20 years later, former veterans service officer will never forget 9/11

Sep 7, 2021

Even two decades later, former Dartmouth Veterans Service Officer Roy Oliveira can still hear the roar of the engines of American Airlines Flight 77 as it was about to crash into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The airplane came in so low and so fast that it sounded like they were actually taking off,” he said. 

At the time, Oliveira  was working as an administrator with the Defense Intelligence Agency, having started at the Pentagon just three months prior.

Thankfully, his work had him stationed across the Potomac River on that fateful day.

Oliveira was at a required training seminar at a DIA facility directly across the river from the Pentagon. It was during a morning class break that news first trickled in about American Airlines Flight 11 hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

He recalled that the intelligence personnel stationed at the site immediately suspected that there was something more to things than an accidental crash.

“Most of them automatically felt it was an attack of some sort,” Oliveira said. 

Seventeen minutes later, the South Tower was hit.

“The classroom was no longer in anyone’s mind,” Oliveira said. “At that point, we were all just focused on the TV.”

The former veterans service officer added that the second plane “reinforced everybody” at the DIA facility. He recalled many of the workers both following the news while also trying to find out exactly what just happened.

“There was a lot of chaos and panic throughout this,” Oliveira said. 

At 9:37 a.m., Flight 77 hit the Pentagon’s western facade.

“Even across the Potomac, you could hear the impact,” Oliveira recalled. “It just goes to show the power of that airplane at full throttle.”

Personnel inside the DIA site immediately went outside, only to see smoke billowing from the crash and survivors evacuating from the Pentagon.

As soon as he got out, the New Bedford resident called his family gathered in Massachusetts to let them know he was doing okay.

“I got ahold of my mom’s home phone and she was very relieved to hear I was fine,” Oliveira said.

The attack killed all 64 passengers aboard Flight 77 and 125 people inside the Pentagon.

While Oliveira was not familiar with those who worked on that side of the complex, one name stuck out among the dead: Rosa Maria Chapa, a civilian who had worked in the Pentagon’s accounting and finance department. 

Her section's offices moved within the last month to the first floor of the newly renovated section of the Pentagon that was hit.

According to Oliveira, Chapa’s plans were to retire at the end of 2001 and spend more time with her grandchildren.

“I had just spoken with her the week before,” he noted. “It’s a name that I’ll never forget.” 

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Oliveira said things were mostly business as usual at the Department of Defense, but with a significant security presence.

“You couldn’t just walk in like you could in the past,” he said. “There were checkpoints to get in and all your badges had to be active.”

After President George W. Bush announced his War on Terror, Oliveira went on to serve the DIA as an administrator in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay — establishing logistics and routines at both locations.

Oliveira retired from the Air Force in 2004 after 23 years of service and eventually served as Dartmouth’s Veterans Service Officer from 2010 to 2018.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Town of Dartmouth is inviting residents to participate in an event to pay tribute to those who died that day.

Oliveira was slated to speak, but later declined since he felt he would be too emotional to speak in front of a large crowd about that day.

“Something about that day — I don’t really think I could hold it in,” he said. “I didn’t want to dishonor the event by being unable to speak and I sincerely apologize to the people of Dartmouth.” 

The ceremony will be held Sept. 11 at 11 a.m. at Memorial Stadium and will happen rain or shine. Members of the Veterans Advisory Board, VFW, Select Board, American Legion, and police and fire honor guards will be in attendance.

“Every year, 9/11 is a day that brings me a lot of emotions,” Oliveira said. “I can’t believe it’s been 20 years.”