Press "Enter" to skip to content

Batavia native recalls working in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 on 20th anniversary of attacks

When the airplane crashed into the building, the concrete support pillar next to Chuck Witschonke’s office desk began to shake.

“We immediately knew we had a problem,” said Witschonke, who was a civilian employee of the Department of Defense working in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

“My assumption right then was an airplane had hit the building,” Witschonke said.

Shortly before the impact, Witschonke and his co-workers were gathered in a conference room for a routine staff meeting when they were alerted to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

“We were told that something was going on in New York and turned on the TV. We saw what happened with the Twin Towers,” Witschonke said.

“I remember saying ‘don’t go into the courtyard.’ We broke up the meeting and went back to our desks,” Witschonke said.

Then, the aircraft struck the Pentagon.

“My idea was we need to get out of the building,” Witschonke said. “We cleared out of the office and tried to get out.”

Carl “Chuck” Witschonke III moved to Batavia with his parents as a first-grader in 1953 and attended Blaine Street School. The family lived on North Avenue on the near northwest side. Witschonke graduated from Batavia High School in 1964.

His father, Carl Witschonke, Jr., was a well-known and popular figure in the community who worked at Batavia’s Furnas Electric plant and was named the Batavia Citizen of the Year in 1986.

Upon graduating from high school, Chuck Witschonke received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in in 1968.

Witschonke’s first assignment as an Army officer was to Germany, where he served as the commander of an artillery battery.

Then in 1970 and 1971, Witschonke performed a tour of duty in Vietnam. By then a captain, Witschonke was initially stationed in the Saigon area.

“We were constantly under attack by the Viet Cong,” Witschonke said.

Later, Witschonke’s artillery unit was directing interdiction fire at the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the Vietnamese and Cambodian border.

Back in the states, Witschonke attended graduate school and earned a master’s degree in mathematics and statistics, the keys to accurate artillery fire.

For three years starting in 1974, Witschonke taught mathematics to the cadets at West Point.

Then he was assigned for several years as a staff officer and instructor at Fort Leavenworth, Kanas, before returning to Germany, as he continued to receive promotions.

Finally, as a full colonel, Witschonke worked under the assistant secretary of defense in the Pentagon as a deputy director of military compensation and benefits. He was proud of that work, seeing his recommendations for increased military pay and enhanced benefits gradually adapted.

In 1994, Witschonke retired from the Army, but continued to work in the Pentagon in essentially the same job as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense.

“I took off my uniform and came back to my same desk,” he said.

It was there that Witschonke found himself when the terrorist strike hit the Pentagon on 9-11.

Before attempting to evacuate the building, he recalls telephoning his wife Carolyn to tell her he was alright.

The Pentagon building consists of five hexagonal “rings” radiating out from an open central courtyard, with “A-Ring” closest to the center and “E-Ring” the farthest outside.

The building is divided into five “wedges.” Witschonke’s office was located on the second floor of B-Ring in Wedge 5.

The jet liner slammed into Wedge 1, next to Wedge 5. The cockpit of the aircraft penetrated to a point between the C and B rings.

“It got remarkably close to us,” Witschonke said.

As Witschonke and his co-workers attempted to make their way out of the building, they repeatedly found routes blocked by Military Police to prevent them from passing through smoke-filled corridors.

Eventually, the group made their way through a series of tunnels and then to an escalator leading down to the Metro subway station.

Finally emerging outside and into the daylight, Witschonke saw smoke billowing and flame erupting from the Pentagon building.

He made his way to his automobile in a parking lot and turned on the radio. There was a report of yet another airplane headed for the Washington, D.C. area.

Witschonke already knew that two aircraft had struck the World Trade Center and expected that another jet was headed for the Pentagon.

“As a targeting expert, you never fire just one at a target,” Witschonke said.

That plane was later thought to have been intended for a strike on the U.S. Capitol building. It eventually crashed in Pennsylvania after heroics by the passengers.

The scene at the Pentagon was one of chaos, but Witschonke was able to drive away from the area and made his way to his wife Carolyn’s Alexandria, Virginia art studio.

The next day, Witschonke was one of 10,000 Pentagon employees to return to work. Normally, 25,000 people work in the building.

“The building was still smoking,” Witschonke said. “People were laid out in the courtyard.”

Witschonke lost many friends and colleagues in the attack.

“It was a rough deal,” Witschonke said.

In the year that followed, he worked to provide benefits to the family members of those killed on 9/11.

Security at the building was beefed up significantly. The escalator Witschonke used to escape the building was closed and has never been used since.

“We had a vulnerability we didn’t think we had and that was eye-opening,” Witschonke said.

Witschonke’s father died less than three months before the 9/11 attack and was buried in Batavia’s West Cemetery.

Carl Witschonke, Jr. served in World War II with the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, the famed “Big Red One.” An enlisted man, he campaigned in North Africa and Sicily, earning a battlefield commission to first lieutenant.

On D-Day, Witschonke landed on Omaha Beach and fought his way into Germany before the end of the war.

Chuck Witschonke said he was influenced by his father. So apparently was his younger brother Ross Witschonke, who also graduated from West Point.

The two brothers were briefly at The Point together, with Chuck a senior and Ross a freshman.

Ross Witschonke served five years in the Army before making a career with the Ford Motor Company.

Chuck Witschonke retired from his work at the Department of Defense in 2009. Today, he and Carolyn live in Bradenton, Florida.

Ross also is retired and living in the Sunshine State.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply