RUSKIN — A warm Florida sun served as Dan Holdridge's backdrop as he addressed a group of students, veterans and residents at Hillsborough Community College's SouthShore campus on Monday.
The bright rays served as a stark contrast to the dark and terrifying day 15 years ago that Holdridge described to the audience.
"You learn a lot from being under the rubble," said Holdridge, alluding to the moment American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into his office in the Pentagon, outside Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.
Holdridge, working as a General Dynamics contractor, says he missed death by just 10 feet. Now president and CEO of Eagle Industries, he spends many days speaking to audiences — including the group gathered to commemorate 9/11 at HCC — about how one day, one event can change your life.
As Holdridge recalled, a phone call, a cigarette and a clipboard all played a part in saving his life.
At 8:30 a.m. on the day of the attacks, he sat in his Pentagon office and took his usual Wednesday morning conference call. As he spoke with his colleague, she began relating to him what was taking place at that moment in New York City. A plane had flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
"When the first plane hit, I thought it must have been a terrible accident," Holdridge said. "But then the second plane hit the other tower, and I thought, 'Oh, no, we must be at war,' So I did what most people do at a time like that: I called home."
He told his dad not to worry, that he was in the Pentagon, which was like a fortress and he would be okay.
That was the first delay.
After that conversation, Holdridge and co-worker Bobby Shelby headed down to the naval command center, where they were installing new computer networks in that newly renovated section of the building. On their way, Shelby asked if they could hold up a minute so he could take a quick cigarette break before they got to the command center. He grabbed a smoke while Holdridge got on his cellphone to get more information about New York City.
That was the second delay.
Then came the massive explosion. Holdridge recalls there was a roar like a freight train, and it seemed the whole world was shaking around him. Then a sonic blast that couldn't be seen picked them up and launched them into the air as the building started coming down on them.
"Debris was flying so hard and fast from the explosion, it knocked both of us out," Holdridge said. "For some reason I had a clipboard in my left hand. I never carry a clipboard, but I did that day. Evidently, when I heard the blast, I reached up and covered my face with the clipboard as a piece of concrete came flying into my face. That clipboard saved my life."
And the delays also likely proved pivotal in his survival.
When Holdridge came to, he saw Shelby covered in blood. Then he looked down at himself and realized that he too was covered with blood.
"People were screaming, 'You've been hit. You've been hit,' " Holdridge said. "I got up and grabbed Bobby, who was lying next to me. We made it out just as a fireball was headed down the hall to our left. I don't know why that line was drawn just 10 feet from where I was that day. I don't know why so many people died and I didn't."
First responders stitched and bandaged him and Shelby in a makeshift triage area.
"People were dying next to me," he said, noting that 184 people were killed in the Pentagon that morning. "You never forget the smell of burning flesh and jet fuel fumes. There were screams. You just never forget the effects of war."
As he tells his story, he recites his favorite quote by Mark Twain: "The two most important days of our lives are the day that we are born and the day we figure out why."
The 9/11 tragedy helped Holdridge realize what he was born to do. He tells his story across the country, but not for the shock and awe.
"My ground zero lay under a pile of rubble, and I learned to appreciate that I can breathe, that I can move my hand.
"My message to people is very clear," he says. "Life is so precious; every life is so important. I know I was saved for a reason."
Holdridge offers a message of hope and encouragement to people of all ages. He feels that by sharing his story, those who hear it will look within to find their inner hero. He uses this acronym for the word HERO: Help Everyone Regardless of Outcome.
His definition of hero is to give of yourself to someone who needs it most. There were thousands of heroes who came out of nowhere on 9/11. Today, Holdridge spreads the word that life mustn't be taken for granted. Appreciate every moment you have. Not everyone gets a Sept. 12.
Contact Kathy Straub at [email protected]