Five years on and it’s cliché to say that 9-11 changed America. It changed our country, it changed our lives, it changed our airports and train stations. Still, it’s worth a few words, just for today.
September is probably the prettiest month in Washington, DC. March and April have the cherry blossoms, but they also have the rain and the hay fever. And September 11, 2001 was a particularly pretty day. I remember taking the bus to the Pentagon Station metro stop (I lived about three-quarters of a mile from the Pentagon as the crow flies, but a bit longer if you are trying to actually get to the metro). Frankly, I don’t remember much of it, being just another Tuesday with me running late to work. I remember walking into the office (my relatively new office), seeing a few of the administrative folks huddled around a radio. Strange. They usually try to look busy. I thought it must be the announcement of some sports results or maybe lottery numbers.
I walk into my office, sit down and immediately get a call from my sister. Did you hear that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers? Really? That’s so weird, because just yesterday I had set up a date to see an old friend there in a few weeks. She used to work there and wanted to show me the Windows of the World Restaurant—or at least have a few drinks, since I hear the place is pretty expensive. What was it, a small private plane? Crap, I thought. I hope this doesn’t push back our meetings there next week. After all, our counterparts are flying in from the Middle East, and it would suck to have to tell them to reschedule.
Then comes the second call, again from my sister. A second airplane. That can’t be a coincidence. What was the damage? Thoughts run through my mind of stories of that B-25 hitting the Empire State Building in the 1940s. Quite a few people killed. This will probably be worse, but those are huge buildings.
Then the third call. From a friend, this time. Did you hear that there was a bomb at the Pentagon? What?? I was just there! What are we talking about, a hand grenade? A car bomb? I hang up the phone and run over to my boss’ office (the one on the corner with the huge windows). I look across the Anacostia River and it looks as if my entire neighborhood is on fire. That’s no hand grenade. That’s terrorism. It’s probably Bin Laden (strange that I knew who he was back then). There goes all hope of stopping a national ID card.
Then my sister calls again. The WTC Towers had collapsed. That’s impossible! That’s physically impossible! We had people in that complex! A colleague from Salt Lake City was supposed to be there today.
It doesn’t want to sink in. I write off an email to my friend in New York—Hey, guess we’re going to have to cancel on dinner in NY. I’ll write you soon. Gotta go.
I stuck around the office, listening to the rumors, fielding phone calls from abroad. Got a voicemail from an Israeli colleague, calling from home. She wanted me to know that she and her friends were thinking of us and worried. It nearly made me tear up. Soon other foreign colleagues called, but she was the first. That still means a lot to me, even today.
After a few hours, we were no longer deemed “essential personnel,” and most of us decided to leave. It was a long walk. Walking along the Pentagon highway, I get to a road that leads home, roped off with police tape. Unthinking, I cross the tape as if it weren’t even there. A cop screams at me, “What the hell do you think you’re doing!” At the moment, to be honest, I had no idea. I looked at him, pointed and said, “I live over there. I want to go home.” I must have looked particularly dazed and/or pathetic, because his demeanor changed instantly. You can’t go through this way. You need to go along the highway, maybe cut across the Army-Navy golf course, then head north again.
I finally got home, and my old retired neighbor said she had seen the plane. If practically flew down Columbia Pike. You could smell the smoke. Even weeks later, you could smell the smoke.