of Masso's Navy command center; he said he visits most of their graves a few times each year.
The command center was out of operation for only 22 minutes after the plane hit, Masso said, because “we trained and trained for contingencies where the command center might be compromised, and the training was highly successful.”
He challenged his Trine audience to “think about how you would respond, and where is your moral beacon, what are your core values, can you name them, can you share them with your friends or loved ones.”
He instructed them to “be strong, be brave and bold. Learn from everything that life brings you.” Later, during a question-and-answer session, he told the crowd, “Be nice to your neighbor and be the one that turns the other cheek.”
The 9/11 attackers were Muslims. Calling himself a Catholic who tries to attend daily Mass, Masso said he respects the Muslim faith and sees its “beauty” and similarities to Christianity.
“Our beef is not against the faith of Islam or Muslim faith; our beef is against extremists that are terrorists: the Taliban, al-Qaida, ISIS,” he said. “That's the beef.”