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Former Kansas official reflects on being in Pentagon on 9/11

Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 6:48 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Just as the nation registered the horror unfolding in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, another plane slammed into the heart of our nation’s defense - the Pentagon.

Inside was Dan Stanley, a former Kansas Secretary of Administration and Topeka City Council member who had started work just that week as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army.

Stanley clearly remembers the feeling as he dove back through his office door, moments before a wave of heat washed down the hallway from the jetliner that had just crashed through the Pentagon walls.

“The first thing that popped into my mind was bomb,” Stanley said. “(It was) the feeling of dread. It was a realization that the world has just changed forever.”

Stanley rushed to evacuate his colleagues. Two from his office did not survive.

“I had no idea it was an airplane until I got outside,” he said. “(There were) flames coming off the building, the smell of jet fuel.”

13 NEWS visited Stanley at the Pentagon a month after the attacks. On his desk were file folders stained with smoke, and hanging along the walls were messages of support, including a banner from Topeka’s Jay Shideler Elementary School. All around, men and women were focused on their mission.

“I thought we did it right early on. With the help of intelligence sources, we enabled the Northern Alliance to essentially retake the country,” Stanley said.

But he said, as the years went on, it got “wobbly,” as the U.S. tried to push for changes the people of Iraq and Afghanistan may not have been ready or willing to make.

“The intentions were good,” Stanley said. “We didn’t go into any of these to dominate or to rule. We just wanted to free those people.”

Stanley said recent events in Afghanistan may embolden terrorists, but adds terrorists always are plotting, and the U.S. has stopped countless potential strikes.

“I think we understand the enemy much better than we did (20 years ago). We pay closer attention than we did,” he said.

More than anything, Stanley is impressed by the thousands of young people who answered the call to serve in the wake of the attacks. He hopes the generation who’ve come after - who didn’t live through that day - will find that same pride in their nation.

“I hope that through their education and their family and their character they will understand America is the force for good in the world. If America is not the force for good in the world, who is?” he said.

The good is where Stanley keeps his focus - the good of a nation moving forward to honor those lives lost.

“I occasionally reflect on how lucky certain decisions I had made that day turned out to be. The alternative is a little to process,” he said. “I try to not dwell on it, but I feel very fortunate to have survived it. I still grieve for those who didn’t.”

Stanley went on to serve as Assistant Secretary of Defense, and would return to Topeka for a year as interim city manager.

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