Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11, 2001 Thirteen Years Later -- A Personal Remembrance (September 11, 2014)

The Pentagon during rescue operations following 9-11

The World Trade Center towers disappearing on September 11, 2001

The crash crater of Flight 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania

I have written before about the importance of memorializing and preserving our personal experience of clearly historic events.  You can see that post here

Today is the thirteenth anniversary of the horrendous events of September 11, 2001 -- now known simply and forever meaningfully as "9 -11." On that infamous day I was at work at the Washington Navy Yard within perhaps an hour's walking distance of the Pentagon. Not long after that terrible day, I sat down to write about my personal experience of that national catastrophe so I could preserve my observations for my children and descendants in keeping with the thoughts in the post referenced above.

Since I periodically produce a hardback book of my blog posts using Blurb (thank you for the tip cousin Heather Wilkinson Rojo!), on this 13th anniversary I want to share an excerpted version of my experience of 9-11 via this post for current readers and for purposes of preserving my experiences in a coming new volume of a hardback print copy of Filiopietism Prism

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            On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was employed within the Office of the General Counsel of the Department of the Navy.  The office in which I worked was located on the grounds of the Washington Navy Yard in a building that sits close to Admiral Leutze Park, a beautiful expanse of manicured lawn and trees that serves as a ceremonial field for the Navy.  The Yard itself is located in southeast Washington along the Anacostia River.  The Yard is less than two miles as the crow flies from the U.S. Capital and less than five miles from the Pentagon, which is across the Potomac River in Virginia.  Our office had moved to The Yard from a high-rise building in Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia just four years before 9-11. Our former Crystal City office was perhaps a mile down the road from the Pentagon and was certainly within easy walking distance of that epicenter of U.S. military power. I had been in the Pentagon on business many times before and after our move to the Navy Yard.

             As usual, on September 11, 2001 I drove into D.C. from our home in western Loudoun County, Virginia. The distance from our home to where I parked my car on the Navy Yard was almost exactly 50 miles. My commute took about an hour since I usually left the house before 5:00 AM each morning. That morning was dark, clear and dry when I left the house.  The temperature was about 60◦ F.  As is my habit, I listened to National Public Radio as I drove in to the office.  The traffic was quite light due to the early hour, but later that morning it would be much heavier than it had been for months because school had resumed and the school buses and parents dropping children at school had recently been added to the later commuting traffic.  There was nothing unusual about the commute in to work that morning.  The early weather report promised a beautiful day and the early traffic report mentioned all was clear with no accident alerts and no congestion points of note.

By the time I arrived at The Yard dawn was still about 45 minutes away, but it was obvious we were going to have one of those lovely late summer days of sun, blue skies, and reasonable humidity.  The temperature was in the mid-60s as I walked the hundred or so yards from my parking space to the building where my office was located.  I could hear a few birds starting the day with some desultory calls and I saw a couple of the resident squirrels scampering through the sparsely wooded slope leading down to our building from Leutze Park.  I felt it was going to be a gorgeous day and I recall thinking I would rather be hiking up on the Appalachian Trail along the Blue Ridge Mountains just west of our home than sitting in the office all day – but I had an assigned task to perform that morning.

            Our office holds a weekly Senior Staff meeting each Tuesday morning. In 2001 the meetings began at 9:00 AM.  This particular Tuesday, the leader of the team I worked on was unavailable to attend “Sr. Staff” because he was flying out of Washington Dulles Airport that morning bound for San Diego, California on a business trip.  I had been asked to fill in for him and to represent the team at the Senior Staff meeting.  As the start time for Sr. Staff approached, the early promise of a beautiful day was confirmed.  My walk next door to get coffee revealed a wonderfully sunny day with a very few high clouds.  The temperature was a crisp and comfortable 70◦ F with low humidity.  I really wished I could have been hiking that day instead of at work.

