HARTSELLE, Ala. (AP) — Robert Dotson had plenty of reasons to be sad Tuesday, but he would not.
At some point, however, he would think about the helpless moment he felt while in the courtyard at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, after terrorists crashed a domestic airliner into the western side of the building.
But what he remembers most about the worst terrorist attack in American history is all the people thinking about others instead of themselves.
“That is the way God wants us to be,” Dotson said.
The retired military man is one of those who thought about others, too.
Dotson, now 70, was in the Pentagon when five men affiliated with al-Qaeda hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 bound for Los Angeles and deliberately crashed the Boeing 757 into the building.
He was about 300 feet from where the plane hit, and had Dotson been where he normally walked in the Pentagon, he said he wouldn’t be here today.
“I guess the good Lord had more He wanted me to do on earth,” Dotson said as he showed a concrete piece of the Pentagon that was given to those who helped with the search and rescue mission.
He also has the “cipher door buzzer” from inside the Pentagon that he rang just moments before the plane’s impact.
“He was thrown back,” Col. Joe Tedesco wrote about Dotson in his report of events that happened at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Back in Alabama, nephew Tim Shaneyfelt said it was “a few days” before the family learned about Dotson’s fate.
“Sometimes an act of faith keeps you safe and we’re very thankful,” he said.
Although Dotson was a civilian employee who traveled between Redstone Arsenal and the Pentagon, he knew some of the 125 Pentagon employees who were killed. He becomes emotional when he thinks about them and has declined numerous requests for interviews about 9/11.
“The memories are too painful,” he said, adding that his preference is to focus on the wonderful people who helped “so many get out of the Pentagon. I try to look for something good in everything I do.”
“That’s Bob,” said Don Turney, a longtime friend.
He said Dotson doesn’t consider himself a hero and realizes he’s lucky to have survived the attack.
“Had he been on his normal routine, he wouldn’t be here,” Turney said.
The first steps that put Dotson at a crossroads with history started in the 1960s when his parents — Oliver and Ethel — decided they would no longer make a living on the small farm they owned in the Eva community.
They sold the property and relocated to Danville, but Dotson moved with family members to Illinois, where after high school he found work in a plant that made plastic products.
Dotson worked in the plant until he was drafted in 1966. After serving one tour in Vietnam doing search and destroy missions with the 1st Calvary Division, he got out of the military but found few opportunities for soldiers who had served in Vietnam.
So Dotson re-enlisted and served 26 years and five days as a chief warrant officer before permanently leaving the military. Between 1992 and 2000, he was in classified operations at the Pentagon.
After his military career ended, he returned to Alabama and became a civilian employee at Redstone Arsenal. The job required him to travel back to the Pentagon to help with what he called “resource issues.”
Dotson spent countless hours walking through the hallways of the Pentagon, which total about 11 miles.
“I normally walked around E-ring,” he said, which houses the outer offices in the Pentagon.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he said workers had just completed some renovations in areas of the Pentagon and he went to see what changes had been made, which took him off his normal route.
“At the very moment when I hit the door buzzer, an explosion knocked me down to the floor,” Dotson said. “Debris was going through the wall and everywhere.”
Because the Pentagon is so “security minded,” Dotson said, “I thought they had gotten us.”
They were the enemy, he said.
Tedesco, who worked in the Focused Logistics Division and who Dotson was going to visit, wrote that the explosion was “deafening.”
Dotson said he could see people and smoke coming from E-ring in the Pentagon and his military training to help others took over.
Tedesco yelled for people to evacuate the Pentagon, but Dotson and Dr. Shaun Hickey didn’t follow his orders.
“As we lined up to go into the Pentagon, I felt a tap on my shoulder,” Tedesco wrote. “It was Shaun Hickey and Bob Dotson.”
Dotson said he didn’t leave because he wanted to see what he could do to help. He and Hickey were among the first to run to where the plane hit and the first to find some of the dead.
“Shaun and Bob were overcome by smoke and heat and falling debris,” Tedesco wrote. “They heard no cries in response to their pleas. They crawled out and made their way to the lawn, only to volunteer to go back in ...”
Dotson was inside the Pentagon when he learned of the terrorist attack. He said military officials couldn’t account for United Airlines Flight 93 and thought it might also be coming for the Pentagon. The plane eventually crashed in Pennsylvania.
Dotson left the Pentagon for Ground Zero, which is the courtyard in the center of the Pentagon. “I’ve never felt so hopeless in my life, because I couldn’t help or fight back,” he said.
The New Jersey Air National Guard was protecting Washington, D.C. Dotson said he felt like a “sitting duck” until a pilot in an F15 fighter jet came from the west and “tipped his wing. This is when we started search and rescue operations.”
Dotson said the plane’s impact knocked out any ability to communicate, so his wife, Janice, didn’t know until about 2 p.m. that he was OK. She was at an office in Arlington, Virginia, where she worked for a space missile defense company.
Dotson worked until about 5 p.m. helping with search and rescue and was back at the site on Sept. 12 and 13. His scheduled flight to Alabama — as were all flights — was canceled, so he drove his rental car home.
Before he retired in 2008, Dotson said he made several trips back to the Pentagon “with no hesitation.” He said he commemorates 9/11 differently than most people because of all the acts of kindness he witnessed.
“For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were not thinking about themselves,” Dotson said. “I honor those who died every day and remember those who did so much to help, as well.”
Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml