Photo by Claire Whitley.
A 1995 Kingman High School graduate was mere meters away from where American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Alex Hickcox was working at America’s main military headquarters as a technician for Johnson Controls after serving in the U.S. Navy from 1997-2000.
That morning, the North and South towers of the World Trade Center had already been hit when at 9:37 a.m., a Boeing 757 slammed into the Pentagon, killing the six crew members and 53 passengers was well as 125 military and civilian personnel on the ground.
First Day back to Work
Hickcox and his mother, Carole Collins, of Kingman, were together in New York City and Boston right up until Sept. 10. Hickcox showed up to work the morning of Sept. 11 and was written up because his boss thought he’d be back the day before, delaying the start of his workday.
Hickcox was in a mechanical room near Corridor 3, E Ring making a list of what he needed for a repair project in Navy Operations, which required an escort and top secret clearance.
“It was a pain to get in there and usually you’d have to wait for a while to get an escort,” he said. “I wasn’t having a good morning, so I decided to go sit in a mechanical room and make sure I had everything I needed. The plane hit about 15 minutes after that.”
He was going to be working near a section about 100 yards where the plane and subsequent explosion blew two holes through the C ring wall.
“I was very lucky to not be inside or standing outside of navy ops,” Hickcox said.
“I didn’t know it was a plane when it hit,” Hickcox said. “I immediately thought it was a bomb, though.”
He looked out a large outdoor air duct and could see clear blue skies, but didn’t expect what came next.
“I took a deep breath and opened the door to the hallway. It was a wall of smoke,” Hickcox said. “I closed and door and steadied myself, grabbed my bag, left the room and headed toward the center of Pentagon. It didn’t take long to figure out it was plane. Everyone was talking about the attacks in New York.”
When he got to ground zero (what they called the center of the Pentagon) he turned around, saw the building on fire, stashed his work bag and went back in.
“It was chaotic in a lot of ways. I helped carry supplies from the clinic to ground zero,” Hickcox said. “I tried to help however I could near where the holes in navy ops were blown out. A group of military men made a chain and were taking turns going into navy ops.”
Eventually Pentagon police forced everyone to evacuate, so people started moving the injured from ground zero.
“One of the injured had very bad injuries to both legs and couldn’t walk,” Hickcox said. “We moved her on a piece of plywood from a construction site.”
A military officer had asked Hickcox to take his backpack while the group carted the injured woman away. He followed the group out but got separated somehow.
“I kept walking and figured I’d give the bag to Pentagon police when I came back to work,” Hickcox said. “I wouldn’t come back for another three weeks.”
He learned a lot about humanity that day.
“I had a few encounters with people that I will never forget,” he said. “Military brotherhood and how we try to take care of each other is truly amazing. I’m not sure people can understand without having been in the ranks.”
The Trip Home
Hickcox didn’t drive a car at that time and took a train from Baltimore and the Washington D.C. Metro to the Pentagon.
“After leaving the Pentagon I tried to call my roommates in Baltimore to let them know I was okay,” Hickcox said. “I couldn’t leave a message because it required a code.”
No one would know he was alive until he got home later that evening.
The trains and metro had been stopped, so Hickcox started walking. That’s when things took a turn for the weird.
“I tried holding up a sign, but people weren’t interested in giving rides,” he said. “I don’t think I blame them.”
Eventually he decided to walk to Union Station. He had spent all his money on train tickets for the week and had $10 to his name and no friends in Washington, D.C. at the time.
“I figured if I could get to Union Station, I would at least have a place to hunker down and figure out what to do,” Hickcox said.
He still had the officer’s backpack from the Pentagon encounter. Inside Hickcox’s backpack were two pieces of Johnson Controls software. A laptop with classified information was in the officer’s pack.
Hickcox crossed a bridge and came across a police officer. Hickcox asked him for directions to Union Station and that’s when the officer asked to search the bags.
“I told him what was in my bag and that other bag was not mine,” he said. “As you can imagine, this started a chain reaction.”
Hickcox had a top secret clearance, justifying having the laptop, but he was passed to a plain-clothed FBI agent, and thanks to the electronic equipment, an FBI bomb squad.
“I sat against a tree across from the Lincoln Memorial,” he said. “I was able to use the agent’s cellphone to call a number that had paged me earlier that morning. I thought it was work but it ended up being my ex-girlfriend. I asked her to call and leave a message at my mom’s work because I knew she’d eventually call there. It didn’t occur to me that my mother’s plane may have been the one that hit the Pentagon. I guess I didn’t fully grasp what was happening yet.”
He was still sitting against a tree when two FBI agents showed up and immediately put Hickcox in handcuffs.
“They started asking me where I’ve been for the last 10 days, who I work for. All that stuff,” Hickcox said.
He told the agents he worked at the Pentagon, for an Iranian boss, had recently vacationed in New York City and began to explain how he got the second backpack when agents saw the red flags.
“They asked about my hometown and I told them Kingman, Arizona,” Hickcox said. “They both looked at each other, then looked at me and asked ‘why does that sound so familiar?
“I told them Timothy McVeigh lived there before the Oklahoma City bombing. Needless to say, I was put into their car and taken to another location.”
While waiting in an FBI office, he saw the attack footage for the first time.
“I tried asking them what planes were used in the attack,” Hickcox said. “It became painfully clear that moment that I didn’t know if my mom was okay. I didn’t know where she was, and there was no way to get a hold of her. Phone service was essentially spotty in the D.C. area.”
The agents eventually cleared Hickcox and let him go. They were going to drive him to Baltimore but got a call and dropped him off at Union Station, where he got a cab ride home.
“My neighbor, an older lady, turned ghost-white when I showed up,” Hickcox said. “My cell phone was dead, but I plugged it in, immediately checked my voicemail and got a message from my mom. She was safe – in Denver.”
Mother and Daughter both Involved
Hickcox had taken his mother to Baltimore-Washington International Airport to fly home the morning of 9/11. Collins was in flight when the attacks started.
“When we deplaned in Denver, we were told the FAA had temporarily suspended flights,” Collins said.
Obviously worried about Hickcox, she saw people gathered around a TV screen in the terminal and tried to call a sister-in-law to find out what had been hit. She got onto an airport shuttle bound for Denver and that’s when she learned the Pentagon as a target.
“I just lost it,” she said. “I couldn’t fathom he’d still be alive if the Pentagon was hit by a plane.”
Collins was dropped off in Denver. She didn’t have a cellphone at the time and land lines were either busy or completely knocked out. She eventually got in touch with Hickcox through a friend.
“It was the best feeling as a mother,” Collins said. “As an American, I was horrified about what had happened.”
Hickcox’s stop to gather his tools and mind before hitting the air shafts saved his life.
“The weird thing is, he was sitting in his office pouting about getting in trouble,” Collins said. “Otherwise he would’ve been right where the plane hit.”
Hickcox has attended counseling sessions, not specifically for 9/11, but it’s a subject that pops up.
“I certainly have PTSD related to the event,” he said. “But over the years it’s minimized.”
Hickcox still has pictures he took of the Twin Towers on his laptop, rolls of film and developed pictures with timestamps dating just before 9/11. Hickcox said the attack changed his life forever. He and Collins talk about it often and Sept. 11 is a day he prefers to take off and reflect. He left the Pentagon job in 2005 and is now a senior field engineer for Facility Dynamics Engineering in California, but the images of those he encountered who perished have really never left.
“It’s the closest thing to war I’ve ever experienced,” Hickcox said. “It will sit with me forever and I’ll remember every hurt face I saw that day. The connections I have to that building will never go away.”