Stephen McHale was project manager at the U.S. State Department when terrorists flew a plane into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. McHale describes what he saw while he was driving in traffic nearby and the Pentagon was hit. He describes getting into a car accident after the plane crash and what he saw immediately after, and explains that he was close enough that a piece of debris hit his car. He didn’t hear the plane that hit the Pentagon, just the explosion. McHale describes seeing and hearing something that looked like a military cargo plane flying overhead after the terrorist attack.
This oral history, which was conducted on February 1, 2002, is one in a series of interviews conducted about Operation Noble Eagle, the name of the immediate response to the 9-11 attacks. Other oral histories about Operation Noble Eagle, all conducted in the weeks and months after 9-11, can be found here.
From the U.S. military’s description:
Mr. Stephen McHale – State Dept. employee on the way to a job assignment on 9/11. In traffic jam next to Heli-pad when plane hit. Debris hit his car. Ran to DOD fireman at scene and offered assistance. Left when told to by fireman.
This oral history with Mr. Stephen McHale was obtained by the Novak Archive through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted to the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH).
Stephen McHale oral history audio can be heard here.
Stephen McHale’s oral history transcript is below.
The transcript and audio recording are both in the public domain and can be used freely without permission.
Interview of Stephen McHale
U.S. State Department
Conducted by SFC Dennis Lapic
305th Military History Detachment
U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, Virginia
February 1, 2002
SFC LAPIC: What I’m going to do is, identify myself, ask you to identify yourself, a little bit of your background, and then go into the actual events, okay?
MR. MCHALE: Okay.
SFC LAPIC: So, I’m Sergeant First Class Dennis Lapic, L-A-P-I-C. And if there’s something that I think you’ll need to spell, I just want to make sure that they can type it out right. Today is the 1st of February 2002, and we are actually at the Iwo Jima Memorial. We’re interviewing a gentleman in reference to 9/11, the events surrounding that, and the time is, let’s call it one o’clock, 1300 hours. And I am speaking to whom?
MR. MCHALE: Stephen McHale.
SFC LAPIC: How do you spell your first name?
MR. MCHALE: S-T-E-P-H-E-N.
SFC LAPIC: And last name?
MR. MCHALE: M-C-H-A-L-E.
SFC LAPIC: Ever been in the Navy?
MR. MCHALE: No [laughs].
SFC LAPIC: Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself? What do you do professionally?
MR. MCHALE: I work at the State Department.
SFC LAPIC: Which state department?
MR. MCHALE: The main State Department.
SFC LAPIC: The U.S. State Department?
MR. MCHALE: Yeah, U.S. State Department. I’m sorry. I’m out of Newington now, and I’ve worked for the State Department for twenty years. I was born and raised in the area, one of the few who are still are.
SFC LAPIC: And do you live locally?
MR. MCHALE: Yes, in Springfield.
SFC LAPIC: And what do you do for the U.S. State Department?
MR. MCHALE: I work in project management for computer systems.
SFC LAPIC: So, you are considered a project manager?
MR. MCHALE: Yes, or computer specialist. The titles change frequently.
SFC LAPIC: Okay. Normally, at this point we ask them a little bit about their military background and that sort of thing. What do you do for the State Department? Explain what that is.
MR. MCHALE: I help design systems, test plans, everything for new projects, new products, from implementation to testing to installing, all secure information. Basically, we provide reliable and secure communications. That’s our mission.
SFC LAPIC: So, like some classified work and that sort of thing?
MR. MCHALE: Yes.
SFC LAPIC: So, Colin Powell’s your boss?
MR. MCHALE: Yes.
SFC LAPIC: All right. Where do you work for them?
MR. MCHALE: In Newington. That’s at the annex.
SFC LAPIC: And what’s the annex? What’s that mean?
MR. MCHALE: We have like thirty – you know, there’s the main State Department building in DC, and then there’s different buildings all around. There’s a whole bunch in Rosslyn; there’s one in Beltsville; there’s like three in Newington. I’m at one in Newington. The annex is just another building away from the main station.
SFC LAPIC: So, you live in Springfield, Virginia. And where is that in relationship to, let’s say, the Pentagon?
MR. MCHALE: It’s about fifteen miles south, maybe less.
SFC LAPIC: And where is Newington?
MR. MCHALE: It’s about sixteen miles south – you know, just a few miles down. The next exit.
SFC LAPIC: So, you commute, and you normally stay south of the city, then?
MR. MCHALE: Correct.
SFC LAPIC: All right. Why don’t we just get right into 9/11? What were you doing that day that took you up here?
