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Room 2D542: Local judge recalls his vantage point at the 9/11 Pentagon attack

Paul Phillips was a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel working at the Pentagon the morning of 9/11.

He didn’t want you to know that.

He was in his office, room 2D542 — second floor, D ring, fifth corridor, room 42 — when American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the west side of the Pentagon. He’d moved into that office just a couple of weeks before.

For the past 20 years, he didn’t want you to know that, either.

Every Sept. 11 since then, Phillips has kept quiet, made himself absent, dealt with it in his own way.

Phillips puts it this way: He knew 33 people who died in the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 people died that day between New York City, the Pentagon and Flight 93.

“That’s 3,000 reasons for me to shut up,” he said.

But this year, the 20th anniversary, Phillips, now a Circuit Court judge in Gillette, is telling his story with the hope that some of what he has learned over the last 20 years resonates with others.

Proudly serving his country

Phillips had been at the Pentagon since 1998 after being promoted to lieutenant colonel and being assigned to the Secretary of Defense’s office to work public affairs. That included duties of answering questions about special ops and counterintelligence. Since secrecy is embedded in their missions, he said he often found himself using the phrase “I can neither confirm nor deny.”

He was 41 years old, strong and fit as he’d ever been, and proudly serving his country at the epicenter of its defense machine.

At nights, he attended law school at George Mason University, knowing that he was 18 years into a military career and would need a second career once his 20 years of service was completed.

Not long before that tragic day in 2001, his job changed when he was reassigned to Army staff. And with that change came a new office in a newly remodeled western wing of the Pentagon.

The renovation included adding extra structural support, blast-resistant windows and a new sprinkler system. Some of the improvements were conceived as precautions after the Oklahoma City, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, according to the Department of Defense.

The progress on the project was new enough that only about 800 out of the 4,500 people who would have been there were there that day.

Phillips was one of them.

Room 2D542. That is imprinted in his memory even if other details of that day are not.

‘Everybody below me died’

At 9:37 a.m., the west wall of the Pentagon was hit by a hijacked Boeing 757 traveling at 530 mph. The crash caused immediate and catastrophic damage. All 64 people aboard the airliner were killed, along with 125 people inside the Pentagon, including 55 military service members and 70 civilians.

Flight 77 struck the west side of the Pentagon at the first floor just inside Wedge 1 near the 4th Corridor. After the nose of the plane hit the Pentagon, a huge fireball burst upward and rose 200 feet above the roof, according to a historical account from the Department of Defense.

Multiple explosions occurred as the plane smashed through the building. The front part of the fuselage disintegrated, but the midsection and tail-end continued moving for another fraction of a second, progressively destroying segments of the building further inward. Columns and floors collapsed.

The parts of the plane ended up inside the Pentagon in reverse of the order they had entered it, with the tail-end of the airliner penetrating the greatest distance into the building.

Phillips had gone into work at 6 a.m. Sept. 11, just as he had every other day for the past three years.

He had a meeting at 9 a.m. in another office at the Pentagon. He had no idea what was happening in New York City. He was back in his office by 9:37 a.m.

Phillips felt the concussion of the blast and heard the loudest explosion he’d ever heard in his life. At first he thought it was a truck bomb.

Ceiling tiles were falling to the floor around him, 500-pound three-drawer safes “were just rocking from the force,” and the sprinklers kicked on.

He was on the second floor. On a map he can point to where his office was: Right at the edge of the destruction.

His assignment of a second-floor office would become key. Flight 77 flew low enough that the biggest impact was at the ground level.

“I was on the second floor. Everybody below me died,” Phillips said.

He recalled that just a few days earlier, he was in an office on the first floor directly below him, sitting on a couch, talking with a colleague. The colleague was one of the casualties.

In a haze

What happened after the blast is a blur.

“I don’t really remember a lot, what happened immediately after,” Phillips said. “I don’t remember.

He does remember later standing in the courtyard in the middle of the building, but he doesn’t remember how he got there.

He helped others create a corridor through the wreckage so that emergency workers could more easily navigate the building. He remembers seeing the “punch-out” hole in the Pentagon’s interior created by the plane. He remembers the chaos.

And he remembers that eventually, he made his way home, uninjured physically, but understandably shaken. His wife, Ann, was overjoyed to see him, because the phone lines were overloaded that day.

