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Sept. 11 anniversary brings back memories for New Ulm man who worked at Pentagon that day

Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 5:49 PM CDT
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NEW ULM, Minn. (KEYC) - As now Brown County Veteran Service Officer John Schotzko recalls, he had just moved to the Washington D.C. area three weeks before Sept. 11, 2001.

At the time, he was serving as an Army officer.

“We were just next door, watching on T.V. the Twin Towers had been hit by airplanes, and we thought, wow, this is not a coincidence. Something’s happening,” he said.

About 45 minutes later, Schotzko was back in his new office, inside the Pentagon, when another plane hit.

“Total chaos, big explosion, the ceiling falling down. Walls moving back and forth, falling over. Safes flipping over. We had about two feet of garbage on the ground. Shaking ourselves off, trying to get back and figure out what do we do now? And then we started getting accountability, helping people out. It was easiest to crawl over the walls that were fallen down. As black smoke was rolling in, just finding a way out,” he said.

The immediate concern, Schotzko said, was getting people out.

“And we started helping people that were down on the ground that had already made it out of the building, but they were burn victims. Two ambulances had shown up at that time, providing first aid, starting IVs, getting them loaded onto ambulances. Shortly after, helicopters started arriving for Medevac. And also, just trying to figure out, hey, can we go back into the Pentagon and help pull more people out?” he said.

Schotzko had been married to his high school sweetheart for ten years at the time.

He remembered trying to let her know he was safe.

“I didn’t have a cell phone. Remember this is 20 years ago, so trying to call, the only way to call at that point, because everybody was outside, trying to borrow cell phones, make a phone call, I didn’t get a hold of her until four hours later. That was through my mom. That wasn’t calling directly. Yeah, it took a while to get a hold of everybody and let people know that I’m ok, they’re ok, and get word out to other families,” he added.

He is thankful to have made it home that day, and knows his story could have been different.

“Don’t know why we were spared and others weren’t. An interesting thing is that two days before my arrival, my orders got changed. I was supposed to be over in this part of the Pentagon that got hit. They lost 29 people. I moved over here, and we all survived. Why were my orders changed? I don’t know. But I feel very fortunate that there was the change. Wow. Somebody is looking out for me,” he said.

Schotzko’s story didn’t end that day.

He’s worked with the families who lost someone in the attacks, helping them heal from their loss.

“A lot of talking, a lot of listening, a lot of grieving and being with families, just letting them know that hey, we’re part of your family, too. The military takes care of their own,” he said.

And he is still in touch with two of those families.

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