MR. MCHALE: I had to go down to the main State Department building on 21st Street. That’s why I was driving from there down to that building.
SFC LAPIC: Can you share what business you had there?
MR. MCHALE: There was a problem with a product, and I was meeting some people up there to work on it.
SFC LAPIC: So, did you fix it?
MR. MCHALE: I never made it there [laughs].
SFC LAPIC: Why didn’t you make it?
MR. MCHALE: Everyone got sent home because of the 11th.
SFC LAPIC: Okay. So, just go ahead and paint a picture of what you were doing and where you were at. Be as descriptive as you can.
MR. MCHALE: I was driving up. I had just gotten off the express lane.
SFC LAPIC: Of what highway?
MR. MCHALE: Sorry, of 95 North.
SFC LAPIC: Which is 395, right?
MR. MCHALE: Yes. Sorry, 395. And in fact, I was listening to the radio, to WTOP, so I’d heard about the Twin Towers. Traffic was horrible. It was one of those days where – you know, five miles an hour, stop and go. It was all backed up. In fact, I had just gotten off the phone with my brother, saying: “Yeah, I’m right next to the Pentagon, and I’m stuck in traffic heading downtown. I hope they don’t hit the Pentagon,” and not a minute later, there was a huge explosion. I never saw it. When that happened, I ducked. We were moving about five miles an hour, if that.
SFC LAPIC: You didn’t see it. You heard it. Were you in eyesight?
MR. MCHALE: It would have been to my right. I was right by the heliport.
SFC LAPIC: And what was the ramp?
MR. MCHALE: At that time, it was 110. It was right where 110 and 95 North merge.
SFC LAPIC: So, what happened there?
MR. MCHALE: So, then there was a huge explosion, and when it happened, I ducked. My car was moving at the time, so then I ran into the lady in front of me. As soon as that happened, I knew right away what it was, just because I had been listening to the radio. I picked up my cell phone and tried to call 911, but it was busy. So, I got out of my car –
SFC LAPIC: Were the two of you the only ones who got out of their cars?
MR. MCHALE: No. Everybody was getting out of the cars.
SFC LAPIC: Because it was stopped?
MR. MCHALE: Yeah, since it was already stopped. Nobody was going fast. Everybody got out of their cars. The lady I hit was complaining about her car, and I’m thinking: “Hundreds of people just died, and you’re bitching at me about your car!” But I said to the guy behind me: “Well, we have to do something to help,” and everybody just kind of stood around. Then I ran over to the guard and jumped the guard rail – you know, right by the heliport. I was running over there to see what I could do. There was a guy putting on a fire suit sitting on the ground. My assumption is, because of the heliport, they have a couple of firemen hanging around. I asked him: “What can I do to help?”, and he said: “Get the fuck out of here!” He said it very forcibly, so that’s what I did. I turned around and ran back to the street by my car, and just then there was another plane overhead, and everybody behind me – because I had people blocked in – was yelling: “Go! Go! Go! Get that [pauses] out of here!” I think it was a military plane, but nobody really knew at that time.
SFC LAPIC: What did you think it was?
MR. MCHALE: I think it was a military plane, if I remember.
SFC LAPIC: What did it look like?
MR. MCHALE: I remember saying: “Oh, it’s a military plane.” It was green. Not a C-1 – not one of those huge ones.
SFC LAPIC: It looked like a cargo plane, some sort of transport plane?
MR. MCHALE: Yes.
SFC LAPIC: It looked like a fighter plane?
MR. MCHALE: No, not a fighter. It was more of a cargo. It was definitely not a fighter.
SFC LAPIC: There are different types of cargo planes in the Army and Air Force. There’s the large C-5A, which is a big jet-powered airplane; and the C-130, which is the biggest prop plane.
MR. MCHALE: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about.
SFC LAPIC: It’s kind of a fat plane with turboprops.
MR. MCHALE: I would guess a C-130, but I don’t know my planes, you know?
SFC LAPIC: Do you recall if it looked like it had two engines? Four engines?
MR. MCHALE: It was so quick.
SFC LAPIC: And what was the plane doing?
MR. MCHALE: We heard it. The plane – looked, saw it, and that was it. We’re out of here.
SFC LAPIC: Did it look like it was swerving away, heading, diving, banking? Was it way up?
MR. MCHALE: It wasn’t so up that we couldn’t hear it.
SFC LAPIC: Typically, when the planes take off from Reagan National – you’ve probably seen them taking off and coming in. In relationship to that flight pattern, where would you say they were at? Were they in a flight pattern heading towards the airport, or was he going this way, or that way?
