I always have the TV on in my office (always on News or Congressional floor debate). This morning the news is re-broadcasting the coverage on 9/11 and it takes me back immediately to that day. It was a one of the most gorgeous days in D.C. Clear blue sky, perfect weather. I was at my office, 3 blocks from the White House and in a meeting (with a TV on) as we were discussing our Afghanistan client (this is a story for a face to face discussion, but I was working on a client who had significant concerns about the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. We were working with some famous foreign policy experts and it is very strange the ties I already had to 9/11 without even knowing it.) The meeting had not yet started because we were discussing what kind of “idiot” flies into a building. On TV we saw the 2nd plane hit. Everyone was quiet and I kept saying, “ was that a replay of the plane hitting?”. Once we determined it was a second plane we all retreated to our offices to make phone calls and figure out what was happening. I tried to call my friend Michelle but I was having trouble with the phone lines. When I finally connected all I was able to say is “We are under attack, turn on your TV.” I grabbed my cell phone and migrated back into one of the rooms with TV so I could watch the day unfold with my colleagues. I thought about my friends in New York and prayed they were okay.
All of a sudden we heard sirens…lots and lots of sirens and they were everywhere. I went to the windows of our 9th floor downtown DC office and I saw police motorcycles whizzing by escorting limo’s flying foreign flags out of the city. That is when we realized that it wasn’t over and we could be in trouble. All of a sudden we could see smoke in the sky not far from the office but the TV wasn’t reporting anything in D.C. It took a little bit for us to learn the Pentagon had been hit. Suddenly there were lots of people and cars on the streets. We happened to be on the corner of the two major routes out of the city and it was filling up quickly with people. All of a sudden we could see smoke in the sky not far from the office but the TV wasn’t reporting anything in D.C. It took a little bit for us to learn the Pentagon had been hit.
The traffic on the street turned to gridlock. Out of our window we could see the smoke, on the streets cars were stuck, and there were more people on the streets of DC than I have ever seen in my whole life. That is the image that sticks with me…smoke in the background on this crystal blue clear sky day, cars at a standstill and tons and tons and tons of people walking out of the city. The TV was reporting all kinds of rumors and facts: possible car bomb in front of the state department; fires on the Mall; missing planes; Pentagon in flames; plane headed to the Capitol; plane headed to the White House..etc. I kept trying to make calls on my cell phone but it was no use. I could not really grasp what was going on, but I knew we were under attack and I did not feel safe and I couldn’t get a hold of my family. It made me wonder what the hell I was doing in Washington, D.C. when my family and friends were in Texas.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to take the subway. All I could think about was if I were a terrorist attacking a city, I would surely gas the subway system as people were trying to evacuate. My car was at the metro station so the only option I really had was to walk the 8 miles home in my high heels and business suit.
I tried to call my parents again but phones were still down (Land-lines and cell phones). I decided to send a short email note to my family and my best friend Julie and I hoped it would go get to them. The note read: “I am in the office. I am okay. Trying to get home. Will call you when I can…phones down. Love you.”
A friend of mine got kicked out of her building after the attacks so she came to my office. We sat with a few others in my office watching the TV. Nobody felt safe enough to get on the subway, I didn’t feel safe enough to start walking, and frankly, I think I was just too stunned to leave. At one point my phone rang it was my friend Lizzie. She was able to get through. We had a very short conversation and I assured her I was okay. I tried again to call my Mom, Dad and brother and I could not get the phone to connect.
We watched the towers fall and at I sat there trying to figure out my next move. I was glad Susan was there. Now it was no longer just me trying to figure out what to do, I had a friend. Two heads are better than one and I felt strengthened by having someone else there. If we both decided the subway was okay, then certainly it would be okay.
The FAA has ordered all planes grounded yet there were constant planes over our skies. When you could see them, you realized they were all fighter jets patrolling the sky. But it was very unnerving because you sat their listening…does that sound different than the other planes? Is that a terrorist plane?
My phone rang. I picked it up and it was my Dad. I quickly escaped to my office and burst into tears. I had not cried yet but there is something about having your Dad call. Maybe it’s a daughter thing, but my father is always the one who handles the crisis, he is always the one you call when you need help. When my father swoops in to any situation, I can relax because I know he will take care of me. Just to hear his voice on the other line let me know that I could breakdown. I was actually embarrassed to cry and kept apologizing to my father. I wasn’t hurt and I was a grown adult. But I also wasn’t completely convinced that we were not in any kind of danger. There were still planes missing and I was scared and I was far far away from home. I had a short conversation with my father. He calmed me down. I told him I loved him and that I was going to try and get to my house in Falls Church. We agreed to try and talk at least once a day for the next few days.
Around noon Susan and I decided to chance it on the Subway. We only had 3 stops to go until we were in Virginia. We got in my car and it was very eerie. The streets of Virginia were deserted for a Tuesday afternoon. I actually had a friend staying at my house. She was scheduled to fly home to Houston that day. She ended up being stranded at my house for a week. We went to my house and grabbed Michelle. We were all starving and we just couldn’t sit in front of the TV any longer.
The next few days were crazy. We had a house full of guests as several friends lived by the Pentagon and could not go home. Yet, we all got up the everyday that week and went back to work. It was so strange going to work. We had the constant fighter jets patrolling the sky. On the subway you looked at everyone suspiciously. Every time the subway stopped to long, or the lights flickered, we panicked. I would walk to work and on each corner were military Humvee’s flanked by four military men in fatigues holding what looked like machine guns. On the rooftops of many buildings downtown were snipers. Every day there were more rumors about another attack…they were going to come back to finish the attack. It was very strange to go to work every day feeling like you were at war. It gave me a little bit of insight into what it must be like in other countries that really are at war, and life has to go on.
By Friday I was a mess and my nerves were shot. I could no longer pretend I was okay. I was a crying nightmare in my office at work. It was the culmination of a really bad week. So I decided to do something I never did…I decided to find a Catholic Church nearby. I went to Noon mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Solicitor General attended mass that day with me. He had just lost his wife on the plane that went into the Pentagon. I walked into that Church a mess and walked out feeling like everything was going to be okay. I can’t explain it, but I sat there for an hour, prayed, and at some point during Mass I felt a sense of calm wash over me.
That was my day. Everyone has similar stories. I just hope we don’t forget the lessons we learned during that time.
BTW – you might think I am crazy, but I have my emergency kit prepared and I also have an emergency kit for my dog Carson prepared. I have an evacuation plan to get out of the city. And more important, I know have a pair of tennis shoes and a flashlight at my office.