I was working for the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. in 2001 and living in the Pentagon City area of Arlington, VA. As it happens, the weekend before the terrorist attacks I had flown to my hometown of Bentonville, Ark. in order to stay the week and be with my dad on his 86th birthday.
On the morning of Sept. 11, a friend called my parents’ home and Dad answered the phone. I was, as usual when I’m on vacation, sleeping-in. Dad knocked on my bedroom door, told me who was calling, and said that she wanted to talk to me immediately. I rolled out of bed, feeling a bit aggravated about being awakened, and went into the living room where Dad handed me the phone. The first words out of my friend’s mouth were, “We’ve been attacked! Turn on the TV right now!” I did as instructed and saw the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on fire. Aggravation quickly disappeared to be replaced by astonishment and sorrow.
Just before 9:00 a.m. (CST) I watched on television the collapse of the South Tower. I recall falling to my knees in utter disbelief and shock. In the meantime, reports and images were coming in about the attack on the Pentagon and the eventual collapse of its E Ring. Simultaneously there were reports about another hijacked plane that appeared to be redirected toward Washington, D.C. Later it was learned that Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania. By 9:30 a.m. (CST) the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
I had been on the phone with my friend during this thirty-minute window of time. Everything we were seeing and talking about was beyond belief, barely comprehensible. People in the Twin Towers were jumping. Staples of the New York City skyline were collapsing. Waves of smoke and debris were hurtling down New York City streets. Smoke was billowing from the Pentagon. Thousands of people were dying before our eyes.
There were also rumors of bombs being in the Federal Reserve building, which is where I and a number of my Department of the Interior colleagues had parking spaces, and reports of government buildings being evacuated. Those stories and rumors knocked me out of the dazed state I was in and spurred me to get off of the phone with my friend, who lived in Illinois at the time, and start calling my friends in Washington, D.C. My efforts to call my friends were met with an automated voice saying something along the lines of “We’re sorry. All lines are busy. Please try your call again later.”
It seemed like it took days to get in touch with anyone in Washington, D.C., but when I did I learned that all of my friends were okay but that more than a hundred of our federal government colleagues had died at the Pentagon. My friends described the smoke coming up from the Pentagon and the efforts to put out the fires.
With the exception of the birthday dinner for my dad, all conversation revolved around the September 11 attacks. My parents told me time and again how thankful they were that I was home when this happened. I could only imagine how fearful they would have been for their only-child’s safety, especially when the phone lines were down.
Some folks around Bentonville were concerned about the headquarters of Walmart being the target of a next-round of attacks, while others were confirming that friends and family in New York City were unharmed. Mostly, though, folks were glued to their televisions as details about the attackers were uncovered and more disturbing images kept coming in.
When it was time for my flight back to D.C., it was an uncomfortable drive to the airport. I did not want to fly and my parents did not want to see me go. When the time came to say good bye, there were many tears, our hugs were especially long, and "I love you" could not be said enough times.
My return trip had a stopover in Charlotte, NC and I was originally supposed to land at Washington National Airport. My stopover location remained the same, but Washington National Airport was closed and I was rerouted to Dulles International Airport.
I feel a bit guilty and ashamed in terms of what I did during the long layover in Charlotte. Once I found my connecting gate and sat down, I looked over and saw two Middle-eastern looking people, a man and a woman, in Middle-eastern looking clothes. My eyes locked on them and I watched every move they made, especially the woman who had plenty of room under her long skirt to place a weapon. I glanced around and noticed that every other person, probably 70 people in total, was doing the same thing…all eyes were on this couple, and you could tell that the men closest to them were ready to pounce if they made a move.
This behavior continued as they boarded, and during, the flight to D.C. Fortunately, it seemed that the man and woman sensed what was happening and they made no quick moves or did anything deserving of suspicion.
