Call Saved Rice Professor on 9/11

Grojean: Character mattered most in aftermath of attack at Pentagon

By Mike Williams, Rice News Staff

Most memories fade over time. This one remains razor-sharp.

Mike Grojean now works at Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, but on Sept. 11, 2001, he was an Army major assigned to the Pentagon as a leadership policy officer.

Rice University Professor Mike Grojean was on his way to a meeting at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, but headed back to his office when the gathering was cancelled. Minutes later, the meeting room was destroyed.

Grojean"At the Pentagon, a lot of officers have televisions on," said Grojean, a professor in the practice of management and executive director of executive education. "It's a way of keeping situational awareness, to see what kind of breaking news is going on. Somebody said, 'Hey, look at this.'"

The first jet had hit the World Trade Center, and as Grojean watched, another crashed into the second tower. "Those of us who had combat experience said, 'That's not a coincidence. Something's going on,'" he recalled.

Minutes later he left his office for a scheduled 9:45 meeting in another part of the building. He heard a shout from behind.

We got a call, a colleague yelled. "Your meeting is canceled." Grojean started back. At 9:37 a.m., Flight 77 out of Washington Dulles International Airport slammed into the Pentagon. Grojean felt the shudder and turned to see the building's fire doors burst through the ceiling tiles.

"The only thing I can liken it to is if you're standing in New York and a subway goes by on the other side of a solid wall," he said. "You feel that shaking and rattling; the lights shake. It was as if a train had rolled through on the other corridor."

The Pentagon is divided into five rings and wedges connected by 10 corridors that run from the center courtyard to the perimeter. Grojean had been walking down a corridor on the second floor to meet with his boss, Lt. Gen. Tim Maude, the Army's senior personnel officer. They were supposed to discuss deployment of their small team in times of national emergency, natural or otherwise. Grojean did not yet know Maude was dead.

Grojean returned to his office, where a co-worker told him the building was being evacuated. The corridors filled quickly as most of the 25,000 workers, mostly civilians, streamed toward the exits.

He didn't evacuate. Instinct kicked in.

"Your character will carry you through anything," Grojean said. He observed it in the officers and colleagues who took charge at the Pentagon on 9/11.

"Folks went above and beyond for those around them. I saw folks who had a strength that carried them through fear -- not just during the attack but for months after. Character is a relatively intangible aspect of who we are, but it is central to how we act."

The then-21-year veteran worked his way through the anxious crowd and left the main corridor. He found a staircase and descended to the subbasement Army operations center. In normal times, a crew of 35 to 40 mans the center, but their numbers grow tremendously during a crisis. Grojean, still thinking the explosion was from a truck bomb, was one of the few on the expanded team to arrive shortly after the attack. He walked into a scene of muted pandemonium as officers tried to figure out what had happened.

"The general officer down there was Pete Chiarelli, who went on to become a division commander. I think he's a three-star (general) now. He did a fabulous job. He took control and we calmed down.

Grojean2"That's the core essence of crisis leadership. People watch you, and how you behave tells them how to behave."

Grojean and his colleagues spent much of 9/11 manning the phones, opening secure communications channels to the Army chief of staff, the National Command Authority and the other Pentagon-based operation centers and assessing the local and international situation for the senior command. (The Navy operation center, on an upper floor, had been destroyed.)

Before any of that, he called his wife.

"I said, 'Something's happened. I don't know what it is. I'm fine. Tell the kids I'm fine.' That was the last time I talked to them until the next morning."

Some survivors, trapped in the impact zone by the fire doors, made it out the hard way, he recalled. They broke through thick windows and leaped to the loading docks between rings. Many had burns and broken bones and were taken to safety by others who had escaped to the Pentagon's central courtyard.

Other survivors called in from the parking lots to say who was with them -- and who wasn't.

"The first thing you do in combat is take accountability of your folks," Grojean said. "You make certain who you've got who's hurt and who's missing. That's the natural instinct for a combat leader, and that's what we began doing. It took weeks.

"Within days, we had a good feel of who went to hospitals, where they were. Some folks who lived locally got a taxi and went home. So we had to find them. It probably took us 48 to 72 hours to get to a point where we were reasonably certain that the folks we weren't in contact with weren’t to be found."

The first day, Grojean arrived home at 4:30 a.m., showered, changed clothes and went back to work an hour later.

"The most emotional sight was coming back across the bridge. I could see the glow in the sky. They hadn't put all the fires out," he said.

He logged 120 hours on duty in the first week and survived on three hours of sleep a night. In subsequent weeks, as the situation eased, the days got shorter, but the operation center was his home for the next five-and-a-half months.

Of the thousands who died on 9/11, 125 were inside the Pentagon. "Roughly 20 percent of my office mates were killed in the attack," Grojean said. "I can go down the list of names and see their faces."

He doesn't talk much about 9/11 these days, but his memories are "blindingly sharp."

"I can't just see it; I can feel it," he said. "Talking about it, I can feel my heart accelerating a bit. I can feel my hands tremble just a bit. And the postgame analysis, the thoughts that come afterwards, reinforces the memories.

"The experience brings home a lot of the things I know about the right way to act, the right way to lead."

That has informed his teaching at Rice. "It allows me to understand that leadership is contextual," he said. "Your situation gives you cues on how to behave."

And that, he said, goes back to one's character. "Your character is a currency that you can't get wrong. You have to get that right. You consistently have to work at character."

Grojean retired after a 23-year Army career that took him through linguistic training in California to postings in Europe as a Russian specialist with the National Security Agency, as a tank unit commander during the first Gulf War, as a leadership teacher at West Point and, after the Pentagon, back to Europe as a senior staff officer in the First Infantry Division (the famed Big Red One) in the run-up to the second Gulf War.

He became a lecturer at the Aston Business School in Birmingham, England, where he set up a center for leadership research and rose to the position of associate dean.

A consulting project with British Petroleum brought him in contact with former Rice Provost Gene Levy in 2008, and that led to the opportunity to join Rice and return to his native Texas. Grojean's father, a Vietnam veteran, was in San Antonio and had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer.

"I got to spend time with my dad before he passed away, and I get to do what I love, which is make a difference in people's lives," he said. "Another takeaway message for me is that every minute of our lives that we spend is gone forever. So spend them well."