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Columbus couple recounts being near Pentagon during Sept. 11 attack

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, James and Carmen Dudley were still a young married couple living in Arlington, Va.

When they awoke, they had no idea that they would live through the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. But 15 years later, the experience is still etched vividly in their memories. The couple, now living in a condo at Eagle & Phenix Mills apartments, recently recounted the story while sitting in their living room.

James had grown up in Columbus, the son of Dr. Agustus Dudley Jr. and the late Twyla Dudley. After graduating from Brookstone School and then Vanderbilt University, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service, which is run by the State Department.

While stationed in Santiago, Chile, James met Carmen, a project manager and buyer at a department store. The two fell in love, married, and Carmen joined James in Arlington in 1997.

In September 2001, James was working for the State Department on international energy issues such as the foreign policy implications of pipelines and electricity lines that cross Canada and the U.S.-Mexico border. Carmen was busy learning English and pursuing a master’s in business administration at American University.

Then on Sept. 11, the crisis hit. James was in his office at the State Department, which is about a mile and a half north of the Pentagon. After 9 a.m., a secretary announced that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

“I was busy working on something and I figured it was something like what had happened in the 1940s when a military plane hit the Empire State Building, so I went back to work and figured if it was important they would tell me,” James said. “And then after a while, she yelled out that her husband who was an air traffic controller at Reagan National Airport had called and said a plane had hit the Pentagon. So then we evacuated very quickly.”

James didn’t have his house keys. So he went back in to the building to get them. His boss yelled at him to get out of the building, so he joined the rest of his colleagues outside.

“We were all, probably about 1,000 people, milling about on the north side of the State Department building on a vacant lot, not really sure what to do,” he recalled. “I was not really concerned about Carmen because she was a few miles north. Neither of us had a cellphone so we couldn’t get in touch. But we figured that the target was likely to be government buildings.”

Suddenly they heard an explosion and could smell something like gasoline burning. Then the news media started reporting that the State Department had been attacked by a car bomb. That turned out to be a false report, and James now believes the explosion that he heard was probably a wall at the Pentagon collapsing, though he can’t know for sure.

Carmen, meanwhile, was studying in a break room at American University. Some friends came into the room and said there had been a hijack in New York at the Twin Towers.

“I had no idea what hijack was, it was not in my vocabulary,” said Carmen, who still speaks with a heavy Spanish accent. “We started following the news on CNN, but it was New York so I wasn’t so concerned about it happening here. ... Then there were rumors that planes were still flying around and they were going to hit Congress or the State Department.”

“I tried to call James and nobody answered,” she said. “But I was very calm. I didn’t think anything had happened to him.”

Those who worried most were their relatives in Columbus and Chile who feared the couple might be in danger, Carmen said. “Everybody was sending me emails,” she recalled. “My mother was the first one. She never sent me emails before. She was very concerned about James.

“My father at that time was working in a copper mine, and probably underground,” she said. “Somehow my parents communicated and he told everyone in the copper mine that it was happening in New York.”

Back at the State Department building, James said no one knew what to do.

“We were all really like sitting ducks if anybody really wanted to target us,” he said. “Secretary of State (Colin) Powell and some of his senior officials were in South America at the time. We knew that would make communication and decision-making a little more complicated.”

James said he and his colleagues wanted to go back to work and do what they could to help, but they were soon told that it was unsafe to go back in the building and it was best to go home.

“I walked toward the subway station, but the subways were closed,” he said. “And so, I eventually got a taxi. A taxi ride usually takes about 10 minutes because we were not far across the river. But this time it took 45 minutes or so to get home, and the taxi driver was listening on his radio to what was going on. So we heard more about what was happening in New York, including a description of when the second tower fell.”

At the same time, he could see the Pentagon while taking the bridge crossing the Potomac. There was smoke coming out of the building and just devastation, he said.

When James got home, he checked his computer and was pleased to see that there were messages from Carmen. So they began emailing each other. “We both decided there was no point in her trying to get back home because traffic was so jammed up,” he said.

Carmen said she went to a friend’s home then left around 2 p.m. to join James in Arlington. The next morning, when she dropped James off at work, the Pentagon was still smoldering.

“I remember on the campus of (American University), the day of the attack and all the next week, all the people who were Muslims, they left campus,” she said. “I had a friend from Lebanon and he told us, ‘Now, they’re telling us to go home and don’t leave home.’

“... We have a friend who owned a Moroccan restaurant. She is Muslim. She was very scared after the situation. She said she had friends that were attacked and insulted on the street.”

Carmen said she comes from a country that had a military government for many years, so she was accustomed to big protests with tear gas and a strong police presence. She said she wasn’t as fearful as some people might have been.

“We were not at the Pentagon and that would have been much different,” she said. “I was pleased that we were not overseas when the attack happened. Because when you are overseas, you’re a target. You’re driving a car with a diplomatic license plate and everybody knows that you’re a foreigner and you’re a soft target.

“It was like, ‘Wow, this is happening,’” she said. “But it was still so far away. We didn’t lose anybody. I can only imagine what it was like for others who were affected personally. We look at the pictures shown on TV and they were really kind of terrifying.”

James said he has never looked at any of the videos of the towers collapsing and people jumping out of the buildings.

“I just didn’t want to see it,” he said. “I heard it on the radio and that was enough.”

After 9/11, James continued his work as a foreign service officer. In 2002, the couple went to Nicaragua for James to head an economic initiative. After that, they were stationed in Mozambique for three years, where James helped organize anti-AIDS and anti-Malaria programs. He also served as chargé d’affaires, or acting ambassador at the embassy, in Mozambique when there wasn’t an ambassador.

In all, James worked 28 years as a foreign service officer, serving nine countries. Carmen accompanied him to seven overseas assignments. James retired in 2013 and the couple is now back in Columbus serving on various community boards and volunteering in the community. They now have a 13-year-old son, Michael.

Today, James, 53, and Carmen, 49, look back at the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and they say it’s an experience they will never forget.

“I remember right after the attack, as we were milling around outside of the State Department Building, one of our deputy assistant secretaries said, ‘This changes everything,’ and she was right,” James said. “It changed the way we look at the world, the way we look at threats. Professionally, it changed our career and what it was like to represent the U.S. overseas. We’ve had to be more cautious and less open. That’s understandable, but it’s unfortunate as well.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter