‘Shock of a lifetime:’ Darlington public safety chaplain remembers responding to Pentagon on 9/11

Pee Dee

DARLINGTON, SC (WBTW) — It may have been 19 years ago, but a local public safety chaplain can recount Sept. 11, 2001 like it happened yesterday.

That’s because Chaplain of Darlington public safety Frank Stoda saw the devastation first hand. He responded to the Pentagon that day, working the scene in the hours and days following the attack.

He says it’s something he’ll never forget.

He was on vacation when he got the call.

“I got a call that said, ‘how quick can you be back? An airplane just hit the World Trade Center. We’re activated and going.'” he recounted.

And he was on his way.

At the time, Stoda was working in northern Virginia. He worked for Fairfax County as its public safety radio system manager. Eventually, he became the communications manager for Virginia Task Force 1.

It wasn’t long before his phone rang again.

“Got a second call that says, ‘We’re not going to the World Trade Center. A plane just went into the Pentagon. We’re going there.’ And I said I’ll be there as quick as I can.”

He raced down the expressway. The only cars passing him were Virginia state troopers with the same destination: the Pentagon.

“I knew what we were in for,” he said. “I knew what carnage we were probably going to have… I found out it was commercial airliners. I knew something more drastic was going to happen and this wasn’t going to be a pleasant assignment.”

It wasn’t.

He said he arrived to the Pentagon, which was still on fire, with dozens of members of the task force.

“We set up our base of operations, waited for the fires to get under control so we could start going in and do our search operations,” he said. “And when the fires were down far enough, we started going in and doing our search operations. And we did a quick search for live victims.”

He said it was impossible to even distinguish rubble from being a part of the airplane or the building.

Him and a partner were assigned a quadrant of the building to see how far the damage went.

“We went and found a melted TV. And four deceased people watching it,” he remembered. “Think of the darkest place you’ve ever been and then you have a flashlight and a helmet light are the only two lights. And you swing across that.”

“We weren’t prepared for that. We weren’t expecting to find people like that. And it was the shock of a lifetime.”

He ended up working the Pentagon scene for about two weeks. Stoda called the process of clearing rubble ‘painstaking.’

It’s after the adrenaline settles, he said, that the trauma can set in.

“It’s when you’re home at night sitting there and starting to watch TV and you start sitting back and relaxing and you really don’t have anything on your mind,” Stoda said. “That’s when these things creep into your mind and give you these sense of despair.”

He now hopes to provide relief to fellow first responders in his current role of chaplain for the City of Darlington public safety. He’s done that since 2013.

He says there aren’t enough resources for first responders to help them cope with traumatic experiences.

He hopes that Sept. 11 will serve as a reminder for communities to thank their emergency workers for all they do.

“They’re coming up against things very similar to the shock of events of 9/11,” he said. “But they don’t have the support systems that they truly need.”

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