"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Never Forget - a day that did not bring out the best in me

Seven years ago, I went to work in the heart of our Nation's Capital on a beautiful late summer day. I took the Metro to work and it is hard for me to recapture my carefree state of mind.

For me, everything changed, that day.

My office was two blocks from the White House, right near the National Mall. The Pentagon is right across the river and can be seen from the windows on that side of the building. I got to work about 8:00 a.m. and fired up the computer. I was working on a deadline and trying to get a document to my supervisor for review that morning. About an hour later, my son, who lived in NYC, sent an e-mail telling me a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

It went downhill from there.

Most of us know, generally, how things progressed that day. For me, the rest of the day is a series of flash backs. One of my daughters called, frantic because she didn't know if her brother was okay. Blessedly, I was able to tell her that I'd gotten his e-mail. She tried to tell me that two separate airliners had hit the World Trade Center and I assumed she was mistaken. I expected that what had really happened was simply some sort of tragic mid-air collision involving some tourist planes or something. Looking back, it is hard to recapture how confident I was at the time that if something bad happened, it was surely just an accident and probably not as bad as was being presented.

I walked down the hall to my supervisor's office to turn in a draft of the document I'd been working on. The supervisor and her higher ups had a television on that showed a jet hitting the twin towers. I stood, rooted to the spot in horror, but was excused and the door was shut within seconds. We weren't allowed to use the internet per policy in my department at that time, so I was not able to go back to my office and pull up a news website to get more information. That was the last I saw of any supervisor, that day.

Like so many of us, it hadn't yet sunk in. Back in my office I simply continued working. I couldn't make sense of two airliners hitting the towers. I wondered if there was some sort of problem with air traffic control. But how could that be? Surely the pilots saw the towers? It didn't make sense to me.

Phone calls were exchanged with my husband who is in the aviation business. "Keep it under you hat," he told me, tersely, "but we've lost more planes. We don't know where they are." My unsettled feeling increased but I had a deadline I was working on.

It was such a nice day that my window was open. About that time, I heard the plane hit the Pentagon. Of course, I didn't know what it was, at the time. I called husband and said, "I don't want to sound crazy but I just heard something, strange. It was an explosion sort of sound. Maybe they are doing some construction work but it REALLY sounded odd."

I hung up and stepped outside my office. I was nearly run down by a herd of federal employees racing down the corridor to the stairs. After they passed, because I am an idiot, and because in those days I didn't know what it was to be angst-ridden, I walked in the direction they had come and looked out the window from my supervisor's office. I was much more curious than scared. The office was deserted. You could see the Pentagon was in flames. The smoke from the jet fuel was so black. You could smell the burning, faintly, even in the building. A secretary came and stood beside me. We just looked at it in horror. "I think I heard it blow up," I said. "Was it a bomb?" she asked.

I went back to my office to work, believe it or not. Which only goes to show what I was like before all this happened. My son sent another e-mail urging me to get out because I was so near the White House. I recall thinking, "I can't just leave. I have to work." It was not until I got his e-mail that it started to sink in that I, personally, might be in danger. Prior to that, I thought the federal employee herd stampeding down the hall and out of the building was simply over reacting. At some point, I learned that the flight had crashed in Pennsylvania. Incredibly, when I look back at it, I was shocked that in the midst of all this chaos, there would be a major accidental airplane crash (I assumed it was an accident) on the same day. Talk about denial.

No one was in charge. No supervisors told us if we could go. I didn't even know where any of them were. Were we going to be hit by another plane? (by this time someone had learned that it was a plane that hit the Pentagon and not a bomb). Were there bombs going off? We got no direction, at all. After some discussion, the general consensus from those of us just standing around was that we'd leave. (I later learned that one employee who was working with his door shut exited his office 5 hours later without a clue as to what had happened and was the only one still there). As I left the building, I was honestly wondering if I would be fired. Would they fire all of us? Only goes to show how my mindset evolved throughout the day.

