A tragic day in history, and specifically 90 minutes of that tragic day, changed Dan Holdridge's life forever. On Jan. 18, as the only survivor from the Pentagon to travel cross-country telling his story, he visited Cranston High School West and shared his experience with an auditorium full of students. "We like to try to find different ways to get our message out. Dan's message will go along well with what we do here at West," said Principal Tom Barbieri before Holdridge's presentation began.
Holdridge's DVD presentation, "Pentagon Prayer: Story of a 9/11 Surivivor," kept the audience in rapt attention as they watched the scenes unfolding before them.
"One hundred eighty-four of my colleagues died 10 feet from me," Holdridge said. "I am here today to honor those 184 lives by making sure that your lives are better for it. I want you to be here in the present with me. Don't worry about those text messages or cells because being right here in the moment is a gift."
Holdridge explained to the students that his day on Sept. 11, 2001 did not go the way a typical Tuesday at the Pentagon normally would, starting from first thing that morning.
"A conference call changed my schedule that day. The caller, Katie Jacques, called me to see if instead of having our weekly call on Wednesday, if we could have it on Tuesday instead. We had always had that phone call every Wednesday, for two years straight," he said. "That conference call made me late. Had I been on time, I would have been dead. Sometimes being late for the right reasons is OK.”
Holdridge told the students about how his 9/11 day unfolded following the conference call.
"At 9 a.m., Katie called me back. She said, 'Dan, did you hear about the Trade Center?' I told her I had not and when she told me what happened, I said to her, 'Oh my God, what a horrible accident,' because at that point, with just one plane hitting the building, I thought it had to be an accident," Holdridge said.
When his caller called again as the second plane hit the other tower, Holdridge knew that this was no accident.
"One plane is an accident. Two means we're at war, and my next thought was, 'Oh crap, I'm in the Pentagon,'" Holdridge said.
He noted that oddly enough, the Pentagon, a building he described as being bigger than the Empire State Building, had first opened on Sep. 11, 1946 and was undergoing its first renovations since it had opened, at the time that the towers were hit.
Holdridge got off the phone with Jacques and called his father to let him know that he was safe.
"I told him, 'This place is like a fortress. We'll be fine here,'" Holdridge said.
Holdridge walked with a friend, Bobby Sheldon, heading toward the Naval Command Center portion of the Pentagon to try to get a closer assessment of the situation. Sheldon, a smoker, asked if Holdridge minded stopping for a cigarette break.
"A cigarette, a cell phone and a clipboard saved my life," Holdridge said. "I flipped open my cell phone browser and started reading about New York City. I said to Bobby, 'What's next? The Pentagon?' And three seconds later, the building came down. I was knocked out. When I woke up, I thought I had died," Holdridge said.
He told the students that from the moment he took a deep breath and moved his left arm to see if he was, in fact, alive, everything changed for him.
"I knew that from that moment I was going to appreciate every moment of my life. I grabbed Bobby and went over to a pillar, but there was a fireball coming so we took off to the center courtyard and sat down. I looked down and I was covered in blood and when the pain set in, I knew I was in trouble," he said.
The clipboard he'd been holding and used to cover his head, along with the cell phone in his right hand, helped to save Holdridge's life, but there were still problems coming. A second plane was en route to the D.C. area, although it would soon be learned that the plane, Flight 93 out of Boston, would crash in Pennsylvania. Holdridge and Sheldon were moved to a safer area, a triage area where they, along with other victims, were being treated.
"This was a triage area different from other triage areas. They were using different colored ribbons. A green ribbon meant you were going to be OK. A yellow ribbon meant you needed help very soon and a red ribbon meant instant surgery," he said. "You could hear the moans, smell burning flesh and I cried along with those who would not be here much longer. The entire experience profoundly changed my life."
It was 90 minutes before Holdridge could reach his family again to tell them that he was alive. Cell services were blocked due to the overabundance of people trying to make calls. It was not until he got to a hospital that he was able to use their phone to make his call.
Holdridge uses his 9/11 experience to teach students the importance of living in the moment, and of learning to walk in other people's shoes.
"We don't need another 9/11. Terrorism is everywhere. It is in schools like this. There's bullying in schools, on Facebook, causing fear in other people. People are dying, committing suicide because they are being bullied so much," Holdridge said. "You don't need to get into the cockpit of a plane and fly an airplane into a building to be a terrorist."
He told the students to remember to help everyone, regardless of the outcome, giving the example of choosing to eat lunch with a student eating alone.
"That's my definition of a hero," he said. "That's a hero in my book."
He acknowledged the veterans in the room as heroes, asked for a round of applause in their honor.
"Today is Friday. I call that Pay It Forward Friday and every week I do something to pay it forward, like today I am speaking to you, free of charge," he said. "You never forget the impact that someone has to make a difference for someone else."
Before ending his speech, Holdridge held up a pair of women's flip flops.
"In Plattsville, Wisconsin, two days after the 9/11 10-year anniversary, I spoke about learning to walk in other people's shoes, and a woman came up to me after and said that my speech changed her life," Holdridge said. "She said, 'I'm going to give you my shoes. I lost my two sons, one at age 10 of an unexpected medical issue and the other a few months later from suicide, and Mr. Holdridge you are the first person who has ever said they could learn to walk in my shoes.'"
As Holdridge concluded his presentation, he gave the students a homework assignment.
"On 9/11, things changed: everything that I knew, who I was, my purpose in life. It was like a puzzle and all my pieces went up in the air and then nothing fit together again," he said. "It was 90 minutes from the point of impact until I could wheel myself over to a doctor's direct line at the hospital to let my family know I was alive. That's an eternity. Go home today. Tell your parents that you love them: your guardians, your siblings, your relatives. It will change your life."