            Members of the Senior Staff gathered in the large conference room just down the hall from the entrance to our office suite a few minutes before 9:00 AM.  At that point nothing unusual had been reported and everyone chatted easily around the huge table as we waited for the meeting to begin. When the meeting began sharply at 9:00 AM, the Director of our office sat at the head of the table furthest from the hallway entrance and his Deputy sat on the side to his immediate left.  The rest of us were seated randomly along both sides of the table at the same end. The light chatter as the meeting got underway gave the meeting a somewhat informal air.

            The Deputy began the meeting and was just wrapping up discussion of some administrative item that I cannot recall, when there was a quick knock on the side entrance to the conference room and an immediate entrance into the meeting by a colleague. He entered and offered a quick apology for the interruption before he announced fairly calmly . . .

            “I thought you all should know that another plane has hit the World Trade Center in New York -- and I am leaving now for home, which some of you might want to do also.”

            There were immediate questions asked as our colleague hovered briefly in the doorway holding the door ajar.
            Another plane?”  “What kind of planes?”
            The answer was that he was not sure, but it looked like it was not a small Cessna or commuter plane as originally thought and the most recent report talked about passenger airliners.  He said folks in the office were beginning to call home and to spouses at work and were surfing the Internet for more information.

            The office had a large-screen TV in the moot courtroom in our office suite and the Director and Deputy both had very small TVs in their offices where they could monitor C-SPAN as well as cable news channels.  The meeting was immediately adjourned and all of us left to return to our offices.  Little did any of us know the drama and the trauma that was still unfolding.

            As I left the meeting I caught up with colleagues who were hurrying to leave and I asked why they were going.  They mentioned that the crashes at the World Trade Center appeared intentional and perhaps an attack.  The news said that authorities did not know if this was limited just to Manhattan or if other cities were also being targeted, particularly Washington, DC.  I asked if they really thought they would be able to get anywhere on the roads if there was some question about DC being attacked too. I went to our moot courtroom to turn on the large-screen television there.
            The entire office was out in the halls talking, surfing the Internet on their computers, or on their way to watch the TVs in our suite.  Some folks were preparing to depart for home or were already on their way out the door. I decided the roads would be chaos and that if there was an attack involving sites in DC, then emergency and police vehicles would need the roadways as clear as possible.  Besides, my sons were 15 and 17 years old and in school 50 miles west of DC.  My wife was about 30 miles west of DC where she was employed as a Special Ed teacher and I was sure she would not be going anywhere due to the responsibility she had for students – many of whom had working parents who could not pick them up at school even if they wanted to.  There was little I could do for my family and I felt they were completely safe at the moment. I decided to stay on The Yard until the true status of events and conditions became more clear.
            Once the TV in the moot courtroom was turned on, a truly unbelievable scene was revealed.  The twin towers of the World Trade Center were in flames with gaping holes and black smoke pouring out of them.  Debris (and maybe some bodies?) could be seen falling out of the buildings.  The street scenes of the panic and running had both an unreal feel to it and, it has to be said, a somewhat familiar look after all the disaster movies that had been so popular over the years.  One had to constantly remind oneself that what was being shown on TV was real and was actually happening at that very moment in New York.  The mood of the office was one of somber shock mixed with feelings of complete helplessness as we became witnesses to horrors we could only watch from afar in real time.

            And then it got even worse!

