Robert Hogue faced a critical choice: north or south.

Hogue and three colleagues were in one of the Pentagon’s long, narrow corridors, the kind that makes it hard to tell what’s around you. They knew that south meant heading toward a collapsing section of the building, directly above where American Airlines Flight 77 struck minutes before. And north meant heading into a construction zone filled with thick, black smoke, and probably fire.

"We really had to make a choice. What’s it going to be, north or south?" he said. "And neither one of them really, frankly, looked all that good, and I was starting to think, ‘We’re going to die.’ "

It took a lot just to make it to the corridor.

About half past 9 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Hogue was by a window in his office. He was on the fourth floor of the building’s outer-most ring, so he had a view of Arlington National Cemetery and the landscape to the west. At the time, he was deputy counsel to the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, a senior legal position for a civilian.

A marine entered his office with an update on the building’s internal threat level. It was at "normal," which struck Hogue as odd. The attacks on New York had already occurred that morning, and the Pentagon is in the flight path for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Frustrated, Hogue got up from his desk and walked away from the window into a reception area, turning left toward his boss’s office.

"And then the whole thing just blew up," he said. "The plane hit pretty much right under us."

In photographs from that day, Hogue’s old office isn’t visible. It was so close to where the plane hit that it collapsed within minutes into the flames and rubble below.

The force of the explosion caused the floor to heave upward, throwing Hogue several feet. He was knocked unconscious, he guesses for maybe 10 seconds. "It’s a funny thing, anyway, just to be blown up. I mean, we’re having a discussion, and in two seconds, you might wake up in that corner. And that really defines the experience," he said. "It’s not a process of being blown up. It’s instantaneous. You wake up on the other side of the bubble."

When Hogue and the others had come to their senses enough to flee, they found the door from their office suite to the corridor was stuck. The weight of the collapsing fifth floor was on top of the door frame. As they pulled the door open, a half-inch at a time, smoke started to get thicker and drop lower around them. One minute they couldn’t see the ceiling tiles. The next they couldn’t see the top of the door.

They reached the corridor, where they stopped, unsure of which direction to turn.

SURREAL MOMENTS

On the plane and in the Pentagon, a combined 184 victims died in the attack. They included Ernest Willcher, a longtime lawyer in the Army General Counsel’s Office who was then a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton attending a meeting at the Pentagon. Wiley Rein partner Karen Kincaid and Venable partner Todd Reuben were on the flight, as was conservative legal analyst and Balch & Bingham partner Barbara Olson, wife of then-U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson. Personalized benches outside the building memorialize them now.

The Pentagon is so large that many people who were there on Sept. 11 didn’t learn of the attack until well after they were evacuated.

John Casciotti worked on the side opposite from the impact. "In my mind, I recall what seemed to be a small thud," said Casciotti, who’s now a senior associate deputy general counsel in the U.S. Department of Defense. When the fire alarm sounded, people chatted casually as they calmly left the building, and they didn’t have access to news sources. "Nobody seemed overly concerned," he said. "Only upon getting outside and seeing those big billows of smoke from the other side of the building, that’s when it became apparent that something bigger was happening."

Others happened to still be in the building when television stations began broadcasting news of the attack. "We were in the Pentagon and we were OK, but you could see on TV that it was burning. It felt so surreal," said Kimberly Guy, a senior paralegal in one of the Defense Department’s deputy general counsel offices.

Bob Reed, an associate deputy general counsel in the Defense Department, recalled a steadily increasing sense of alarm among those who were evacuated. Following instructions from emergency personnel, they moved en masse away from the building and toward the Potomac River. Then they were told to move farther away, in the direction of the 14th Street Bridge connecting Arlington, Va., with the District of Columbia.

People handed around cellphones, so that they could call loved ones, but not everyone could get through. E-mail systems eventually went down. "It wasn’t until we got home that we were able to make better connections with our families to let them know we were OK, because they didn’t know," Reed said.

Steven Morello, who on Sept. 11 was the newly confirmed Army general counsel, happened to be 200 miles away from the Pentagon. He was attending an ethics conference in Virginia Beach, Va., where Alberto Gonzales, then the White House counsel, got a few minutes into his keynote speech before leaving abruptly. The conference was canceled, and Morello had to hitch a ride back to the Washington area.

During the days that followed, Morello employed his training as a Catholic deacon to assist chaplains counseling Pentagon relief workers. "These folks were very, very devastated by the work they were doing, and they needed the ministering," Morello said.

A WAY OUT

On the Pentagon’s fourth floor, help came to Hogue’s group from a man they think was a naval officer. He appeared down the corridor to the north, surrounded by black smoke, and he yelled, "Come this way, come this way! There’s a way out!"

It was the first relief they had in the minutes that had passed since the explosion. "It takes you a good long while to sort of shake off the cobwebs and for your 3D perception to come back, but I knew the sound of hope when I heard it," Hogue said. "That guy said, ‘Come this way’? Absolutely."

The group of four searched offices as they left, ensuring no one else was still there. They rescued one person from under a desk. They never found out the identity of the naval officer who guided them to safety.

Hogue, now 52, discussed with his wife that night whether he would continue working at the Pentagon. "You really have to ask yourself at some point: What are you about? I mean, I’m a lawyer, I’m not a marine, so I’m not one of these tough guys, and I’m not trained to face this kind of thing," he said. It occurred to him that, during the years he had worked for the military as a lawyer, he had never gotten "a true sense, a real look" at what those in combat go through. He got something of that on Sept. 11, and decided he still wanted to be a part of it.

Since promoted to be the commandant’s counsel, the equivalent of a three-star general for a civilian, Hogue works in the same suite of offices he occupied a decade ago. (He brags he has "the best lawyers in D.C.") The Pentagon’s Sept. 11 memorial is outside Hogue’s window, while someone else has his old office adjacent to his current one. "This is exactly the same place," he said, "and it’s rebuilt, exactly the way it was, which is a little creepy."

Certain things remind him of the day. One is that he’s deaf in his left ear, a problem he fears will one day limit his work. Another is the smell of jet fuel or kerosene; Flight 77 carried enough fuel to take it to Los Angeles. "Upon impact and explosion, it pushes its way out into every crack. Well, one of the reasons that we’re alive is that the part that pushed its way into this office simply didn’t ignite. But it was hanging in the air," he said.

Hogue, like other Pentagon lawyers interviewed, said he has no specific plans for the 10th anniversary. Though memories of Sept. 11 dominated their minds for a year or so afterward, many of them have made some kind of peace with what they saw that day.

"There’s nothing you can do to save yourself if a plane flies through the window. Nothing. So you are completely naked before an event like that. And so what do you do? Well, you know, me? I decide I want to support these young guys that are out there, because this nation needs that kind of support," Hogue said.

"Does it affect my day-to-day? No — only in the sense that I know that’s a risk I’m taking when I come to work. It’s not like I change my route to get to and from the office. I don’t genuflect in the stairway where people died. I don’t do those things. But I’m aware of them. I’m aware that people died here. That’s a part you just have to get used to."

David Ingram can be contacted at dingram@alm.com.