MR. MCHALE: In my mind, he wasn’t doing the usual airport flight patterns for Reagan.
SFC LAPIC: It was like a flyover?
MR. MCHALE: Right.
SFC LAPIC: It didn’t look like he was landing or taking off?
MR. MCHALE: No, it didn’t. Nothing like that. You could tell the way they come in here. They always come in the same way. They usually don’t go over or that near the Pentagon. At least I’ve never noticed them to.
SFC LAPIC: So, basically, you were in the same relationship. Let’s say that’s the Pentagon [referring to a landmark]. Would that have been the Pentagon?
MR. MCHALE: No, that’d have been the Pentagon right there.
SFC LAPIC: So, it’s off to your right. And … do you have a few minutes? Why don’t we take a ride?
MR. MCHALE: Sure.
SFC LAPIC: [Interview continues at new location] Okay, so here we are, across the 110 and 359 ramp. Is this 110?
MR. MCHALE: Yeah – 80 percent sure, yeah.
SFC LAPIC: It’s the highway just across from the heliport, whatever that highway is. And you were heading – I guess they consider that north, along the Potomac, and you were in stop and go traffic heading toward, let’s say, the Fort Myer area, in that direction. And you ran – there was no fence there at the time?
MR. MCHALE: No fence.
SFC LAPIC: And you jumped across the guard rail and ran down to the heliport, which is to the right side. You can see, that’s where fire truck is at. That’s where the fire truck actually parks, in that side of the heliport.
MR. MCHALE: Right. And somewhere right in here, because I kind of had to go up a little to get around that jersey barrier – you see, the jersey barrier cuts the HOV and non-HOV. I was on HOV, so I was right there, and I went up over, probably right to where that sign is right there, that “no stopping” sign. Somewhere around there is where I jumped it.
SFC LAPIC: Was there fire at the time?
MR. MCHALE: Yeah. Mostly, I noticed gray smoke had taken over everything.
SFC LAPIC: So, the fireman wasn’t sitting there near the helipad. He was to the left of it?
MR. MCHALE: I don’t think so. I think he was more this way.
SFC LAPIC: Toward that pine tree?
MR. MCHALE: Yeah, I think so. I was never close enough to feel heat or anything.
SFC LAPIC: And he just said: “Get the …” [trails off]
MR. MCHALE: “The f-word out of here!”
SFC LAPIC: Nobody else was standing around but him?
MR. MCHALE: No. As a matter of fact, he was sitting, it looked like, if I remember correctly, putting on his gear.
SFC LAPIC: It looked like he was in a hurry?
MR. MCHALE: Yeah.
SFC LAPIC: So, you just immediately turned around and listened to him and got the heck out of there?
MR. MCHALE: Yeah. The way he said it, I was out of there.
SFC LAPIC: Were there any other people at the time heading toward that site that you could see?
MR. MCHALE: I didn’t see anybody else come over.
SFC LAPIC: Okay. Now, how many minutes was it when you got back to your car?
MR. MCHALE: Yes, and everybody was still standing around. The lady in front of me – we were going to exchange information, because I hit her. So, I had to do that. That’s when the other plane came.
SFC LAPIC: And which way did he go from where we’re standing?
MR. MCHALE: If I remember correctly, it was this way, over in this direction, toward the right, south. I would say it was up somewhere in here. I couldn’t say which way he was pointing, but my guess would be, if I remember correctly, he was coming this way or east.
SFC LAPIC: So, was he actually going to pass over the Pentagon, or was he passing to the south of the Pentagon?
MR. MCHALE: That, I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t tell you where he was going, but he wasn’t over the Pentagon at the time?
SFC LAPIC: And you still think it was a military aircraft?
MR. MCHALE: I think so.
SFC LAPIC: What gave you that impression?
MR. MCHALE: I just looked up and saw it. When the guy was yelling: “Get out of here, there’s another plane,” I looked up, and I just remember thinking: “Oh, it’s military. I certainly wouldn’t think it was a military plane that did this.”
SFC LAPIC: So, the fireman told you to get out because he thought that airplane was coming in?
MR. MCHALE: I don’t think so. I think he just wanted me out of there. I think the plane was after.
SFC LAPIC: So, now you’re back at your car, and you just sit in there and leave?
MR. MCHALE: Well, we’re exchanging information, and that’s when the other plane comes. The guy says: “Get the hell out of here!”
SFC LAPIC: Who said that?