The streets were jammed with people who also didn't know what to do. A lot of people were afraid to use the Metro - we'd heard rumors that trains were being bombed. We kept hearing explosions that I learned later were sonic booms when the jets were scrambled but to those of us on the street, it sounded like the city was under attack. Husband called on my cell (just before we lost cell reception). "We are under attack," he said. I mentally discounted this not withstanding what I saw all around me. It was simply not possible for me to wrap my brain around such a thing. I was still thinking that people were, perhaps, over reacting. About that time, scrambling jets raced over and I couldn't hear him. After the roar passed he asked, "What was THAT?" and it dawned on me that he was actually concerned for my safety, that there might actually be planes dropping bombs on the city (he didn't suggest that - I made that up, myself!). Sounds crazy, now, but at the time, all we knew was that the Pentagon was on fire, jets were flying over, there were explosions going on in the distance and news reports were telling us that the mall was on fire.

News reports were that the metro had shut down (later, I learned this was not true). A pregnant co-worker and I took her car to try to leave the city. For hours, we were stranded in gridlock on Pennsylvania Avenue. The radio continued to report that the Mall was on fire but at a certain point in the drive we could see the mall and it wasn't. Ever so often the radio would issue an alert instructing us to abandon our cars and take cover. We would dutifully leave our cars in the street and race for the nearest building. At one point, traffic didn't move in my lane for over an hour because a beer truck had been abandoned half in the street and we couldn't get around it. I wouldn't drink a Budweiser for two years after that.

Young men on bicycles raced on vandalistic sprees all around us. It was utter chaos. We were all in a state of anxiety trying to "escape" but these young men raced grinning throughout the area, knocking over trashcans, shoving people, throwing things at buildings and cars, riding bikes through the metro (I learned later), and between the cars which they would hit with objects as they passed. The place was simply lawless although I didn't see anyone actually get hurt. I didn't see a single traffic cop. Not one. I didn't see any police. Seeing criminal types run around with abandon undermined my faith in the system. They could do anything they wanted and there was no one there to stop them. It was something that before that day I could not even fathom. The only officials I saw were escorting limousines (many with flags on the bumper) apparently carrying dignitaries out of harm's way. I felt a sense of resentment that lingers. Our cars were stopped to make room for them to progress. To understand how that felt, recall that we weren't sure if we were going to be bombed at any instant. None of us specifically protested. We passively waited in traffic although some people shouted and honked in fear and frustration from time to time as anxiety increased.

It took four hours to get home (usually a 30 minute trip via the metro). For over an hour, I was right outside the Capital. I kept expecting it to be hit by a plane. The smoke and smell from the Pentagon hung over everything. The city had no plan to evacuate. It was every man for himself. We'd lost cell phone reception and, of course, since we were in the car we had no TV. The radio was full of reports, most of which I learned later, were inaccurate. I suppose that sometimes the closer you are to ground zero, the less you know of what is going on.

By the time I finally arrived home, they had shut down all the airports and cordoned off whole areas of the city. As I mentioned, husband is in the aviation business. He'd beat me home (he took the metro which was actually up and running - I think those drivers were heroes, that day - they didn't know if they would be targeted, next). He was throwing clothes in a suitcase because he was being sent to NYC to help look for the black box. Just about the time I got home craving a hug and reassurance, we were heading out the door. I still joke that we were the only people in North America rushing to catch a plane that afternoon. We were so busy getting Husband packed and out the door to catch his plane, which they were holding for him, that we really didn't have time to discuss what had happened.

We drove towards the airport through areas of the city that were completely shut down except for governmental check points. They carried guns. As we approached check points, they always knew who husband was when we pulled up. I guess they'd been given that information and recognized the car and license plate. The whole day was surreal. How did we go from a beautiful summer day in a lovely city of monuments, well tended flowers and buildings made of solid, safe stone, to being practically in a police state, roads swept clear of citizens, the roar of explosions and black, inky clouds of death rising up from our Pentagon?

I dropped Husband off at a point some distance from the airport and they whisked him away. I turned back towards home and had an uneasy sense that I might get into trouble for being in a restricted area. I was very nervous that I would take a wrong turn so I did my level best to retrace my steps, exactly. Looking back, I realize that they would have known who I was since I was the only car on the street and we'd just dropped off husband but at the time, the strangeness of the events of the day made everything feel off. In hindsight, I think my reaction reflected a change in me that was taking place that I am not proud of and that I wish I knew how to reverse. I'd never been timid. Part of me became timid, that day.