Later that night, a close friend whom Phillips had served with in the Army, stopped by his house. The friend was at National War College that day.

They hugged, grateful each was alive. The friend he told Phillips, “I need you.”

He felt the same. Two friends, two survivors on that fateful day. It almost felt too lucky.

And it was.

A month later, the friend, someone Phillips considered a brother, dropped dead from a heart attack.

“Those two events, back to back, hit me, and hit me hard,” he said.

He was less than three years removed from serving in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. He’d been to nearly all 50 states and more than 30 different countries. He’d done things that were dangerous. He was strong. He was at the top of his game.

Within a month, this sense of invincibility was gone.

Finding peace and serenity

In the years that followed, Phillips didn’t move on, and he didn’t move forward from the traumatic event.

“I think I hid,” he said.

He would graduate from law school and would send out more than 100 application letters across the West. He only got one call back. It was for a law clerk’s job working for the three District Court judges in Campbell County in a state he knew he could find plenty of fly-fishing.

He got the job sight unseen, and he and his family moved to Gillette in 2004.

He left that job in 2006 to join the Stevens, Edwards and Hallock law firm as an associate. He made partner in 2009, and he remained there until 2016, when he was chosen as a Circuit Court judge.

Along the way, he tried to forget, he tried to repress his thoughts and feelings about 9/11. He tried to keep himself busy with work. Phillips admitted he should have dealt with the trauma directly.

“What I learned was you can deal with what’s ailing you, or it’s going to deal with you,” he said.

He may have seemed fine on the outside, but his wife and his business partners sensed something was wrong. In 2013, they confronted him about it, independent of each other.

Phillips said he doesn’t know where he’d be today if they hadn’t said anything.

“I had people that cared about me and confronted me, and to my credit, I listened. I was ready to listen,” he said.

In 2014, he sought help from the VA, and he’s working toward achieving “a level of peace and serenity.”

Sucking it up or keeping a stiff upper lip can only work for so long, but at some point, you have to realize you can’t go it alone, he said.

He is quick to say that he’s no hero, merely a survivor. Thousands of people died, and their family and friends were hurt and have been hurting more than he can claim.

It’s those 3,000 that should be remembered today, not him, which is why he’s kept quiet for so long, he said. But he also learned a few things along the way.

“We’ve all got trauma, but you’ve got to deal with it,” he said.

9/11 also shattered the illusion of invincibility and highlighted the inevitability of death. Everyone is just one bad diagnosis or one driver crossing the center line away from death, he said.

“This can all be over tomorrow,” he said. “This ride can end at any time.”

He pledged to invest more in people and take an interest in what they’re doing.

And he made another resolution.

He never leaves the house in the morning without giving his wife a kiss.

“I try to remember that I might not see her again,” he said.

Dawna Reisner will never forget working in the kitchen at Ranch Hand Trail Stop at an Idaho truck stop off Highway 30 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the nation.

Shane Fortner gives a thumbs-up sign from his hospital bed in Greeley, Colorado. He has recovered enough from burns he received when his truck caught on fire six weeks ago that he returned home this week.

Bianca Gomez, 18, a student at Gillette College, first learned of the 9/11 attacks in 2014. Gomez not been born yet, let alone old enough to remember the day Americans spent glued in horror to their television sets.

Veterans Jason Erickson, from left, Mason Clingan and Nicole Arellano all fought in the War on Terror following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

County partnering with group for grant to build coal refinery

Campbell County hopes a new partnership will help bring federal dollars and private investment to the community to build a coal refinery.

The Economic Development Association’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge will invest money in 20 to 30 regions across the country that want to revitalize their economies.

There are two phases. In the first phase, 50 to 60 regional coalitions of partnering entities will be awarded $500,000 in technical assistance funds to develop and support three to eight projects to grow a regional growth cluster.

In the second phase, the EDA will award 20-30 regional coalitions $25 million to $75 million, and up to $100 million, to implement those projects.

The grants will be “very competitive,” said Jim Ford, a consultant for the county. And Campbell County needs a broad coalition of partners, not just from the community but the state and possibly the region as well.

So the Energy Capital Economic Development board voted to partner with the Institute of Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, or IACMI, which is a research institute based in Knoxville, Tennessee. It has about 150 members, ranging from universities and state governments to companies like Hitachi, General Electric, Ford and Exxon Mobil.

