- 8 years ago
- Wedding: September 2011
I was across the street from the Pentagon, taking a class in one of the big office buildings there. A few minutes earlier (my concept of time is weird on that day so it could have been 5 minutes or an hour, who knows) one of the other students had commented on a plane hitting the WTC, as he’d seen the headline on CNN.com. We all figured it was a small plane and had no real idea what was going on, and we went to focus on our class.
That neighborhood is right on the flight path into National Airport (DCA). You get used to planes flying by after spending a little time there, and you get used to where the planes normally are. So we all noticed when one plane was flying past the window, too low and too fast and not in a place where planes normally are. It wasn’t far outside the normal flight path, but it was still outside. And then it flew below the tree line, and seconds later we could hear the explosion and feel the building rumble a bit.
We evacuated, which was full of confusion, at least from our floor, because we were all strangers to the building and no one had ever briefed us on evacuation procedures. Our teacher was long gone by the time I got to the stairs. The stairs were jammed with people pushing and shoving their way down. No one knew what had happened other than the plane being in the Pentagon or at least on the Pentagon grounds. Some people were talking about a fire in the building or an earthquake. I think we were about 12 stories up.
When I got outside, it was a really gorgeous day, about maybe 77*F and bright blue skies. I could smell the burning jet fuel, heavy in the air. The sky above the Pentagon was black with smoke, really dark thick smoke, and I could see things flying around in the smoke cloud. It took me a few minutes to realize that the “things” were bits of clothing from people’s luggage.
There were constant sirens and what looked like a parade of ambulances and fire trucks. I remember seeing the truck from the Bethesda Search and Rescue Squad and wondering if my old friend Aaron would be working, as I’d not seen him in ages. I sat under a tree because no one was in charge and people were already walking out of the city and into the suburbs. There were no cars on the big road between us and the Pentagon, just ambulances, fire trucks, and big groups of pedestrians.
I had originally planned to ride my motorcycle to class that day and was kicking myself inside, as I’d opted for the car, planning to stop by Home Depot on the way home and pick up some paint. I knew it was kind of pointless to try to drive, but then got a page (remember pagers?) saying that the DC mayor had activated their IT disaster response team and I was expected to report to the Mayor’s Command Center. When I finally arrived, 4 or 5 hours later, all the work had been done; they’d called in all the IT folks to help set up an emergency wireless network. As I tried to make my way back to the car, I passed the Metro station, where a huge crowd was assembled, trying to get onto the trains. There were Federal marshalls around, and someone noticed a Marshall’s holstered gun, then panicked, mistaking the Marshall for a gunman or assassin. People stampeded to get away and one lady tried to crawl under a parked car. The Marshall tried to calm everyone down but the crowd scared me— too many panicked people in too small a space– so I just kept walking till I found my car.
Driving home was at a snail’s pace. I would finally get close to one of the bridges back into the city, just to be told that bridge was closed. Cars weren’t moving except for inches at a time. For a while, I was behind a line of school busses. The school busses at one point just drove down the median strip. When I mentioned it to my brother, a shock trauma doctor, he explained that these were the “walking wounded”: folks with minor injuries like cuts and broken fingers, and that they’d be treated on the bus in the hospital parking lot instead of adding more people to the ER waiting rooms.
My roommate and I just watched the coverage in silence, pretty much around the clock for the rest of the day. I still had the stink of burning jet fuel all over me.
The next day I drove down Route 110, past the Pentagon, which was still burning and still stinking of jet fuel. There were heavy tanks parked just beyond the tree line and I’m sure there was some heavy artillery. Over the next few weeks we just got used to seeing the tanks on 110, and we joked about not being able to say certain words on that road, knowing we must surely be under surveilance, and we were only half-joking. We got used to the fighter jets flying over, too. Every 28 minutes or so, a jet would go over the house, shaking the windows. We live up by the Vice President’s house so we got a lot of flyover attention. The dogs didn’t much like the jet noise so I had to time their walks perfectly, otherwise they’d get scared and want to drag me back to the house before the end of the walk.
There’s no trash cans on subway platforms any more, or in city parks, and the police cars in the District keep their light bars on all the time now. Apparently these are security methods learned by the Mayor on his post-9/11 trip to Israel. He visited specifically to learn how the Israeli police secure their cities when living under the constant threat of terrorism. There are surely other, less visible measures in place, and I don’t think every one of those tanks ever left the Pentagon. But the trash cans really get me, because their absence is so subtle, and it makes me a little sad to think that we now live in a world where you can’t have a trash can in a public place, for fear of someone putting a bomb in it.