Ten years ago, I was sitting in my federal government office in Washington D.C.. I worked for NOAA as an IT systems engineer. I was settling in for the day when a friend up late in Australia sent me an instant message reporting that a plane had hit one of the towers. I've always found it really strange that someone all the way across the world would be the one to break the news to me. Initially, I thought it was just a small bi-plane or something of that sort. So, I was in disbelief when we turned on a TV we had commandeered from another room. We were all watching as the second plane hit, and we all let out a horrified scream and gasp. We knew then that this was no mistake.
Just a few moments later we started hearing reports from the local D.C. grapevine that a bomb had gone off at the Pentagon, and also a second one at the State Department. My sister S worked across town at the Department of Energy which is across the street from the State Department. We saw the fireball and black, black smoke from the Pentagon plastered all over the screen.
I rushed to my desk and called my mom and dad who were on a visit in California. Mom answered her phone as they were boarding their plane back home to Maryland. She was telling me there was some confusion, and then I heard the pilot come on over the loud speakers in the background ordering everyone off the plane immediately. More confusion and finally silence. The phones in my building went dead at that moment. There was no cellular service. Rumors started flying about more bombs. I couldn't reach my sister. Only internet service hadn't been interrupted, and my husband (then boyfriend) practically begged me to pack up all the girls and drive down to Atlanta.
At 10:00am we were glued to the news, and when the South Tower fell before our eyes, we all burst into tears. We knew that it had happened to one, it was inevitable it would happen to the other, and we were praying that everyone in the North Tower could get out alive. At 10:30am, it too collapsed before us.
We were given permission to leave, and I decided to try to pick up my 12 year old sister E from school, whom I had charge of while our parents were gone. It took me over two hours just to leave my three-level parking garage. I wept while waiting my turn, looking at the people in the other stopped cars in their own daze and anguish, wondering and hoping about friends and loved ones just a few miles away. Listening to the radio and not knowing if planes were going to hit somewhere else nearby. I listened to Elliot in the Morning on DC101. That had to be the most serious I'd ever heard Elliot sound. The radio station suspended all commercials and music and just covered the news. Everyone was gripped with the drama and fear of the unknown. There were more planes still unaccounted for. I didn't know what was happening with my parents on the plane they had been ordered off of. And I still hadn't had contact with my sister S across town.
It was unbelievably eerie, driving on 495 towards my sister's middle school which was located on Fort Meade, just a couple miles from the NSA. Gorgeous, cloudless blue skies that I kept scanning for airplanes. And there were planes, fighter jets. I was the only vehicle on the road, which made no sense considering the traffic jam I had just escaped from. I was the only vehicle on the road except for tank after tank after tank rolling in the opposite direction, towards D.C..
E wasn't at school when I got there, our other sister A and my brother-in-law picked her up a little earlier, but I hadn't known it. I just remember thinking..."How do you tell a 12 year old what just happened? What am I supposed to do?" I felt like I shouldn't be crying in front of her, but I couldn't help it.
I finally had contact with my sister S after several tense hours of waiting, discovering that the rumors of the State Department bombing were false. She witnessed the smoke billowing from the Pentagon. My parents returned safely, over a week later.
We all returned to our posts on 9/12, numb and dazed, but with a sense of obligation. Perhaps also with a tinge of desperation to escape from the media, easing the burn of images that had tortured us the day before. NOAA lost several colleagues in the Pentagon attack, three NOAA scientists accompanying seven school children and teachers on a science field trip, who were on the plane that hit the Pentagon.
The Pentagon is now rebuilt, but for years whenever we drove past there was black soot and gigantic cloth draping over the gaping hole, an insistent reminder of what had been lost.
Ten years ago. It almost seems like it was yesterday and it affects me every year, listening to all the names read aloud. I'm always interested in hearing the stories of people who were no where close to where the attacks occurred, doing the mundane things of every day life. What was that like? Don't get me wrong; I don't think my experience is particularly unique or exciting. There were millions of people who experienced similar or far, far worse. But, it's my own experience and I'll remember every detail of that black day for as long as I live. I'm hopeful that my child won't ever know terror like that.
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