His life is defined by a series of almosts.
Wayne Clements almost stayed in Indiana for graduate school. But he heard his name was next on the list to be drafted, so he joined the Air Force instead.
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He was almost in a plane crash during his 20-year career in the Air Force. A heavy snowstorm caused the plane to roll, but the pilot was able to right it.
He almost went to Vietnam, even volunteered to go. But the military sent him to California instead to get a master’s degree in engineering management.
Here’s Wayne Clements’ biggest almost:
He was almost in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, but his department moved to the building next door just a few months before.
The noise hit him first.
Sitting in a colleague’s office for a meeting, he and the others were blasted with a deafening noise.
American Airlines Flight 77 swept over the Navy Annex building. The plane’s engines whined, indicating to bystanders outside that the throttles were wide open.
He would later hear stories about the plane brushing by his building so closely that a 20-foot antenna on the Annex’s roof snapped like a pretzel.
Clements and his colleagues turned to a window of the office they occupied. It had a direct view of the five-sided Department of Defense fortress. A commercial plane was barreling toward it.
The pilot must be trying to make an emergency landing, Clements thought to himself. Or he’s lost control of the aircraft.
But as Clements watched the plane bank — pilot language for turn — it dawned on him that the pilot was in control.
And if the pilot was in control, why wasn’t he re-directing the 737 toward one of the parking lots?
Later, that question was answered.
Clements and his co-workers would learn that the Twin Towers in New York had fallen and that the Pentagon was next.
“Within 15 minutes, the world was alive with sirens,” Clements said.
He had carpooled to work that day.
The Pentagon alone housed 25,000 workers, and the eight buildings comprising the Navy Annex had hundreds more workers, so he only braved the traffic alone a couple of times a week.
Clements and others evacuated the Annex shortly after Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m.
“We didn’t have a clue,” he said.
It was from the radio of a co-worker’s car that Clements heard about the attack in New York.
As the principal engineer for a defense contractor, Clements was working with the Israelis on their ballistic missiles defense system as well as America’s own missiles defenses.
Like all other work days, he started promptly at 7 a.m. He expected the day to be filled with meetings, status reports and document preparation.
Instead, he spent it standing in a half-mile long human chain, one of the links passing water and supplies from the Navy’s service station to first responders. Working on a warm September Tuesday, many firefighters became dehydrated beneath their heavy gear.
The scent of 8,500 gallons of burning aviation fuel wafted around the Pentagon and far beyond it.
Just north of the scene sat Arlington National Cemetery where more than a third of the victims would be buried.
Clements sat in a co-worker’s office one day in the summer of 2001. They were good friends.
The colleague, an air traffic controller, told him some interesting news. He was being reassigned.
“Where to,” Clements asked.
“Can’t say. It’s classified, but it ends in ’stan,’ ” the colleague said.
The friend exchanged this tidbit in his office, which directly faced the Pentagon.
It was the same view the two would share on Sept. 11.
Months later, Clements ran into his friend.
He asked him, “Which ’stan?”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Clements contemplated walking home.
He’d lost touch with his carpool amid the pandemonium.
Calling his wife for a ride was out of the question. Cell phones weren’t working.
He figured his feet would travel at about the same pace as the vehicles gridlocked on I-395, but he found a co-worker who offered him a lift.
What was normally a fairly short commute spanned several hours.
Clements arrived home to his wife, Cheryl. A high school principal, she had Capitol police arrive at her school that morning to escort the children of congressmen out of the building.
At home, he flicked on the TV where contradictory reports filled the big screen.
An eyewitness to the Pentagon crash said the plane hit the ground and bounced into the building.
No, he thought, shaking his head. No way.
“It wasn’t a crash,” he said. “It was a bomb. A bomb with wings.”
He said the same thing in his interview with the FBI the next day.
On Sept. 12, traffic was still congested, and security measures at the Pentagon and Annex buildings increased.
Police checked each vehicle, popped the trunks and positioned mirrors to examine each car’s underbelly.
Clements didn’t make it to his desk by 7 a.m that day, which bothered a punctual, former military man like himself. A little late, he nevertheless put in his typical 10-hour workday.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided government business would resume on Sept. 12. Wall Street made the same decision.
It sent a message to the world that America does not back down, Clements said.
In the weeks immediately following 9/11, Clements drove his Harley-Davidson to work. He found motorcycle security lines moved more quickly.
His agency had moved to the Annex just a few months shy of September to get more space.
Before the move, he had put 17 years of his life into the Pentagon.
But it would never be the same.
Gone was the lively spirit, the comedians among his co-workers.
“We called (the Pentagon) Fortress Fumble,” Clements said. “After the attack, we were just a fortress.”
Up went biological and chemical detectors around the perimeter.
Troops with machine guns sat in Humvees outside entrances.
His first meeting in the Pentagon after 9/11 was a few weeks later.
The wreckage of the 737 was blocked from view.
But the smoldering smell lingered for months.
Clements retired in 2004 with employment offers to work in Israel and Brussels.
He briefly considered Belgium — good mussels, great beer — and almost moved there.
The Belgian capital is now facing an influx of immigrants and refugees. Last March, two airports and a metro station were bombed, killing 32 civilians and injuring hundreds more.
Another almost that might have saved him, he reckoned.
Instead, he bought a house in Sea Pines. He golfs several times a week, often with Parris Island Marine recruits or in tournaments supporting veterans.
On vacation in Hawaii, his wife wanted to skydive.
Clements, a former pilot, had no desire to jump out of a plane after two decades of landing them.
He hasn’t been back to the Pentagon since his retirement.
A lifetime of almosts behind him, he chooses not to tempt fate anymore.