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20 years later, survivor of the terrorist attack at the Pentagon on 9/11 recounts escaping death that day

Jim Buher and 30 other Hoosiers were in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building, just a few floors below.

OWENSBURG, Ind. — “It’s a story that needs to be told,” said 76-year-old Jim Buher.   

So that’s what the retired Owensburg, Indiana, native did Friday morning, recounting the moments after a plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001. 

Buher, who worked for Indiana University at the time, was there with 30 other Hoosiers, most of them engineers from the Crane Navel Weapons Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. 

The group was working on a certification program through Indiana University, and Buher’s job was to help with the logistics of their trip to Washington. 

The morning of Sept. 11, they were on the fifth floor of the Pentagon, in a newly renovated part of the building’s outer most ring. The then-Undersecretary of the Navy, The Honorable Susan Livingstone, had just given a presentation to Buher’s group. 

“She had to cut her presentation short because of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center,” Buher explained, saying the group learned about what had just happened in New York when they got settled in to their meeting that morning. 

“Just as she finished that presentation, that’s when everything happened. We did not hear any explosion. The best way I can describe it, it sounded like air moving fast. It was like a 'vroom,'” Buher said, imitating the noise he heard. 

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What Buher and the rest of the group didn’t know was that American Airlines Flight 77 had just crashed into the west side of the Pentagon, just a few floors below, and only 70 feet away. 

One-hundred eighty-four people died in the crash, both in the Pentagon and on the plane, not including the five hijackers. 

“We had smoke coming in from the heating vents, from the ceiling and of course, everyone said at that point, ‘We have to get out of here,’” Buher remembered, saying that everyone stayed calm as they picked up their belongings. 

When the group tried to get a down a nearby stairwell, after pushing through a door that was jammed, though, they found half of the stairwell was gone. 

They had no choice, but to turn around and try and find their way out, in a dark hallway that was filling up with more smoke every minute. 

“I can remember getting my handkerchief out of my pocket, putting it over my mouth and nose,” Buher recalled. 

“At that point, I had a calmness that I’ve never felt in my entire life. I immediately thought of my wife. I thought of my girls,” he continued, explaining that he believed in that moment, he wouldn’t make it out or ever see them again. 

“I thought that was it. It’s black. I have no idea what’s ahead of us. You’re in this corridor, you know. There’s nothing I can do,” Buher said. 

Then, there was a sound that ultimately is the reason Buher and his group survived. 

“What I heard was a voice that said, ‘There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Stay low. Grab the person in front of you and keep following my voice,’” Buher remembered the voice shouting to them. 

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So that’s what Buher and the others with him did, until they saw three men waving them in a direction that ultimately got them out of the building and to safety. 

Fifteen minutes later, the area where Buher and his group came through collapsed. 

“That’s when we realized how close it was. We really should have not gotten out,” Buher said. 

But they did. Twenty years later, Buher is still thankful. 

“So many people lost their lives, and I just feel blessed to have made it,” he said. 

Saturday, around the time the plane hit the Pentagon 20 years ago, Buher will say a prayer like he does every year. 

“I actually think about the people that lost their lives. We were the lucky ones, we really were,” Buher said. 

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