"Big Four" Highlights


Standing Strong 10 Years Later

Memories of a Knight of Columbus who was in the Pentagon when the plane hit

The Doherty family pulled together on 9-11, sacrificing to help others.

Jay Doherty was a Major in the U.S. Air Force who was working in the Pentagon 10 years ago on 9/11. He was watching the attacks on the World Trade Center unfold on television when the solid foundations of the Pentagon building shook. The center for the U.S. military, outside of Washington, D.C., was hit by the third hijacked jet, and Doherty joined the thousands of government workers rushing to evacuate. He then labored for more than a month helping families of victims.

Doherty now lives in Colorado Springs, working for the government as Chief of the Readiness & Integration Division, Directorate of Manpower, Personnel & Service Headquarters at the Air Force Space Command. He also serves as Colorado State Advocate for the Knights of Columbus. Married to his wife, Cindy, for 22 years, he has two college-age daughters. Doherty spoke with Fathers for Good about his 9-11 experience and the lessons learned.

Fathers for Good: What was your job in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001?

Doherty: I was the Chief of Air Force Family Matters. I was a Major in the Air Force at that time.

FFG: What were you doing when the plane hit?

Doherty:  I was in the building at the time of the attack, about 1,000 yards from where the plane hit. I had arrived at the Pentagon that morning at 5:45, my usual time. I went the Pentagon Athletic Center to change for my normal exercise routine, a jog from the Pentagon to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a beautiful morning, so I decided to add a jog up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial to my routine. The sun was just coming up and the view over the reflecting pond to the Washington Memorial was phenomenal.

I arrived back at the office at 7:30. Around 9 a.m., or shortly thereafter, my boss came to my desk and said a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. I went with the rest of the staff to the conference room and watched on TV as the second plane hit the second tower. After some discussion, I remember my boss saying, “I wonder what they’ll hit next?” I don't believe she finished the sentence when we heard an explosion and we were rocked, like the aftershock of an earthquake, windows rattling. It was the plane that hit the Pentagon.

Of course, the alarms began to sound and we began our egress from the building. Our office was on the fifth (top) floor of the Pentagon. As you can imagine, the stairwell was jammed with people trying to get out of the building. All I could think of at that moment was that another plane was on the way and we’d likely be hurt or killed in the stairwell. Once outside, we could see the smoke and fire and the strong and distinct odor of jet fuel.

FFG: What do you remember of the aftermath?

Doherty: My most vivid memories of that day came later that evening. I received a phone call requesting that I report to the Pentagon Family Assistance Center at the Crystal City Sheraton Hotel. I arrived as instructed at 6 a.m. Our task was to set up an assistance center for the family members of those still unaccounted for in the attack on the Pentagon. Things were very hectic and confused, as you can imagine. I was asked to take lead of support and logistics for the Pentagon Family Assistance Center. My principal job was to take care of the lodging, meals and logistics for office space, counseling rooms, computer set-up, briefing room, call center, etc., for the family members and volunteers. I was responsible for the day-to-day operations and support for 130 staff, 1,200 volunteers, 20 Department of Defense, federal, state and non-governmental organizations, to provide care to and direct support of 450 family members.

I remained on site for 38 days, going home only for a few hours every five to six days to visit with my family and then return to the center. I was able to use every knowledge, skill and ability I learned during the course of my lifetime to help put in place the support and logistical requirements necessary to provide for the care, feeding, counseling, spiritual support for the families of those killed in the attack on the Pentagon. While I did not provide direct counseling support to the families, I had great feeling of satisfaction that I put in place the processes to help navigate them through this terrible tragedy. I have that same sense of tremendous satisfaction all these years later.

FFG: Did your Catholic faith make a difference in those days?

Doherty: While we were in the stairwell trying to exit the building, I could only think of the biblical passage that death comes like a thief in the night, and if you knew when the thief was coming, you would be ready. That day, when I thought death might come, I thought of that passage and really had to work through if I was in fact ready.

In the aftermath, in observing every day for 38 days the tremendous compassion and support offered to the families by the hundreds of volunteers, mental health professionals, clergy, and casualty notification officers, it really underscored for me that God is not absent in these tragedies, but visible in every person that gives of himself or herself to help those who are victims of evil. Darkness is the absence of God, darkness resulted in the attacks, but the light of God shone through every counselor, every notification officer, every clergy member, every housekeeper and food preparer, and every volunteer who helped every family member of every victim that died at the hand of evil.

FFG:  What lessons would you tell your kids or grandkids about 9/11?

Doherty: The lesson that I had to explain to my children, especially my oldest daughter, was that I was called to help the children of those who lost a mom or a dad that day. On one of my short visits home, my oldest daughter, who was 11 at the time, was distressed that I was gone from home. She was still anxious about the attacks and wanted me home safe with her mother, sister and her. I explained that I was helping the families of those who lost a mom or a dad, they needed my help, and that once they were OK, I would be home. I thought that was the end of the story.

About a year later, the Knights of Columbus council I was in at the time sponsored an essay contest in honor of one of our deceased past grand knights. My daughter wrote an essay. The subject was about service. The story she reflected on was the story of 9-11 and how her father was called to serve those who had lost a loved one in the attacks, and that how she had to understand that her dad was called to help others, and she had to set aside her desires for me to be home so I could do what I was called to do.

What will I tell my grandkids? That God is present in those who give of themselves to help others. That’s the lesson I took from my 9-11 experience.