It is hard to believe that it has been 15 years since the landscape of our world changed. It is seared into our minds, but not the minds of many of our young kids. To them it is a history lesson, much like Pearl Harbor was for me growing up. But for those of us old enough to grasp only too well what was happening, life changed that day.
My brother worked for the EPA in Washington DC. His office had moved to a new building not long before September 11. He was now located six blocks from the White House. He sent an email that day, telling us he was okay and getting ready to walk home to Alexandria Virginia, as the subway wasn’t running. He said he was among the last to leave his building. His last sentence was an urging to “pray for our country”. Some days later he sent the following email. I use it with his permission.
It was, I remember, a beautiful, pleasant, sunny day here in Washington, DC. My office is located six blocks from the White House. I had arrived at my desk at about 7:00 AM.
Just after 9:00 Vicki called me from home to say that one of the morning television news programs had reported that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. I remembered that decades ago a plane had hit the Empire State Building on a foggy morning, so my initial thought was that something like that had happened again. I went to washingtonpost.com, the Washington Post’s web page, to see an astonishing sight: a photograph there showed one of the towers burning from the initial plane crash – and another plane heading straight to the other tower! It was one of those fantastic, chance photographs that someone managed to take at exactly the right instant. There was no question that the crash had been deliberate. I called to my co-worker in the next cubicle to take a look at what I had on my screen. I tried to get to other news web pages but my computer was frozen; our
internet connections had overloaded from a sudden spike in traffic. I tried to call home but could not even get a dial tone; the phone system had almost instantly overloaded as well.
Another co-worked had a radio and we gathered around to listen to news reports. We were only too aware of how close we were to other potential targets. Frankly, it was frightening to listen as facts and rumors were reported rapidly, one after the other, with no way of knowing which was true and which was not. We heard a report of an explosion at the Pentagon, a distance of no more than two miles as the crow flies, which was soon being described as another plane crash and clearly related to the events in New York. There was a report of another plane somewhere out there unaccounted for but supposedly heading for Washington; it was certainly the plane that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania. Another report was of an explosion at the Department of State, ten blocks west of my office, but that proved to be
About 10:00 came the report of one of the World Trade Center towers collapsing, with the report of the other going down soon after. My supervisor had grown up in northern New Jersey and remembered often looking
across the Hudson River at the World Trade Center towers in the distance. She was nearly in tears: “It can’t be, it can’t be,” she kept saying.
We never received an order to evacuate our building, despite its proximity to the White House and the Capitol building. Each of us decided on our own to leave. Along with my co-worker at the next desk, I was among the last to leave our area. Before departing, with the phones still inoperable, I tried to send an e-mail to Vicki with a copy to my family in Michigan, explaining what was happening as best I knew at that time, and my plans to get home. My e-mail did not show up in anyone’s in-box for days, as it turned out.
I commute to the office by subway, taking either of two lines, but both lines share a station that is outside and below the Pentagon. I knew there was no chance that trains would be using that station. So I began walking home. Outside it was eerily quiet, despite the fact that the streets were completely jammed, sidewalk to sidewalk, bumper to bumper, with cars making their way out of the city. I walked west on Constitution Avenue and in a few blocks was between the Washington Monument on the left and the White House on my right. It occurred to me that I was nearly in the bulls eye of a potential target, if that unknown plane was still on its way to DC. I did not tarry. Atop the White House I could see bright metallic glints and reflections. I don’t know what they have up there and I’m sure they won’t say, but they were as ready as they could be.
I crossed the Potomac River on Memorial Bridge, which connects the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery. Ordinarily it is a busy commuter route but
by then it was closed off except for occasional police cars or official-business black vehicles with heavily tinted windows rushing past. Also ordinarily there would have been the regular sound of jet engines above as planes descended to National Airport a few miles away. But with air traffic suspended and traffic closed off there was that same eerie silence, the only sound being the footsteps of hundreds of people like me, walking home. People rarely spoke to one another, each of us deep in our own thoughts.
In the distance off to my left I could see heavy brown smoke rising from the Pentagon, which was in the direction I planned to walk. As I came closer I could smell the smoke and see the emergency vehicles crowding the side of the building. My intention was to walk between the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery along a highway that was the most direct route home. But I could see that my intended course was blocked off so I detoured to walk down another highway on the side of the Pentagon opposite the crash site. That highway, too, was empty of traffic. At my nearest point of approach I could have walked a few dozen yards up a slope and touched the side of the Pentagon. (Several years earlier on a 4th of July, Dale, Lisa and I had literally walked up to the front steps of the Pentagon and sat there to watch the fireworks over the Washington Monument. Those days are gone forever.)
I continued past the Pentagon into an area of Arlington known as Crystal City that has many high-rise office and apartment buildings and hotels. I stopped at one hotel to call home. I got a dial tone but there was no answer. I stopped several more times to call home, never getting through. Later I learned that Vicki had picked up both children at their schools, then the three of them returned to Lisa’s elementary school near our home to help watch over the students who were there, awaiting the arrival of their parents. Some waited a very long time.
Crystal City has a subway stop, the first southbound between the Pentagon and our home. Unknown to me the subway was running from that point in the direction I was going. I did not pass close enough to the subway station to realize that. I would have saved many miles and many steps had I known.
By now my dress shoes were raising blisters on my heels so I stopped at a pharmacy to buy some bandages. The place was closed with a sign on the door: “Closed. Sorry for any inconvenient.” Thanks, grammar ace. Farther on a large strip shopping mall, normally jammed with shoppers any day of the
week, was deserted except for a grocery store. I bought some food for lunch and bandages for my feet. I tramped on through Arlington and then Alexandria. For the longest time I could look back over my shoulder and
there was that brown smoke still rising into the sky.
The last few miles were through residential neighborhoods where seemingly nothing was out of the ordinary. One main street was heavy with traffic now
able to speed along, with policemen at each intersection waving cars through the traffic lights, whether green or red. I figure I walked between eight
and nine miles that day. Sometimes I think I should drive my route as best I
can and see how far I walked, but most of me never wants to relive any part
of that day.
I reached home sometime in early afternoon, by which time Vicki and our children had returned as well. They had no idea where I was or what I was
doing, this being pre-answering machine days for us. Never was I or they happier to see each other. We shared a long group hug to end an awful day.