[Embracing the Memory: Library 
of Congress Professional Association]


My 9/11

Yvonne French

When I walked in the door to work on September 11 at 9:30 a.m., my colleague said, "You better go see the TV."

"Why?"

"Just go in there," she said.

After I saw it I said to myself, "OK, a plane hit the tower, let's get some work done." Then they hit the other one and I said, "Well, hmmm, maybe it's those IMF protesters." Then more TV watching and then we did get to work for a few minutes and then they hit the Pentagon. By then we were all clustered around the TV. I looked out the window and saw a plane in Capitol airspace, behind the dome of the Jefferson Building. Planes aren't supposed to fly there, I thought. It was a white passenger plane with a long row of windows, and it was proceeding toward Maryland. There was supposed to be a fourth hijacked plane still in the air, perhaps headed for Washington. I pointed the plane out to another colleague and then looked back at it again as we closed the curtains. That plane was so headed toward Maryland, it was probably just diverted from Reagan National. Information was coming from the TV, from each other, from people from other offices who joined us. We went to close vertical blinds in the corner office. I don't know why we thought this would do anything, but people said to do it, so we did. I could see the thick column of smoke from the Pentagon. It was slanting toward us from more than a mile away, but it looked much closer, like it was coming from Federal Center Southwest.

Pausing in front of the window, I thought of my college roommate's mom, who got stuck with flying shards of glass in the face and all over her body when the U.S. Embassy in Beiruit imploded because a suicide bomber drove up the circular drive and detonated his car bomb under the facade. At least she was still alive, because her husband, who was getting coffee for them in the basement below, was crushed by tons of concrete. It was April 1983. Forty-nine people were killed. No one mentions that one lately because it was not linked to Al Qaeda, like the 224 people killed in the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, or the 17 sailors killed aboard the USS Cole in 2000. Anyway, I wanted to get away from those windows. I closed the blinds quickly.

We met in the conference room. I took notes: "Close buildings to the public. Need communication plan. We will follow same practice as Capitol complex. Need to help employees who are freaking. Give liberal leave. Emergency leave. Supervisors should deal with it. Get EAP (Employee Assistance Program) to help. Get people out of buildings/reading rooms. The building has been locked down. No members of the public allowed in." Then we broke and went into the foyer and then moved back by another suite of offices.

Then someone in authority said, "People may leave voluntarily," and although I continued to help a bit longer, I suddenly said: "I've got a kid . . . I've got to go home." I got my husband, Paul (who works in the Adams Building) on the phone and asked if he'd take me home on his motorcycle.

The ride was probably more dangerous than staying put, but I was just glad to get off of Capitol Hill. I kept looking behind me, up at the sky, and at all the people walking everywhere, along the sides of roads, through the grass, across the bridges: businesspeople walking in the bright sunshine, skirts, shirts and ties flapping in the breeze, and the cars stopped bumper-to-bumper going out of the city, and the bridges coming into the city all barricaded by police. We rode right past the Pentagon, slowing to see the damage. We could smell the acrid smoke.

I shouted to Paul that it was a penny-ante job, scoffing at the terrorists, but that is because the Pentagon looks so small from 395. When they let TV camera crews in to the crash site for the first time, I was really surprised. Only then did I get a sense of how huge the triangular gash was. The damage looked small —- no bigger than a private plane crash—from the road. The building appears deceptively squat only because it is so massively wide. Later I remembered that a pentagon is supposed to be a strong shape. Were the Twin Towers supposed to be a dollar sign without the S?

We went up Glebe Road in heavy traffic. We saw an Air Force guy with the green knifepleat hat and shirtsleeves who looked as if he had commandeered a van. He was riding on the running board and jumping off to tell motorists to move aside. He split two lanes of packed traffic right up the middle so the van could pass through. I guess they were headed to Arlington Hospital. I think I saw a humvee on a side street. I also saw a lady, her skinny hand clutched as she rested her arm on the window of her big SUV. She had on a big silver ring. There was no one else in her car. She had it all: the haircut, the suit, the ring, the SUV, and yet she was clutching her hand. "They got us," I thought to myself grimly, "our innocence is over."

We were splitting lanes because we had a motorcycle and because we could and because our son's school is near a potential target and we wanted badly to get to him. But it was tight between trucks and buses on skinny Glebe and we had to stop frequently. When we did, we could hear people's car radios. A guy in an SUV said to us, "They're patrolling Washington with fighter jets. See?" and sure enough, there one streaked, right-triangle tail, needle nose and bubble top, the sound not even reaching us yet, though I listened for it. A long pause, and then we heard the roar, just as we have ever since.

We got home and I drove to the school to get my son, Ben. The place was empty. I got out of the car, moving quickly. Then I saw his teacher leaving. "Your mom got him," she shouted across the parking lot. I finally exhaled. When I got home, Ben rushed his barrel tummy into my arms. It was the best hug I've ever had in my life. We let him watch a few minutes of TV, but he promptly fell asleep, and we flipped channels.

Around 4 p.m. a convoy of choppers five or six long flew low and businesslike over the house, headed northwest. From our upstairs window, I gazed up at their white tops and navy blue bellies with the fine red line down the middle and wondered who was in them. I felt small, powerless, and inexplicably embarrassed.

The glass bottle collection on the breakfast room window rattled a lot that day and continued to rattle, and still rattles frequently now. It has never rattled before, except occasionally when a big truck would go over the nearby bridge. I haven't moved my bottle collection to stop the rattling. We humans are an adaptable species, and we'll adapt to the new reality of living with terrorism. We all have our own ways of coping. Some work harder. Some move away. Some get married sooner, or have babies, or adopt. Some volunteer, others collect oral or artifactual histories. Some take photos, do art, or write poetry.

As for Ben, he woke up and added a tall, slender antenna to the tower of blocks he always has in various stages of construction on the floor of his room. That one stayed up a long time before he knocked it down. And playing in the sandbox, he built a mountain of sand and proceeded to fly things into it, taking out triangular gashes. He rebuilt it, flew things into it, and rebuilt it again and again.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Panagon Mountain."

"Where'd you get that name?" I asked.

"I just made it up," he said.

One morning soon after the attacks I was reading the paper and I said to Paul, "Wow, more than 5,000 people died." Ben asked if that meant there were less than six and a half billion people in the world now. Yes, we said, there are 5,000 fewer people now.


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