"What the hell was that?"
Those were the first words out of U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Jason Ingersoll's mouth after he heard a strange, loud noise overhead on the morning of Sept. 11.
Ingersoll was busy at work in the photographic section of the Marine Corps' headquarters near Washington, D.C., when the noise registered. Moments later, he heard what sounded like a sonic boom.
"All the windows shook," he said. "Someone screamed down the hallway, 'It's been hit.' "
It was the Pentagon, across the street from Ingersoll and a place he knew well. No one had to give him any marching orders.
"I just grabbed my stuff and ran down there," he recalled last week. "The first thing I did was see if I could help people, but they had a lot of professional people supposed to be doing stuff like that."
On the scene fast
So Ingersoll, packing the tools of his trade, went to work. One of the first photographers on the scene, he was drafted by the FBI to become a member of its evidence-response team. All through the day, Ingersoll took photos that some day could be used as evidence in court. He also had to maintain detailed crime-scene records in case he is asked to testify.
He was on the scene so fast, he was able to photograph the Pentagon before and after the collapse of several floors. Later, he walked with FBI agents during line sweeps, photographing airplane parts and other items.
About 45 minutes after Ingersoll arrived at the scene, people began yelling that another plane was missing and presumed heading for yet another terrorist target -- possibly in Washington. So the FBI grabbed him and placed him in the middle of a highway. "They wanted us to get photos in case another plane hit," said Ingersoll, who didn't have to worry that morning about dodging cars on what is usually busy Route 27. It had been closed to traffic.
He was about 150 yards from the Pentagon on high ground -- "willingly manning his position while others were guided to safer terrain," according to the official Marine Corps report.
Ingersoll admitted he was "kind of" scared but more bewildered than anything. "The Pentagon was on fire," he said. "I just couldn't believe it. The place where it got hit, I had walked through many, many times. I'd been in some of those offices. I've done photo shoots in the Pentagon."
Lode parents frantic
Ingersoll worked virtually the entire day. His parents -- Robin and Eric, who live in Calaveras County -- weren't sure if he was alive or not.
"My first instinct was to try to get ahold of my son," Robin Ingersoll said. "I knew he was there but just didn't know where he was. I was a very concerned mother trying to find her child."
Finally, late that night, they connected. "He talked to us for about 20 seconds," she said. "He was OK, he loved us and he was working."
The work stretched into a second day. Ingersoll accompanied the FBI's body-recovery team into the crime scene while the Pentagon still was smoldering. He continued taking evidentiary photographs and helped place bodies in bags to be handed over to the Army recovery team.
The scene certainly was enough to unnerve the steadiest of people. Ingersoll, who attended elementary school in Lodi before moving to Calaveras County in the eighth grade, said the Marine Corps had Navy chaplains on hand if anyone wanted to talk. He didn't.
"I deal with stuff my own way," he explained.
He went on dealing for the next several days, putting in 12-hour shifts to provide photographic support for the FBI. He took some of the only digital photographs of the aftermath of the terrorist attack, providing material for the Department of Defense agencies to use.
For his efforts, Ingersoll, 21, has been selected to receive a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for meritorious service. The 1998 Calaveras High School graduate isn't sure when he'll receive his award and, while proud, he tried to downplay it. "I was just doing what I thought was the right thing to do," he said.
He told his grandmother, Loretta King, who lives near Phoenix, the same thing. "I asked him, 'Do you know you're a hero?' " recalled King. "He said, 'Aw, grandma, I just did what they hired me to do.' "
Others disagree. "He's done a great job," his mom said. "We're very proud of him."
Robin Ingersoll is equally proud of her 20-year-old daughter, Jill, who's also
wearing a uniform. She's a Navy petty officer on board the USS John
Stennis, an aircraft carrier heading toward the Middle East.
That gives her twice as much reason to worry in these times of war. "She told me she's on the safest ship there is, which is an aircraft carrier," Ingersoll said of her daughter, who also graduated from Calaveras High School. "But I still worry anyway. As a mom, there's no safe place, especially now."
Ingersoll said she's not sure she'll be able to watch her son receive his award, but his grandmother hopes to make it back there. "I'm so proud of him, I'm bursting at the seams," King said.
King said she's "addicted" to television news these days. "With two grandkids in the service, who wouldn't be?" she asked. Like any grandmother, she worries about them. "I fear for all our military, not just my grandkids," she said. "If any of them get hurt, it hurts me. One life to me is as valuable as all of them."
Francis P. Garland is The
Record's Lode bureau chief. He writes a biweekly column for the Lodi/Lode section
and can be reached by phone at 736-9554 or by e-mail at garland