The cab ride from Dulles to my apartment in Pentagon City took me by the Pentagon where I got the first glimpse of the huge hole in the building. I would see that hole two times per day every day for many, many months as I would drive back and forth to work in D.C.
As I entered my apartment, I noticed that something had changed. There were what I call spider cracks in a number of walls. I called the maintenance office and described what I saw, and was told that had happened all over the large high-rise complex. The explosion at the Pentagon had rocked the apartment building so hard that it produced cracks in the walls of most apartments.
When I arrived at work on Monday morning, I noticed that things had changed there, too. My usually smiling and upbeat public service-driven colleagues were nervous and grim. The Department of the Interior buildings were some of the federal buildings that had been evacuated the prior week and folks were eager to tell me what had happened on that day. It seemed almost cathartic to them to share all of the details. I also learned that new safety and evacuation policies had been established and before long I found myself in the midst of an evacuation drill.
Hundreds of DOI employees made their way down various stairways to designated areas outside. I stood alongside my colleagues thinking two things as we were gathered together like sitting ducks – one thought was that if I’m going to get killed I’d like to be with my friends, the other was that I thought I would have a better chance of survival on my own. For months I pondered and never resolved which path I would take if we were hit – gather together with my friends or venture out on my own?
As the months passed after the terrorist attacks, everyday life very, very slowly started to get back to normal in Washington, D.C. The repair of the Pentagon was underway and politicians in the White House and on Capitol Hill were debating courses of action in response to 9/11. Everyday life was not back to normal for New York City. Tourists seemed to avoid it like the plague and then NYC offered an almost unbelievable travel package to get folks back to the Big Apple.
I don’t remember the exact package price, but it was beyond reasonable for two-nights at a nice hotel, a half-price coupon for a meal at a nice restaurant, and rock-bottom low prices for tickets to a Broadway play. The best part was that you could select from among a number of options in terms of hotels, restaurants, and plays. So, I chose the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers, The Phantom of the Opera
, and The Oak Room at The Plaza Hotel and made my way to NYC for a weekend in December 2011.
The hotel was lovely, the play was amazing, and the food was impeccable, but my ulterior motive for the trip was to see Ground Zero first-hand. I took a cab to lower Manhattan and the driver let me off as close to Ground Zero as possible. As I recall, many of the surrounding streets were still cordoned-off to traffic.
By this time, fences with green tarps surrounded the Ground Zero work site but there were gaps in the tarp. I looked through a gap and saw the large crater where two of the staples of the New York City skyline once stood. What brought the most sorrow was when it hit me that I was looking at a grave. Thousands of people had died in the spot right in front of me.
I continued to walk around the Ground Zero site. Cards, pictures of lost loved ones, and flowers could still be found. And, when you looked up you could see surrounding buildings, most heavily damaged, with American flags still flying on them.
If memory serves, it was on Church Street that I noticed dust still on remaining window sills and around the edges of buildings. I felt my heart sink and my knees almost buckled as I realized what that dust represented. The words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” crossed my mind as I stared at dust partly composed of human remains.
After seeing the dust and the devastation suffered by buildings near the World Trade Center, I wanted to visit the place where seemingly miraculous things occurred. Trinity Wall Street
is a church located across the street from where the World Trade Center site stood and the reports I had heard said it had suffered only minor damage. St. Paul’s Chapel
, where George Washington had once worshiped, had been saved by a Sycamore tree.
I entered the beautiful sanctuary and felt the refuge it offered from what I had just seen at Ground Zero. With tears streaming down my face, I prayed for those lost, those suffering, and for political leaders to respond to 9/11 in a thoughtful manner that would not, in the end, allow terrorists to divide the United States but rather unite us. I prayed for the more than 90 other countries
that lost citizens on that tragic day and for the friends and families of those victims. I prayed that 9/11 would bring us together instead of tear us apart. I prayed for rebuilding – not only of buildings but also of the social fabric of humanity. Some of my prayers were answered. Others were not.
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