I saw the smoke rise from the Pentagon.
I was one of so many Washington interns that year, newly installed in my federal agency, full of hope for the future. I had just moved across the country, bought a house with my new husband, and we were chasing our dreams in D.C. It was thrilling and exciting to be part of official Washington and our enthusiasm overshadowed everything else. I even had a brand-new wardrobe, so different from my grad school grunge, and I was wearing a short blue business skirt, pink silk blouse, stockings (which yes, we did wear in D.C. in those days), and heels (tasteful navy blue heels, no less, which were a luxury that I hadn’t even been able to afford a few months prior). It was a beautiful clear day in D.C., and I was looking forward to a day of work, an interesting 11:00 meeting, and then lunch out with fellow interns. About 9:15, I left my desk, and life changed forever.
As I walked down the hall, first one person and then the next gasped or bent closer to their computers, reading news coming madly over their screens. A friend matched my pace. “Did you hear what just happened in New York?” No. I was working. But that soon changed. We walked to a conference room near the corner of the building, just next to a wonderfully vacant corner office filled with windows. There, we heard the news ourselves. CNN was reporting that an airplane had hit one of theTwin
Towers in New York. As we stood there, the second tower was hit, and we soon saw the resulting chaos on TV.
Sickened, I turned away, walking into the corner office for a moment to catch my breath and recover from this news that no one wanted to hear, and yet everyone felt compelled to watch. The conference room filled quickly, as internet connections went down as the world rushed to hear the news. I turned away, looking to the light blue sky for answers.
And I saw the smoke begin to rise from the Pentagon.
Just across the river, the beautiful, clear, safe day in D.C. was marred forever. The first plume of smoke rose from the Pentagon. Then a second plume joined the first. Soon it was unmistakable. Something had gone very wrong, and it wasn’t just New York. I was quickly joined by one colleague and then another, as the volume was turned up on CNN and we heard the breaking news – the Pentagon had been struck. I don’t remember the words they used; I don’t remember if I was in shock. All I remember is running back to my desk to call my husband, to make sure that he was safe and okay, so far away from everyone else that we knew and loved. And I couldn’t get through. I dialed over and over, thinking that surely I had just misdialed and that the next time he would pick up. Then the phones went dead.
As if in a dream, I walked down the emergency stairs to the lobby. The reception area was empty and calm, and I almost turned back to return my desk, but for one anomaly – the Administrator of our agency was standing at the security desk, railing at the security guard over something. Well, that wasn’t the anomaly. He was known for railing at someone over something at the drop of a hat. But I listened for a moment to this figure of greatness, and he seemed to begin to panic, because he couldn’t get the emergency communication system for the building to work. We would find out weeks later that the emergency communication system was actually an old-fashioned P.A. system that hadn’t been tested in years, but the point was that we had nothing. No way of communicating what had happened, or what we should do, or whether or not we should actually stay calm that morning and return to our desks.
As I waited in the lobby for a few minutes, trying to assess a situation for which I had no data, I saw the Administrator get flustered. He began to assure the security guards that yes, something had happened in New York and over at the Pentagon, but we were all very safe in our federal building, so that they could spread the message. I listened, and lingered, and then, doubting my safety in a building that didn’t even have a working PA system, walked out the front doors. If the Pentagon wasn’t safe, why were we? I walked outside and tried out my brand-new cellphone again. No service. I was able to send a text message to my husband, but I didn’t really know what to say. So I sent one and then turned it off.
I still wasn’t sure what to do. I had just walked off my dream job. The Administrator said it was safe, and that everyone should return to work. I took an oath to the federal government – shouldn’t I go back to my desk and open my mail? But instinct, or paralysis, kept me on the sidewalk outside my building. Slowly, I was joined by colleagues from my agency and others. Slowly, we formed plans of what to do and where to go. We all wanted to go home. We needed to go home and meet up with our families. We had to call our relatives across the country and tell them we’re okay. We all felt the urgency of escape.
When we got to the Metro station, we were told by other feds that it was shut down. That there were terrorist attacks on the red line, and that the other lines were in danger. None of us wanted to be caught underground, so we turned back. We discussed routes to get home. Some tried to retrieve their cars from jammed underground garages. Some began walking. We were a shifting alliance as feds strode out of buildings all down the street, their badges swinging uselessly. We were all caught in this together.
The streets quickly filled with traffic. Traffic like we’d never seen. Everyone was stopped, and everyone wanted to go home. The parking garages quickly became useless as no one could pull into the jammed streets. But there was no honking, no panicking, only quiet resignation as we all formed first one plan and then another.
The sirens screamed from all directions as fire engines rushed to first one emergency and then the next. For those of us on the streets that day, there wasn’t just one attack on a federal building. There were many. We had no official access to news, this being before the days of videophones and live feeds, and anyway all our cellphones had inexplicably stopped working, but we heard snippets as people leaving the buildings shared the latest.
The State Department had been hit.
The Mall was closed down.
Another plane was headed for the White House.
The Capitol had been evacuated.
The Department of ThisorThat was in flames.
Rumors spread as fast as the feds left the buildings now, and they kept coming faster, as even my building had been allowed to evacuate. Where a few minutes earlier the Administrator had stood outside the building personally reassuring everyone and telling them to go back in, now people streamed out the doors, blinking as they reached the light, not knowing where to go or what to do. (Isn’t that what we had been promised all along? If this were an actual emergency, wouldn’t there be further instructions as to where to go or what to do? There weren’t, and my city, my beautiful, shining federal city, was lost in the sunlight that day.)
As I stood, weighing my options, not 15 minutes after I had first left the building, a federal shuttle bus pulled up in front of me. The driver had just heard the news, and he was anxious to complete his run out to the suburbs. Not having a clue how I’d get home from the end of his route, but guessing that anywhere outside the city would be safer, I quickly boarded, and we pulled out into the glacial pace of traffic and soon onto the interstates that surround the city and would take us to safety. When we got to the satellite campus 35 minutes later, there was no rush of confused and slightly panicked employees. They were each safely ensconsed in their offices, in their meetings, and most didn’t even plan to go home early. I was overwhelmed at the difference between the city and the suburbs, hesitant to interrupt their complacency by sharing the news from downtown. When I did, the disconnect was clear.
Where I had felt part of the federal machine downtown, united with fellow Americans in tragedy, the people I encountered later reacted as if to someone else’s tragedy.
As I tried to relax a bit in their safety, I felt sick. I called out of town relatives to assure them that I was okay and to ask of news from my husband. Each time, I had to tell them what had happened, as they were outside gardening, or in meetings, or simply having coffee with friends. It was a different world outside the Beltway, and it was as if I had no words to explain it fully.
I haven’t really spoken of this since that day and the tearful reunion with my husband that afternoon. I hadn’t expected to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, or to write about it on this blog that is otherwise focused on the simple joys of life with a toddler. But this morning we were awakened by a series of phone calls at 5 a.m., from a stranger on a cell phone who spoke only Arabic, who seemed to be trying to tell us something, and it woke me and my memories from a sound sleep.
I tasted terror that day, and it is hard to forget, even five years later.