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."
"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
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
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
"What's that?" I asked.
"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