This isn’t my typical post.
It’s the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and I don’t feel I can let it just slip by like any other Saturday. Being back in Norfolk and Navyland makes it even more in my thoughts this year. And the number 20 just really sticks with me. It represents a generation of young adults that encompasses our children, nieces, and nephews, all but the oldest who probably don’t remember anything of life before 9/11 and how it changed so suddenly.
So I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about our experience on 9/11. To be clear, we did not suffer a personal loss of a family member or close friend. My story is not one of heroics or sacrifice or a struggle to move forward. I certainly don’t want to diminish or minimize in any way the memories of others who suffered far more then and continue to suffer every single day. But seeing a story about the adult children of the victims who never knew their father made me want to be sure that our own children and nieces and nephews have at least some idea of how that day affected all of us.
Dave and I were in Washington DC on 9/11/01. As usual, we commuted to work together and he dropped me off at the Metro to continue on to my job in NW DC while he went off to his. He had recently been working at the Navy Annex, about ½ mile from and on a hill with a direct view of the west side of the Pentagon that Flight 77 crashed. Just a couple weeks before he had started Prospective Commanding Officer training at the Navy Yard near the Capitol, so he was not in the Annex that day. I came out of a meeting to the news about the crashes at the Twin Towers. Everyone was dumbfounded at first, trying to process what was going on. Listening to the local NPR station, we heard them mention something about ‘smoke pouring from the Pentagon’ and had to verify with each other that we had heard correctly. We knew that all hell was about to break loose in the city for many reasons. I managed to get a quick two minute call off to my mom in California to let her know that we were fine, I think waking her up. I knew that for family in California hearing about a crash at the Pentagon would make them worry about us, because that’s what families do and they had no comprehension of the geography of the city. That was the only call I was able to make before all the phone lines – both land lines and the very limited cell capabilities at the time – were overwhelmed by the massive call volume. I was not worried about Dave when I couldn’t reach him, because I knew that whatever was happening he was going to be busy.
1What many people don’t know about the events in DC that day was that when the fourth plane was still in the air, all the downtown government and private office buildings were immediately evacuated. Coworkers received frantic phone calls (in the short time calls were still able to get through) from spouses that worked in Federal offices, saying that security was running through screaming at everyone to get out, no time to gather belongings not immediately within reach and cars were not being allowed out of parking structures. The streets were instantly jammed with tens of thousands of people pouring out of buildings, as well as first responders. Buses and cabs were unable to move, and the subway system was jammed with people – creating a hazard in and of itself.
The tribulations of DC city government missteps in communication and disaster preparedness that day have been well reported, so I’ll just say that everyone was on their own to figure out what to do. I felt for all the people who had kids in school or daycare and had to get to them and then home in the chaos. I couldn’t get home since Dave had the car and public transportation was virtually non-existent, so a coworker invited me to her place nearby until I could get in touch with Dave (it would turn out to be about eight hours before I heard from him).
Much of that day is a blur, but I have a few lasting images. The first was of the solid mass of stunned-looking people calmly and resolutely walking down 14th St, and we were 2.5 miles from the main downtown area where they started! I recall several women limping along in heels, their usual ‘commuting shoes’ having been left at their desk in the sudden evacuation. It was a very warm day for September, and restaurants and convenience stores along the way had stayed open to hand out water and other drinks, as well as provide a resting place to the many passerby just trying to get home, even if their dining areas were empty. No one cared about open container or alcohol laws. Many people had been herded out of their office buildings without being able to collect purse or wallet from their desk, but no one seemed to be asking for payment anyway. It was a mass exodus on foot in all directions, with sirens wailing and helicopters and military jets overhead.
By mid-afternoon the streets were nearly empty. A few bus lines had finally restarted, and the only other vehicles on the streets were first responders and government. I finally heard from Dave around 5:30 pm. He had spent the day as part of an Emergency Operations Center monitoring the safety and security of naval reactors (i.e. ships) around the world. Another image burned into memory was how eerily quiet the area was as I headed for the nearest Metro Station. It was a ghost town. Any businesses, restaurants, and bars still open had few patrons, and all had their TVs showing the burning/collapsing Twin Towers and smoking Pentagon on an infinite loop. The Metro had managed to stay open, and I was one of about three people on the train that is normally SRO at this time of day. Dave picked me up at our pre-arranged station, and we drove over the 14th St Bridge with only one other car in sight in front or behind us, unheard of anytime much less at rush hour. There was absolutely no activity at the normally bustling Reagan National Airport, planes just sitting at the gates.
We continued along I-395 and the third major memory I have is driving past the smoking Pentagon. Somehow the cars had been mostly cleared out of the parking areas nearest to the building and it was now filled with the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. We could see firetrucks with their ladders extended raining water down on the building. We did a slow pass by at about 25 mph and saw the charred, still burning exterior as we continued south. Amazingly, there was so little traffic that a dozen or so cars on either side of the freeway had just stopped and people were out of their vehicles gawking.
My final major memory was a few days afterwards. We joined others on the hill beneath the Navy Annex where a makeshift memorial had materialized. The dozens of people gathered silently watched the recovery efforts going on not far below. You could now see the full extent of the damage, a giant hole punched in the fortress walls, and the surrounding area completely charred. There were still plenty of fire and police vehicles, but they were now joined by cranes and heavy construction equipment. Amongst all the flowers, flags, shirts, and other items left there on the hill Dave found a tribute to a former Naval Academy company mate who had died in the building.
I was talking with some neighbors later that day, one of whom had lost a close friend at the Pentagon. He was helping his shocked widow navigate all the admin involved in figuring out the family finances, military benefits, talking to her kids, funeral arrangements, and so many more things that need to be dealt with that you never, ever think about normally. He spoke quietly, pausing as we all looked up at the sound of a plane passing overhead – normally a frequent occurrence there under the approach to National Airport but with commercial traffic still grounded even the few military jets patrolling in the skies served as a reminder that the everyday normal was no longer. He resumed by telling of having to retrieve the man’s car from the Pentagon parking lot, now just one of very few that made him wonder if the others represented victims also. It wasn’t until he got to the part about sliding into the drivers seat and seeing his friend’s familiar sunglasses, carelessly tossed onto the dashboard in anticipation of his evening commute home, that he choked up.
They say Never Forget. I don’t see how anyone ever could.
The heading picture is of the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. If you have never seen it in person, I would highly recommend it. It is one of my favorite of the many in Washington DC. It is peaceful, beautiful in its simplicity, yet laden with symbolism. Below is a link to the website to learn about its meaning and history. But please go see it if you can. I guarantee you will be moved.