Not long after we began watching TVs and checking news reports on radio and the Internet, we entered a period of about a half hour where events seemed to truly tumble out of control and the media had problems keeping up with reports of mounting disasters.  The media reported on President Bush’s whereabouts – he was in Sarasota, Florida visiting Emma Booker Elementary School when the attacks happened.  We got reports that for the first time in history all air traffic in the country had been ordered halted.  New York, which was still thought to be the only location of actual attack, closed all tunnels and bridges in and out of the city.  And then at about quarter to 10:00 we heard the first report that a plane had just crashed into the Pentagon, which was less than five miles away from where we were sitting at The Yard!
The TV reporting was in what could best be described as a controlled panic trying to confirm the reports flooding in before airing them, but events were clearly spinning out of control.  Not long after this someone came around saying fires were being reported on the Mall in DC and that martial law was being imposed!  [This proved to be utterly untrue.]  We heard that the White House and the Capitol were being evacuated.  There was a report of a car bomb outside the State Department in the Foggy Bottom area of the city. [Also untrue.] People in the office tried unsuccessfully to raise folks in various Navy and Marine Corps offices over at the Pentagon.  Cell phones began to be jammed by the overload of calls and news reports asked people to try to limit calls on cell and land lines.  The Navy Yard was secured and no one was allowed in or out.  People were lined up for blocks inside the brick wall-enclosed Navy Yard sitting in their cars with nowhere to go.  Some of our folks returned to the office. [It was revealed later to an emergency preparations committee I sat on at the Navy Yard, that people employed on The Yard who did not have cars or who walked or took public transportation to work, had gone down to the river when they were refused exit at the gates.  By the river there was a section of cyclone fencing that ran the last few yards of the Navy Yard border and out into the shallows of the Anacostia River.  A crowd of people pushed over a section of fence in their desperation to get off the Yard and left on foot.]

And then, just before 10:00, we watched in paralyzed disbelief as the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed upon itself while the whole world watched live.   The billowing smoke and debris flew out from the site and down the streets creating a real panic in those on the ground and even in the voices of the news commentators.   Within minutes the scene took on a post-apocalyptic look with everything and everyone covered in a grey/white powder of destruction.  It looked like what I imagined the outskirts of a city hit by a nuclear blast would look like.  People were running for their lives, disoriented, panicked, shocked and choking for lack of breathable air and water.  We could only stare in silence.

About this time I finally remembered that my sister was still working in New York City even though she lived in New Hope, PA.  She worked for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a think tank devoted to advancement of sexual and reproductive health in the U.S. through research, policy analysis and public education.  She commuted to NYC by train, but I was not exactly sure of her schedule or precisely what her route was to get there, but I was pretty sure she went through the subway station at the World Trade Center at some point in her commute.  I began to worry about her, but was not able to call her or other family to inquire about her.  [As it turned out she was ill that day and had not gone in to work.]

Just before 10:30 as many of us stood in the moot courtroom watching the aftermath of the collapse of the south tower spreading across the big-screen TV, the north tower fell in on itself and collapsed in a second billowing rush of smoke and debris.  It was over in 10 seconds of live horror.
But the terror was not over yet!

About 15 or 20 minutes after the second tower came down, we heard news about another airliner crashing somewhere in Pennsylvania.  The airliner had left Newark, NJ bound for San Francisco, but when it reversed course somewhere over Pennsylvania, it was speculated that the plane was on its way to Washington, DC – possibly targeting the White House.  We listened and watched not believing this was all actually happening on such a beautifully clear September day.   And then it was driven home for every one of us when we learned a mass evacuation of Washington was ordered somewhere around quarter to 11:00.

Not too long after we heard about the airliner crash in a field in Pennsylvania, the gates to the Navy Yard were reopened so that people could leave.  By 3:00 PM almost everyone in our office of about 40 people was gone.  I assumed the traffic jams were going to be monumental and so I decided to stay later than my usual departure of anywhere from 3:30 to 4:00 PM.  I left the office a little before 5:00 PM that day as I recall.  I closed and locked the suite door after making the rounds of all the offices.  I think I was the last to leave, but I am not positive because people could have been in restrooms outside the suite or in an associated office suite down the hall.

When I went outside to walk the hundred yards or less to my car, the weather was sunny and fairly warm, but still felt crisp due to the low humidity.  There were no other people in sight and my car was the only one on Kidder Breeze, the block of parking spaces opposite Leutze Park.  In the distance I could hear the occasional wail of an emergency siren.  As I drove to the exit gate I routinely used, there was a guard on duty, but no evidence of anyone else on foot or in a vehicle.  I left The Yard, turned left onto M Street -- and did not see another car anywhere.  I decided to take a route across the city to the Potomac River and the 14th Street Bridge that I did not take very often because I expected the Southeast-Southwest Expressway leading onto the bridge to still be heavy with traffic and I wanted to get as close to the bridge as I could without getting caught in a traffic jam.

