In 2001 I was 23 years old and working one metro stop outside of Washington, DC. I worked on the top floor of a 20 story office building in Roslyn, doing Government Affairs for a trade association. I had my own little office and could mostly get away with dressing business casual. That day started out quite ordinary, I took the metro to work, got a frozen mocha drink at the stand on the first floor and then took the elevator up to our suite.
When the first plane struck in New York, word ran around the office quickly and most of us were glued to our computers. I remember staring at the images, refreshing over and over again waiting for more information. At first, nobody was thinking ‘terrorist’. I remember that I called my dad. “Are you watching this thing in New York?” I asked him. He said he was. I can’t remember if we’d just finished our conversation or if I hung up quickly when I heard yelling, but I do remember hanging up the phone.
The shouting was the VPs – one of them came running down the hall telling everyone to grab their stuff and get out of the building, that the Pentagon had just been hit. In retrospect it was a total panic reaction, but I don’t blame him at all, he and the other VPs had all been in the corner office, which looked out over the Pentagon. They saw the strike when it happened, but they said later that it happened so fast they weren’t sure if it was a plane or a bomb or what, they just saw the fire and smoke and roused the alarm.
You know, rereading what I just wrote, it sounds so calm, so orderly. It wasn’t. People were literally yelling “Get out! Get out of the building, get out now!” and we did exactly that. I didn’t shut down my computer, I just grabbed my purse and ran with my coworkers, down the hall and into the stairwell. I don’t think anybody ever considered using the elevator. We ran down the stairs -all 20 flights- and as we did people from other offices on other floors joined us. A lot of women were carrying their high heels. There was more shouting. What’s happening?! What’s going on?! and answers varied. The Pentagon just exploded! The Pentagon just got hit!
At street level, everything was normal. No sirens. No visible smoke. A perfect blue sky and people going about their business. We all stood around for a moment, blinking and catching our breath, and then the VPs got everyone organized. Anyone who took the metro paired off with someone who had driven, nobody wanted to risk being underground, or have to go past the Pentagon stop. In the car I was in, which was headed out to the suburbs, we spent part of the ride trying to figure out what on our route might be a target, if indeed it was bombs, because nobody knew for sure what was going on. I don’t remember if we thought it was a third plane, but I don’t think so. Such a thing was, at the time, unthinkable, even after what had just happened in New York.
The next day, there was a tank parked on the street outside my office.
There were uniformed soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling the metro platforms.
The Pentagon was still smoking.
That first day, no real work got done. Everyone gathered in the corner office to look at the smoke. Everybody cried. There was a meeting about emergency procedures – nobody had locked up the office, we were lucky no one robbed the place. There was little recrimination, though, they didn’t blame anyone for not locking the door. In the end, the company President just made an evacuation plan and gave someone responsibility for locking up if it ever happened it again. Eventually the normal rhythms of work and life resumed.
Ten years later, I’ve moved away from the DC area and have a very different life than I did then. Around here we mostly worry about the weather, hitting deer when we drive and whether or not we have to re-gravel the driveway or can put it off another year. I look back at that experience and part of me shakes my head and thinks how silly it seems now. Running down the stairs, the tension of the drive home, the fear of bombs and getting on the metro. Another part of me thinks that we were absolutely justified in reacting the way we did because we didn’t know any better. We were assuming the worst, and all things considered that wasn’t a bad idea. There are people in the world who would love to bomb that office building, or any of the places we were so concerned about driving past. There are people who hate this whole country with terrible intensity, and aren’t interested in learning about us or finding common ground. It’s frightening, and every bit as frightening as that is the hatred in this country that’s directed out into the world, or inward at our own citizens and guests.
I am not inclined to discuss politics here. I have friends who have served, or are serving in the middle east, and I pray that they all come home safe, and come home soon. When I think about September 11th, I wish that all the people in the many places in the world that feel hatred towards our country could see that most Americans are decent, ordinary people who love their families and just want to live a peaceful life. I wish that everyone here who feels hatred towards other countries or faiths could see that most of the people there are decent, ordinary people too. No matter who we pray to or if we pray at all, I think most of us share the same hopes and dreams for the future. I think anyone worth praying to looks kindly on all people who sincerely try to be good to others, and poorly on people who fly planes into office buildings.
Ten years ago, the world changed irrevocably. I hope ten years from now we’ll find it’s changed again: for the better.