WASHINGTON - On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, John Yates was standing less than 100 feet from where American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon.
"There was just this tremendous boom, and a ball of fire went right over my head," he remembers. "I was blown through the air and ended up probably 30 feet away. The room was instantaneously black. The smoke was down to within a foot of the floor.
John Yates, seen in a photo taken on Sept. 2, 2002, when he was still wearing compression garments on his arms and hands to prevent scar tissue from hardening.
"It was painful to breathe. Everything was hot," he said. "There was debris everywhere, and you had to feel with your hands to see where you were going. I eventually made my way out into the corridor.
John spent the next two and a half months in hospitals with burns over 38 percent of his body.
"Top of my head, my face, my entire back, portions of my buttocks, my left leg had second-degree burns," he said. "I had third-degree burns on my hands and my forearms and elbows, which required three skin grafting operations."
I first met John in December 2001 as he was beginning five months of outpatient therapy at Washington Hospital Center's burn clinic.
"This is the toughest part, the no-pain, no-gain portion if it," he groaned as a rehabilitation therapist worked to straighten his charred fingers.
Long road to recovery
Nearly two years later, John was still getting a grip on life, both emotionally and physically.
"I still have a long ways to go in my psychological recovery," he told me in September 2003. "I see a therapist every week."
He'd gained only limited use of his hands by then.
"I can't make a complete fist quite yet with my right hand, but I'm further along than I am with my left," he said. "My goal is to hold change in my left hand."
Today, John's doing much better, thanks in part to the support of his wife Ellen, but he still has physical and psychological scars that will probably remain with him the rest of his life.
"I've gained a remarkable range of motion in my hands since we last spoke in 2003," he told me recently. "I can make a fist with my right hand, and I've been able to finally hold change in my left hand."
He's still being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and occasional depression.
"Even on medications, I still have ups and downs," he said. "I still have days when I'm in a bad mood, when I'm in a funk. They only last a day or so, and then I'm back to being me again."
Back to the Pentagon
Now 57, John continues his work as an Army civilian security manager, but from offices in Crystal City, Va., not the Pentagon. He returns to the Pentagon occasionally on business.
"I don't have a problem going back into the Pentagon anymore," he said. "The first couple of years, I did. Now it's not so difficult."
He'll be back there today for the dedication of a park in memory of the 184 Americans killed in the Pentagon attack, and then, in about a year and a half, his offices will move out of Crystal City and into the Pentagon.
"Not saying I won't have problems, you know, but I'm better prepared now to go back into the building on a permanent basis," he said. "Doesn't bother me. I can deal with it."
Even though he's convinced another 9/11-type attack is inevitable.
"I just hope we're better prepared," he said. "It's not a matter of if it will happen, but when it will happen."