Karen Baker: Pentagon survivor who told the stories of 9/11 victims

New York (AFP) –


Karen Baker was a crisis communications expert at the Pentagon on 9/11 but nothing could prepare her for what she would soon have to do -- announce the deaths of friends.

As the second plane hit the World Trade Center, confirming that New York was under attack, Baker couldn't imagine that she would be in danger at the US Defense Department headquarters in Washington.

"This is the safest place to be in the world right now," the then 33-year-old media relations specialist for the United States military remembers telling a co-worker.

That illusion was soon shattered when American Airlines Flight 77 rammed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing 53 passengers, six crew, along with 125 people in the building.

"It was a loud boom and then you felt a shaking," she recalls.

Baker and friend Elaine Kanellis, who was nine months pregnant, joined the thousands of Pentagon staff who quickly evacuated the building, many navigating darkness and intense heat caused by the explosion.

"People were very anxious and trying to figure out what was going on. But we were with military people. They've been under fire before so there was a... sense of calm and order to the confusion," Baker remembers.

Outside in the parking lot, Baker and her colleagues learned that the explosion had actually been a jetliner.

"I knew it was terrorists. But the idea of a plane being used as a weapon and how that could happen in this area was a little bit hard to fathom.

"I was ready for the bombs to start hitting from above," she says.

When Baker finally made it home through a largely locked-down US capital that night and was able to hug her husband and two young boys, the enormity of what she survived began to sink in.

"The sheer tension had pushed them to the edge and they were just sobbing. They had all lost it. That was really tough to see," Baker said.

- 'Heroics' -

In the aftermath, Baker helped put out the names of the dead, liaising with families to compile tributes to the victims.

"You're trained how to announce soldiers' deaths, but we didn't really know how to do this for civilians. It's something I had never anticipated," she says.

The challenge was made even more difficult by the fact that two good friends had died while another had suffered 90 percent burns.

"You're looking at it very professionally. And then you suddenly see friends' names on the list and they were people you didn't know were hurt and now we are announcing their deaths.

"That was the hardest," Baker tells AFP at the US Army Corps of Engineers in New York, where she now works as a director of programs.

For months afterwards, she organized countless media interviews.

Karen Baker and Elaine Kanellis point at a floor plan of the Pentagon showing where people were working when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the building on 9/11
Karen Baker and Elaine Kanellis point at a floor plan of the Pentagon showing where people were working when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the building on 9/11 SAUL LOEB AFP

"It was kind of like you relive 9/11 for days and days and days.

"But for me it was especially important to tell the story of the army civilians who were killed because these were people who never put on a uniform and who didn't really sign up to put themselves in harm's way."

Baker thinks of 9/11 "all the time" and contacts her colleagues from that time on every anniversary.

"It really did shape the path many of us took after that," she says.

"I try to appreciate life. I try to recognize that we're not given any more time than we have. I also tell my family I love them an awful lot."

While Baker says her experience "pales into comparison" with what New Yorkers went through, she believe she witnessed "miracles" that day that "deepened" her faith.

"I saw the heroics of the people who came together. I do feel like there was somebody watching over me and ensured that I got out the building."