On this day, I decided to abandon my usual route to the 14th Street bridge into Virginia and chose instead to run the length of M Street going west until it became Maine Ave. near the Arena Stage and ran past the fish market on the left just before the Expressway overpass.  Driving under the overpass and taking a left just before the Federal Communication Commission building, I could reconnect to Maine Ave. west and take the jug handle exit that passed under the Engraving & Printing Bureau building feeding me right onto 14th Street SW and the bridge across the Potomac.
It turned out to be an eerie drive because I saw almost no other vehicles on the road and very few pedestrians.  It was like a science fiction movie . . . a city virtually abandoned.  Not only were there no traffic jams, I seemed to have the roads entirely to myself.  I drove steadily, but slowly, not knowing what I might eventually come across.  I tried listening to NPR on the radio, but I could not concentrate on the words and flood of news, so it became mere background noise to the otherwise quiet drive across the city to the bridge.

 As soon as I came up the dip of 14th Street near the Jefferson Memorial and up onto the bridge I saw jet-black smoke still billowing out and floating above where the Pentagon was located on the other side of the bridge.  There were no other vehicles on the bridge and I felt disoriented.  I suddenly realized I drove almost the entire length of the bridge just looking at the black smoke above the Pentagon and did not attend to whether any other cars or trucks were around me.  I wondered if I would even be able to exit onto Route 110 since it passed immediately beside the Pentagon, albeit on the side opposite the impact.
The exit onto Route 110 was completely open and still not another car in sight.  I slowed and hesitated until I could see down the exit ramp to make sure it was not closed below.  I expected to see a police car blocking the merge onto Route 110, but it was empty and no vehicles were to be seen.  I exited slowly and merged onto 110 to begin passing behind the Pentagon.
The light brown sandstone of the four-story Pentagon loomed to my left and above it the black smoke still billowed upward looking inky and sinister.  I lowered the window.  I could smell nothing unusual and could hear no sirens or traffic noise or anything else when I lowered the radio to silence.  I watched the black smoke as long as I could as I passed the Pentagon and then looked in my rearview mirror as I approached Rosslyn and had a different angle back at the Pentagon.  I never had a view of the impact side, but in the rearview I was able to see what looked like rooster tails of white occasionally appear against the black.  I assumed they were still directing water into the smoldering building.  [I later learned that in one of those quirks of history, the finalized contracts for construction of the Pentagon and the groundbreaking for the building took place on September 11, 1941 – exactly 60 years to the day before the terrorist attack of that morning!] 

As the view of the Pentagon faded from my rearview mirror, I was driving slowly by Arlington National Cemetery and then the Iwo Jima Memorial just out of view on my left.  I knew the world had changed and as I merged onto to Route 66 and the highways that would take me home, I thought our country was surely headed for war somewhere.  I spent the rest of my trip thinking about my teenage sons and what this could possibly mean for them.

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Photograph of the Pentagon during rescue operations is in the public domain as a work prepared by an officer or employee of the U.S. Government as part of the person's official duties. 

Photograph of the collapsing World Trade Center Twin Towers from  Photographer unknown.

Photograph of the crash crater of Flight 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania from  Photographer unknown.

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Copyright 2014, John D. Tew
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1 comment:

  1. It's hard to relive that day. I got chills in reading several parts to your post. You had quite an interesting story to tell, especially about driving out of the city...I'm surprised nobody stopped you. We had driven to DC in May from MA, and stayed at Crystal City, and I kept thinking about that along with everything else. Like you, I knew the Pentagon. My train had a stop there and I often went to the concourse and even took my intro. to computers there for 10 weeks, we were shown the Pentagon computer room. Thank you for sharing your private memories.