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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Cate Mueller holds a photograph she made at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, while working as the head of the U.S. Navy News Staff at Public House on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Mueller snapped the photo of four of her navy colleagues as they stood on an overpass on the northbound lanes of Highway 395 where they'd walked minutes after American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Left to right are Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, Capt. Tom Van Leunen, Cmdr. Beci Brenton and Lt. Steve Curry, and in the background smoke can be seen billowing from the crash site.

Almost every morning in 2001, the head of the U.S. Navy's news staff met at the Pentagon with her counterparts in the other military branches and the U.S. Department of Defense to discuss the expected media topics of the day.

It had been a harrowing couple of years for military news that included the 2000 Al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole, the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk and the 2001 collision between the USS Greeneville and the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru.

The meeting on Sept. 11 was set for 9 a.m.

Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Cate Mueller, who now lives in Chattanooga and is involved in the federal response to COVID-19, remembers the day vividly.

She was then a lieutenant commander. August 2001 had seemed to be the first reprieve for the military news desk in modern memory, she said. Just before she left for the 9 a.m. meeting, she saw something on the television in her office that would change her course forever, along with the world's.

"We have a bank of TVs — just because we're watching the news all the time — and we see this on the TVs," said Mueller, 56.

"We start getting the reporting about the first one hitting, and we're all going, 'Oh my God, what is it? Is it a small plane or what?'" she recalled.

But it was nearly 9 and she had to go.

(Read more 9/11 20th anniversary coverage from the Times Free Press here)

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Cate Mueller holds a photograph she made at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, while working as the head of the U.S. Navy News Staff at Public House on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Mueller snapped the photo of four of her navy colleagues as they stood on an overpass on Highway 395 North where they'd walked minutes after American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Left to right are Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, Capt. Tom Van Leunen, Cmdr. Beci Brenton and Lt. Steve Curry, and in the background smoke can be seen billowing from the crash site.

She found the news heads for the U.S. Army and Marines sitting inside the meeting room, but they hadn't heard of events elsewhere, she said. They went next door to the ABC television network's small press office to see their monitors showing network news feeds.

"As we're watching, the second plane goes into the building," Mueller said.

"Immediately — immediately — you hear people running down the corridors of the Pentagon," she said. "You hear men in leather-soled shoes running down the corridors, and why are they running?"

The unavoidable answer, she said: "We're under attack."

The meeting was canceled. Mueller headed back to her office, through a courtyard, where she encountered a colleague taking a cigarette break. While they discussed what to do, "a plane flies overhead," Mueller said, "and we're used to that, but we both looked up."

"This is bad," they said in unison.

At the newly-opened Navy Command Center, leaders were discussing plans. The news team was back at its office collecting information from decision-makers on any possible response.

The command center was on the first floor — the same floor in the same wedge of the building where American Airlines flight 77 would hit.

It had been less than an hour since the first plane struck in New York and flight 77 had circled Washington, D.C.

The world rocked.

"It hits and people at the windows see a fireball," she said.

The collision knocked some people off their feet, and the shock wave from the explosion felt like a deep bass drum, she said.

"Immediately, the lights went out and the alarms start going off," Mueller said.

The destruction stopped just short of the Navy news department. Mueller quickly remembered she had sent two young members of her team to the ill-fated command center, directly in line with the impact. She was relieved to learn rather than take the escalators just outside the office, the pair took an elevator that was a longer walk away.

It saved their lives.

Outside the windows of her offices, staff members could look down and see a round hole in the building the shape of the fuselage of an airliner, she said.

As stunned people made their way outside, "it was eerily silent," she said. Mueller took the same basic route out of the Pentagon that she took going in every day.

Mueller and a group of people started making phone calls as soon as they got outside, but the cell towers were already overwhelmed.

She eventually made contact with her husband, Dan, who worked at Navy Federal Credit Union, and told him she was OK.

Mueller and four colleagues — Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, Capt. Tom Van Leunen, Cmdr. Beci Brenton and Lt. Steve Curry — walked to find a vantage point. They ended up on top of a bridge on Highway 395 that offered a heart-wrenching view of the smoldering, burning crash site, she said. There they posed for a photo taken on a disposable film camera that Mueller happened to have with her.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon, Mueller said Navy officials had trouble accounting for victims, survivors, people who walked away and those who hadn't arrived at work yet, so she worked with local media and others to broadcast a toll-free number for the Pentagon's Navy personnel to use to check in.

Exhausted, Mueller got a ride home late in the day because her car was still trapped in a Pentagon parking lot.

For Mueller, her family and America, the world would never be the same.

"It changed everything," she said. "What I had done for the Navy for the first 14 years versus the next 12 is significantly different. The world was significantly different.

"I think it affected different people much differently," she said. "We had people who could not and would not go back to work in the Pentagon."

Recent events in Afghanistan are stark, painful reminders for people who spent much of their careers and lives in America's response to the attacks, Mueller reflected.

Memories haunt her when she looks back on the loss, and she has trouble talking about things like her Rolodex left behind in the initial evacuation on her desk.

Her office hadn't been damaged except by smoke and soot.

In the moments after the impact, Mueller had looked up the number for the Navy Operations Center, in the area where the plane struck, and for the man she expected to answer, Lt. Cmdr. Otis V. Tolbert.

There was no answer.

"My Rolodex was left open when it happened. It was on that number and on that name," she said. "At some point that soot had fallen on it."

Of all the clean white cards, only the late Tolbert's card was marked with the memory in smoke and soot.

She kept the Rolodex.

Mueller said she's still deeply moved by special moments and heroic stories that rose from the rubble, one an account of a Navy Seal who caught people as they jumped from the second floor of the Pentagon before it collapsed.

"He, like other people who run straight to the fire, he ran straight to the outside," she said, her voice breaking. "He stood there and had people jump from the second floor for him to catch — people who were standing at the last place before the building fell."

"When he got out there, there were people who could be seen in the windows. He was saying, 'You, jump.' And he was catching them," she said.

She said she didn't know how many lives he'd saved and each one was a miracle of his bravery.

There were always so many — too many — of those stories to tell and so many to remember, she said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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