Friday, September 11, 2009

Where Were You on 9/11?

A few years ago, our son had a school assignment to ask his family where they were on September 11, 2001. I believe that the teacher expected a brief response, but as I started writing to document my day, I found it difficult to stop. The following story recounts my whereabouts on 9/11.

In 2001, I was employed by the natural gas distribution utility that serves the District of Columbia and surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was part of a small group of employees meeting with former Virginia Governor, and then current United States Senator, George Allen. It was a breakfast meeting intended to provide an opportunity to discuss current political events with the Senator. We were meeting in the lower level of the Grand Hyatt at 1000 H Street, just a few blocks east of the White House.

I had driven into the District that morning along with the thousands of other daily commuters. I passed the Pentagon complex along Interstate 395 a little after 8:00 a.m. and admired the building as I had many, many times before. Little did I know how dramatically the Pentagon, Washington D.C., the United States and the rest of the world would change within the next few hours.

Our meeting with Senator Allen began around 8:30 a.m. We had barely finished our introductions when the Senator’s aides rushed into the room and confidentially whispered into his ear. The Senator was visibly disturbed and apologized to his breakfast audience for needing to end the meeting. He explained that there was an emergency in New York City that required his immediate attention at the United States Senate offices. It was now almost 9:00 a.m.

We casually left the breakfast, departing through the Grand Hyatt lobby where I caught news on the coffee shop television of an airplane that had struck the World Trade Center in New York. At that time, the reporters thought it to be no more than some type of freak accident.

By the time I had made my way to the company’s offices, the second plane had struck the World Trade Center. Several of us gathered around a television to watch news coverage of the event that was clearly no longer an accident. The news reports began to introduce the idea of a terrorist attack against the United States; an idea that frightened all of us. By now it was past 9:30 a.m.

It was difficult to concentrate on starting the work day with the news events of the morning. Several employees stayed near the television to pass along any breaking news. Nobody was contemplating that the next event was to occur so close to us.

About 9:45 a.m., there was a low rumble that shook the area. Calls from coworkers in Springfield, Virginia confirmed the same experience. Employees reported a cloud of smoke rising from near Arlington. Emergency repair crews from the company had been called to the Pentagon to cut off natural gas service. The television news confirmed our fears; the Pentagon was the latest target for the terrorists’ jetliner strikes.

Everything began moving quickly at this point. Rumors began to spread throughout the District of Columbia. There were reports of car bombs exploding at government buildings and of additional airliners missing over the skies of the United States. Nobody knew for certain what was fact and what was fiction.

Nothing accentuated the seriousness of the day’s events as when the first tower of the World Trade Center collapsed around 10:00 a.m. My heart sunk as I thought of the people and emergency rescue crews trapped inside of the building, and I grew fearful as I thought of myself being on the twelfth floor of one of the tallest buildings near the White House and United States Capitol.

The television news was now reporting that a hijacked airliner was missing somewhere over Pennsylvania. Speculation was that the terrorists were destined towards another target in the Nation’s Capitol. By 10:30 a.m. the second tower of the World Trade Center collapsed and government buildings in the District were being evacuated. All of this was too much for us working downtown and we decided it was time for us to leave as well.

I retrieved my car from an underground parking garage around 11:00 a.m. The streets of D.C. were almost like a scene from a Hollywood disaster movie. The news reported that the bridges which connect the District of Columbia to Virginia were closed to automobile traffic and that the Metro system (subway) was shut down. Pedestrians milled about the sidewalks and streets, wandering aimlessly and apparently ambivalent to those of us who were trying to navigate our way out of the city by car. Everyone would stop and stare as military fighter jets slowly and silently circled the skies above, almost as though they were children’s toys hanging from strings. If you looked carefully, you could occasionally spot military personnel atop some of the buildings. Their silhouetted figures could be seen armed with weapons. It was surreal.

The radio news offered confusing and sometimes conflicting messages. Searching for more information on traffic conditions and open routes leading out of the city, I tried to call my wife in Stafford, Virginia from my mobile phone. The overloaded local cellular phone system was not able to connect my call, even after many attempts. I decided to try to phone my mother in Indiana. Amazingly, I was able to complete the call on the first try. She had been following the disturbing news and was very happy to hear from me. My mother agreed to call my wife and explain that I was safe and trying to find my way home.

Time passed quickly as tens of thousands of commuting workers sought their way out of the city at the same time. By now it was past 12:00 p.m. and the newscasters were able to confirm the crash of the last highjacked jetliner in rural Pennsylvania. There were no more unaccounted-for aircraft in the skies over the United States and airports across the country were now closed to all traffic. The fatality count in New York and Arlington was just beginning. It did not seem possible that this was happening in the United States of America. As I sat in gridlocked pedestrian and automobile traffic, I worried and prayed for the health and safety of my wife and children.

The main arteries leading out of Washington, D.C. were clogged. I decided to work my way northwest into Maryland using side streets and alleys. I passed through Bethesda and into Potomac, finding my way to a crowded, but slowly moving Interstate 495. It took several hours to navigate my way south, but by evening I found myself home with my family. We spent time discussing the day’s events and following the news updates that continued throughout the night and into the next day. It was a difficult subject to explain to the children, but an important lesson for them on the value of their way of life and the freedoms that they enjoy.

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