Burb's Eye View: Surviving the attack on the Pentagon

September 06, 2011|By Bryan Mahoney

On a beautiful late summer day in Washington, families from all 50 states gathered on the steps of the nation’s capitol. They were recognized in a nationwide event honoring American families with children adopted from other countries.

Rep. Adam Schiff had invited Burbank’s Karen Christoffersen and John Capellaro, who nine years earlier adopted a 3-year-old girl from Russia. When John and Karen arrived in Russia for the adoption, they soon found the girl had brothers.

“In 1992 we went from zero to four kids,” Karen said.

Five years later, they adopted the eldest sibling, Yuri. He was attending Glendale Community College during the Washington adoption event in 2001.


With kids Natasha, Kevin, Ryan and Eric in tow, John and Karen planned a tour of the Pentagon the next day. They got in line later than they wanted, and at 9:37 a.m. they stood at the eastern side of the Pentagon waiting to get in.

“I heard a rattle,” Capellaro recalled last week. “Then the biggest man I’ve seen in my life said, ‘Everybody has to get out now.’”

Another tourist ignored the order, intently reading a brochure about the building. A security guard repeated the command, followed by, “You’re not dying on my watch. Get out now.”

Sitting at their kitchen table after church last Sunday, John and Karen recalled the confusion but overall orderliness of the evacuation.

“It’s probably just a fire,” they remembered feeling.

The family paused in the parking lot to snap a photo — the sun was harsh on their faces as a black plume grew from the building behind them. They remembered smelling fuel, but no one suspected a commercial airliner caused the blaze on the other side of the building.

The family walked to a hotel across the street. They passed military officials asking the crowd for any medical professionals who could help. Once at the hotel they thought it odd that a huge line would be waiting for the bathroom. They soon learned the line was all military personnel waiting for pay phones — waiting to call in or receive orders.

The next sound was like a cannon going off, Capellaro said. About 30 minutes after Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, the roof collapsed. Christoffersen remembered being ushered into the hotel’s conference rooms with other evacuees. Most were military, and all were aware that the country was under attack.

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