They just followed the smoke.
Pouring out of the Pentagon, the smoke hung on the edge of D.C. on Sept. 11 giving GW students a close-up view of a nation under attack. But Salim Makhlouf and Morgan Pierson needed to be closer.
For the two freshmen, the smoke was their compass. It led them to the front lawn of the Pentagon, two hours after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into its west side, killing 125 people in the building.
Makhlouf and Pierson, who were roommates in Somers Hall on the Mount Vernon Campus, stood on the edge of the capital’s ground zero as spectators, among hundreds of evacuated Pentagon workers and emergency officials.
They also stared down the possibility of becoming inadvertent early responders after a doctor drafted Makhlouf and Pierson into a makeshift medical team. Armed with surgical masks, gloves and wooden stretchers, the two international affairs majors came face-to-face with the atrocity.
“We’d gone from being spectators to being part of a rescue crew,” Pierson, now 28 and employed at a consulting firm in Chicago, said. “We were just students in a dorm at GW and now we were dressed and ready to go in and help. I remember talking to Salim on the side asking if we were ready for it mentally. We weren’t trained in any way.”
As firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians coordinated the response, Makhlouf and Pierson prepared to help carry people from the charred building to makeshift triage stations on the lawn. Pierson, wearing a faded Harvard t-shirt, Abercrombie shorts and his favorite Red Sox cap, said he and Makhlouf were likely in the wrong place.
“It was odd that no one said, ‘What are you doing here?’ We were so clearly kids that I can’t believe no one said anything,” Pierson said. “But we were there to help, we offered help, and we were willing.”
Although they were willing, Makhlouf and Pierson did not carry any bodies – Pierson said emergency officials eventually abandoned the idea of enlisting civilian help – but their journey from the Mount Vernon Campus to Arlington, Va. gave them a peek into the chaos the infamous attack caused across the city.
“Thinking back on it, it doesn’t make sense from a safety standpoint. Something drove us to go there,” Makhlouf, a 28-year-old filmmaker in Canton, Mass., said. “There was a curiosity about what was going on, and we wanted to be witnesses. We never should’ve gone, but it’s stayed with me. It’s been hard to realize it’s been 10 years since then.”
After phone calls from friends and family woke them up, Makhlouf and Pierson took the Vern Express to Foggy Bottom, where rumors swirled about the attacks. Was there a car bomb at the State Department? Did a plane crash into the National Mall? Was the White House next?
“There was a general sense that the northwest part of the city was under attack,” Pierson said. “Kids were going into the basement of Thurston. People were going inside. There was a general panic going on.”
Makhlouf and Pierson zigzagged past the State Department and the White House, down Constitution Avenue, past the Lincoln Memorial, along Constitution Avenue again, over the Potomac Bridge and across Arlington National Cemetery. Streets were gridlocked, “like out of an end-of-the-world movie,” Pierson said.
Ten years later, Makhlouf and Pierson, like many freshman-year roommates, rarely talk. But the anniversary of their journey to the Pentagon links them together.
The two also remember the days in different fashions. For Makhlouf, who left GW after his sophomore year, it represented a challenge to his identity as a first-generation Lebanese-American.
“It made me a little more conscious of my name and my background in a way,” Makhlouf said. “When I left GW, and I went by Sal instead of Salim to divert any questions, there was a reevaluation of my identity as an American.”
He resumed referring to himself as Salim one year later.
For Pierson, who maintained a diary of the day’s events and keeps photographs from the Pentagon lawn in storage, the anniversary is an opportunity for reflection.
“I thought about flying into D.C. to see the Pentagon Memorial. I haven’t been by the Pentagon in 10 years," Pierson said. "I do want to go back there.”