I got back home and was finally able to turn on the television which was filled with news and video of the plane crashes. I watched in horror and grief. The president and his surrogates were talking tough and insisting that government would carry on, as usual. We were expected to return to work the next day although liberal leave was approved. I had been living in Oklahoma City at the time of the OKC bombing and recall thinking that while I appreciated the sentiment that we would not back down from terrorists, that the president was out of his mind to insist that we go back to work the next day. The shock for many people would be settling in right about that time.

I hadn't worked for my agency long and didn't feel that I should take off work, so soon. I sat in the dark, by myself, utterly dreading going back into the city that I'd just fought my way out of. I felt ill. I had absolutely no faith that I'd be able to get out the next time if we were attacked. What if it happened again, tomorrow? What a pity party is that? So many people were heartsick over the loss of life or didn't even know if their loved ones were alive - and I shared their anguish. At the same time, as I sat there that night, I was filled with utter dread that I had to go back into the city the next day, a city that felt like a war zone, that was filled with guns, that had been attacked by people who had no mercy, that was filled with opportunistic criminals. I felt as if the government was insisting that I return but wouldn't be there to provide any police or military there to offer any protection. I kept seeing those limousines arrogantly driving past us. I never felt so discredited or powerless as a mere citizen in my life. I wanted my husband but he was not there. The phones weren't working consistently and I hadn't lived there long enough to have made friends with a neighbor with whom I could hang with. I was glued to the television, anyway. I hugged the dogs.

I took leave the next day. I am so glad I did. However, I still think that night of dread contributed to the difficulties I've had in getting past it.

Not too long after, I transferred from my job near the White House to another location. Within a year or so, I left the agency, altogether, for a job that didn't require me to go into the city, at all. Even these days I rarely go to DC. I can't cross the river into the city without feeling dread that I might not be able to get out.

So here I sit, years later. I dreaded sending husband off to the city, this morning, although he doesn't share my apprehension. There is no doubt that I suffer PTDS as a result of that day but it wasn't from the bombing - it was from the aftermath of trying to escape the city (and at the time, "escape" was exactly what we were doing even though as it turned out, we were not in danger). I feel weak, petty and cowardly that I have allowed myself to be affected like this. It aggravates me that memories of that day, trivial as they are when you consider how so many suffered, still color my reaction to the events of that horrible day.

Never forget that so many people lost their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I think our nation is healing. And I think I am also healing. Thanks for indulging me as I write this.

Pray for the fallen and their loved ones. Never forget.


jacquie said...

thanks for sharing this penny. what a terrible experience for you.

Becky said...

Penny, thank you so much for sharing. It takes stories like yours to help people remember. God Bless!

Pam said...

Thanks Penny for writing about your feelings from that day and how it changed your life. I think we all lost some of our innocence that day, and it changed all of our lives, forever.

Penny said...

It was an awful day but nothing compared to what so many went through, obviously. I was so lucky that my son was not in harm's way and that we didn't lose anyone. I think the part, on a personal level, that grieves me is the feeling that the terrorists "won" to the extent they impacted my spirit and the fact that I allowed them to. At one point, I wanted to leap out of the car, abandon my pregnant co-worker and take my chances on the metro (at least it was moving). Staying white knuckled in the car was the closest I came to being brave. How sad is that?

Michelle said...

I think in a way it's good that we all have memories of that day we will never forget. We should never forget! We lived on an Air Force base in Delaware at the time...and for weeks after the whole atmosphere on the base was different. Just to leave and return to our home, our cars were searched. How do you explain to your kids why there are military guys dressed in full combat gear walking through military housing with huge automatic rifles on their backs? And another one that rides along with the UPS guy? Why do they have an armed tank parked just inside the front gate. I appreciated the safety measures, but it was a bit unsettling. Like another poster said, we all lost a bit of innocence that day. I think it's good for you to talk about your feelings...thanks for sharing!

Stephanie D. said...

Thanks for sharing that with us Penny. It was hard enough being across the country and watching it. I cannot imagine what I would have done had I actually been there--except work.