9/11: Retired Lt. Col. Kenny Cox recalls heroic Pentagon effort: 'I think about the ones we couldn't save'

Greg Hilburn
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Louisiana state Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, was among the House Homeland Security Committee members briefed by FEMA in a file photo.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Kenny Cox oddly remembers the crisp colors of the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 at the Pentagon as he stepped off a bus to begin work.

The day was clear with a bright blue sky and a yellow sun that seemed bigger than normal. A buddy was showing off a vintage 1965 Ford Mustang in the parking lot that Cox recalls being as blue as the sky. “It’s funny the things you remember,” Cox said.

Less than two hours later, the blue sky was blocked by thick plumes of black, choking smoke and yellow flames of fire after five terrorists crashed Flight 77 into one of America’s signature symbols of might, killing 125 people there and all 59 victims on board the plane.

“When the plane crashed it was like an earthquake thundering through the Pentagon,” said Cox, 63, now a state representative in Louisiana.

Cox grew up Black in rural northwestern Louisiana in the 1960s as one of eight children raised by a single mom whose boundaries rarely extended much beyond the turn rows of the Coushatta cotton fields.

Louisiana state Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches

“I grew up eating chicken backs and picking cotton,” Cox said. “I loved my family and valued my experiences, but I knew there was a whole world out there that I wanted to be a part of.”

Cox joined the U.S. Army as a way to pay for his college education at Northwestern State University. “I knew I’d have to maneuver around some racism barriers and would face real life and death, but it was a whole lot better than where I grew up,” he said.

Cox never dreamed the biggest firefight of his career would come not on a traditional battlefield, but when he was stationed on home soil in what should have been one of the most protected buildings in the world.

He’d witnessed the tragic wrath of terrorism before while stationed in Saudi Arabia when a friend was killed by a car bomb, and seeing his friend murdered instilled an edginess in Cox that he wasn’t able to shake.

So while he and his fellow soldiers were watching two planes crash into New York’s Twin Towers earlier that morning, Cox was convinced it was a terrorist attack and told his commanding officer so. He dismissed Cox’s initial assessment. “He said, ‘Cox, you’re always off the chain,’” Cox said.

But soon after came the Pentagon strike and Cox told his men and women to evacuate the building.

'I felt convicted'

He was wearing new shiny black shoes with rubber soles when they hit the hallway in a sprint.

“I just remember the loud squeaks of those shoes; that sound like you hear in a gym when kids are playing basketball on a wooden court,” Cox said.

Suddenly Cox felt compelled to stop and turn around.

“I don’t know what to say other than I felt convicted,” said Cox, a reference to his Christian faith. “I felt something stop me.”

As he went back in, Cox was joined by two civilians, a carpenter and electrician. “They said, ‘We’re with you, Sarge,”' he said. “When you get good help, you don’t care what they call you.”

What they saw when reentering the Pentagon remains seared in Cox’s mind.

“It was carnage; people were on fire and screaming and others were running for their lives,” he said.

Cox thought he would die, too. “I said, ‘Lord, I guess this is it,”' he said.

But they kept going and eventually saw people hanging from windows from higher floors.

Cox said he directed those on the ground to lock arms two by two and brace themselves. “Then we began telling people to jump,” he said.

Cox said his and the others who were acting as human safety nets had their arms jerked from their sockets as people jumped from the burning offices.

Finally, they found a ladder that Cox extended by placing a rung on his shoulders and setting his feet so those above could reach it.

“You don’t think about what you’re doing; you just do it because it needs to be done,” Cox said.

'I didn't have words'

Cox said he believes they were able to save “eight or nine” before he went in a different direction looking for more.

The smothering black smoke prevented him from finding others. Cox himself became lost in the smothering plumes when he says he was led out by two men wearing what he described as white painters’ uniforms.

“Nobody else saw them or ever knew who they were,” he said. “You can think what you want, but I believe they were angels.”

As Cox made his way outside to safety, he said a reporter asked him if he had anything to say.

“I just remember telling him, ‘May God have mercy on those who did this because we’re coming after them and we will get them,’” Cox said.

The next call was to his wife, who had been frantic.

“It was crazy; I didn’t have words; I didn’t know what to say,” Cox said. “Finally, I just said, ‘It’s been a helluva day.’”

In 2018 Cox wrote an independently published book, “Make Them Remember Your Name: Miracle at the Pentagon on 9/11,” which he said was cathartic.

Cox, who lives with post-traumatic stress syndrome, was later awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the highest peacetime decoration for valor, but said he doesn’t feel like a hero.

“To be honest, man, many times I step back and see myself as a failure,” he said. “I think about the ones we couldn’t save more than the ones we did. That’s the thing that cuts at your soul.”

Greg Hilburn covers Louisiana politics for the USA Today Network. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.