IACMI and Economic Development will apply for the first grant in the Build Back Better program, with the hopes of moving on to phase two in the spring.

Ford met with representatives from IACMI in January 2020 when they visited Wyoming, and he’s stayed in touch with them ever since.

“They’ve got something worth pursuing, as far as I’m concerned,” Ford said. “I can’t recommend highly enough what they’re doing and how they want to do it.”

When it comes to coal and carbon, IACMI is emphasizing value over volume, and using every molecule, Ford said.

“So much of the federal investment through grants, it’s like big government feeding medium-sized government,” Ford said. “It’s writing plans to plan something, not actually build something.”

With IACMI, “they’re representing the personal interest of private companies,” he added.

“That’s the loudest statement they bring to any conversation,” Ford said. “Grant funding is great, executing on projects is great. But if it doesn’t turn into business some day, then it’s just exercise.”

Coal production has declined steadily over the last several years, he said.

“The days of making up the difference with extreme volumes of low value material are behind us,” Ford said. “If we don’t find ways to produce high value products from coal, there’s not going to be much value.”

The future, according to IACMI, is the Carbon Age, and the group has identified three “mega-trends” globally when it comes to carbon.

The first is structural carbon, where carbon composites will replace metals like steel and aluminum. It’s projected to be a $50 billion annual market, based on a value of $2,000 per ton. Another trend is the electrification of transportation, which will need graphite for batteries. It’s a $10 billion annual market.

And the third trend is carbon-based solar energy, which potentially could be a $100 billion annual market.

“It’s a big target, and even a little piece of that pie can make a big difference for our community,” Ford said.

Wyoming is attractive to IACMI for a few reasons, the largest one being the price of the feedstock.

“The biggest draw is $10 a ton coal, that’s a piece of the long-term puzzle for them. To get to a competitive position financially ... they have to have the cheapest carbon feedstock there is,” he said.

One ton of coal produces between 30 and 60 pounds of carbon fiber, and “finished auto parts (made of carbon fiber) are $12,000 a ton,” Ford said.

He estimated that at an average of $650 per ton of carbon products, it will take a fraction of the coal mined today to match the money coming in from coal being sold for $10 to $12 a ton.

Commissioner D.G. Reardon pointed out that it will require much less coal to be mined. Commissioner Rusty Bell said thermal coal still will be part of the picture, and that as long as the coal companies can continue to mine and sell their product and make money, they don’t care what it’s used for.

With a coal refinery, Campbell County can show private industry that coal and carbon have a value in the market, Ford said. The county, not the state, “needs to drive this from a leadership position, as far as I’m concerned.”

“We want commerciality, we don’t want policy,” Ford said.

One policy change that does need to happen, he said, is the state’s tax structure.

Atlas Carbon takes coal at $12 per ton and turns it into a product that it sells for $1,000 a ton, Ford said. The state is unable to take advantage of that, because the tax takes place at the place of extraction.

“There’s no way today to tax the valuable products that would come from refining. I’m saying, that’s not our problem,” Ford said.

At their regular meeting Wednesday, the commissioners voted to be a cooperating partner in the endeavor. Ford said he hopes to get the support of the Gillette City Council and Gillette College as well.

Talon Pfeil, 18, is organizing the first-ever Climb 94 event on the anniversary of 9/11 to honor both the first responders in New York City who sacrificed everything to save lives in the twin towers, along with current local responders serving in Gillette.

Pat Love, from left, Stephanie Rosenberg, son Ben and Sandi Love during a trip to New York City in 2017.

Stephan Zacharias, an educator at the Rockpile Museum, compared the 9/11 terrorist attacks it to a boulder hitting a pond. “When it first crashes in, it creates major waves, but there’s ripples that occur for years and years and years,” he said.

Former Sunflower Elementary School teacher Vicki Swenson recalls pre-9/11 life as a much simpler time when everything didn't seem so complex.

Jessica Bardell’s father Dennis Flynn served as a police officer in New York City during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now serving as an officer in Sheridan, Flynn has inspired his grandson Jaxson to one day become a police officer.

Beth Dutcher, at right, and Mary Johnson, at left, called their sister Katie Collins, center, on 9/11 because she worked in the South Tower. To their relief, she wasn’t in the building.