MR. MCHALE: The guy behind me, because I was blocking him.
SFC LAPIC: Cars had advanced along the HOV lane?
MR. MCHALE: Right, and I was blocking everybody behind me – my car was. We were going to exchange information, and that’s when he said there was another plane. We all got in the cars and left. These jersey barriers weren’t here.
SFC LAPIC: It went beyond the beginning of the HOV lane?
MR. MCHALE: Right. There was just a little median – real small, not even a big curb – and I just did a U-turn around that and got out of here.
SFC LAPIC: Did she ever get your information?
MR. MCHALE: No, but she must have gotten my license plate, because when I got home, there was a call from the insurance company. In fact, a couple spots on my car got hit by debris. I remember a big piece of metal had dropped by my car when it happened about the size of a bumper. I didn’t think much of it, other than: “Oh, I’m glad that didn’t hit me.”
SFC LAPIC: The damage to your car – was that from other debris, or that piece of metal?
MR. MCHALE: Other debris. One little spot, the guy told me after I took my car in that it melted the paint. So, I got to figure that’s from –
SFC LAPIC: Something hot.
MR. MCHALE: Yeah.
SFC LAPIC: Anything else you want to tell me while we’re standing here?
MR. MCHALE: No, I can’t think of anything.
SFC LAPIC: Okay. What I’m going to do is, we’re going to stop the tape for a moment, and I’m going to take your picture at this location. [Tape stops]
What’s that again?
MR. MCHALE: I never heard the plane, which surprises me.
SFC LAPIC: But you felt –
MR. MCHALE: The explosion.
SFC LAPIC: You felt it, but you didn’t hear the explosion?
MR. MCHALE: I didn’t hear the – I would have thought I would have heard the engines at whatever he was doing, like, 375 miles an hour. I would have expected to hear it before it hit, but I didn’t, maybe because I had the windows rolled up and I had the radio up because I was listening to the World Trade Center stuff, but I didn’t hear the plane. You know, when planes are on the ground, it’s very loud. But I never heard it, just the explosion.
SFC LAPIC: Well, what were other people doing? I know you were focused on the plane. Did they need help? The woman wanting insurance information. You said people kind of milling around.
MR. MCHALE: They were. They were just kind of standing by their cars.
SFC LAPIC: Do you remember any kind of expressions, anything unusual that they did or said?
MR. MCHALE: No. I guess it was a dumbfounded look, you know? I got the impression that people didn’t know what happened, to some degree. I knew it because I was listening to the news. It’s ironic, but not a minute before, I had told my brother: “I hope they don’t hit the Pentagon, because I’m sitting right next to it.” I was talking on my cell phone. I don’t know why I thought of that. By then, we knew it wasn’t an accident because the second plane had hit the Towers. [Tape stops]
That piece that fell by my car? I thought about picking it up. I don’t know why. I just did, and then I thought: “You can’t pick that up.” You know, just a lot of weird thoughts go through your head. I remember when that lady was bitching about her car, I’m thinking – I didn’t say anything to her, but I’m thinking: “How can you complain about your car? Don’t you realize what just happened?”
SFC LAPIC: So, about your job now. Were you back to work that afternoon or the next day?
MR. MCHALE: The next day, I went back. They sent us all home. All Federal employees in the area got sent home. As a matter of fact, I didn’t really want to go back to work the next day, to tell you the truth, but when I watched the President on the 11th and he requested everybody to go back to work, I said: “Well, I’m going back to work.” So, I went back the next morning.
SFC LAPIC: What’s your wife do for a living?
MR. MCHALE: She’s an international consultant. She was stuck in Zurich. She ended up getting home about four days later. I think it was Saturday, which wasn’t bad, considering how messed up things were. But she was in a panic. Everybody was, because she couldn’t get through. I couldn’t get through to her. I especially wanted to stay home the next day because they kept the kids home from school the next day, but I just took them to this lady who watches them before and after school, and she kept them. In fact, after, I called my brother, because he’s at the main State Department building, and I told him, I said: “They just hit the Pentagon! You’re in the State Department. Go home! Get out of there!” That’s another prominent building, so I was worried about him. [Tape stops]
SFC LAPIC: Thank you for the interview. I appreciate it. The Army asks that you read this access to oral history materials agreement, and if you agree with what we’re asking, that you sign it, giving the Army the ability to use this tape for their purposes.
MR. MCHALE: Okay.
SFC LAPIC: Thank you very much. I appreciate it very much.
MR. MCHALE: No problem. [Interview ends]