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Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11, 2001: The Day That Stole Our Innocence

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting in my office when my husband called me excitedly and told me to turn on the television. I was busy and annoyed. I snapped at him, “I don’t have time for silly sports trivia or some entertainment fluff. I’ve got a job to do.”

Fortunately, he didn’t get insulted and hang up. Instead he kept insisting that I turn on the office television.

At about that time one of my co-workers, who already had it on, let out a yell. Something about New York, explosions, and the Twin Towers.

Because of the distress in her voice, I went rushing in just in time to see, on the small screen, an airplane disappear behind one of the towers and then explode.

We all watched with horror. As Matt Lauer tried to explain what he was seeing, the world watched another plane disappear and explode. I was shaken. One plane crashing midair into the tower could have been a tragic accident. Two was a deliberate assault.

My first thought, as I went back to my desk to call and tell my husband that I had indeed seen what he was talking about, was that another country had to be behind it. A ragtag band of terrorists couldn’t possibly have access to a large jet plane to do this. Some rogue nation with a nationalized airline had to be behind it. Maybe Iraq. Maybe Saudi Arabia. Maybe Iran. My mind raced as I tried to figure it out. I never dreamt hijackers could do such a thing.

Then suddenly sirens were going off and lights flashing. Fire alarms in our building in downtown DC were wailing and my co-worker was yelling “Get out. We’ve got to get out. Now!”

“Now!” She insisted as I dawdled.

It was possibly shock. No. Probably stupidity to the 10th degree.

But it never occurred to me that we might be next, even though I worked not far from the White House. All I could think is that it couldn’t possibly be a fire drill. It had to be a crank caller taking advantage of the shock and confusion to phone in a false alarm. Some awful sicko who got satisfaction from adding to the chaos and tragedy.

It was only as I was racing, along with hundreds of others, down the halls of our large office building, and I heard the shouts “They got the Pentagon,” that I realized we actually could be a target.

“They got the Pentagon.” And another co-worker was sobbing. Oh God, Linda’s husband works there.

At some point I felt myself to be deadly calm. I thought soberly that we could all die. No exaggeration, no histrionics. Just the very real possibility. And all I thought was, God, if I do see your face today, then I’m sorry for all the things I should be sorry for.

Then, keep running. Comfort Linda, still sobbing. Try to make sense out bedlam.

When we were out of the building, I tried to reach my husband, who worked only a few blocks away, by cell phone. Nobody’s cells were working. All I could think was that if I could get to his office, I would be able to find out what had happened. I told Linda, “Come with me. We can call from Dan’s office and find out about your husband. I bet Dan's phone will be working.”

I still didn’t get it that this wasn’t local. Wasn’t just our building but citywide pandemonium. Linda decided to head for home and her children. I walked to Dan’s office, like a homing pigeon programmed by instinct on where to go.

I found him sitting outside his building talking to some of his co-workers. It was a gorgeous sunny day. From a distance it looked like everybody was just enjoying the balmy fall weather. It was only when I got closer that I saw the expressions of fear and disbelief.

We waited for our other carpooler to show up, which she did. Dan and I were of a mind to wait until the crowds of cars had thinned out. I remember saying, “By now whoever did this has lost the element of surprise. Whatever damage they’re going to do, they’ve done for the day. They’ve probably gotten out of Dodge by now.” And I was actually disappointed by that. How would we find them? How would we hunt them down and make them pay for this if they had left town? If they had indeed gotten out of Dodge as I predicted, how would even know who had done this to us?

At that point, what I was feeling was no longer the calm that came from simple shock, but logic that had taken back over. Our carpooler wanted to leave immediately. She had no stomach to hang around. She still felt like a sitting duck.

So we joined the caravan of cars inching its way out of the city. We couldn’t go out in any direction heading to Virginia because it was too crowded. So we crawled towards Maryland.

Three hours later we had navigated our way back on to the beltway and were heading in the direction of Virginia. We stopped at Inova Fairfax Hospital to try to give blood but others told us that there already was a line with a wait of up to six hours and the hospital was sending people home. People so needed to something. Anything to help.

At home, I tried to call my aunt and cousin who live in lower Manhattan. “You won’t be able to reach them,” my husband was saying just as my aunt actually answered the phone.

Even I was stunned that I reached her. I had to do something, go through the motions. But I never expected to get through. The news was saying the lines were all tied up and cell phones were still not working. Once I was reassured that she was ok, but shaken because she had seen the explosion at the Twin Towers from her building, I called my mother to report that her sister and niece were safe. My mother had been calling, unable to get through to any of us. Why my phone worked and I was able to connect to everybody I’ll never know.

Then, still feeling like a caged animal, I went upstairs to go on line. An instant message flared up on my screen, “Check the message boards,” it commanded me. Some on-line friends from a West Wing fan site that I frequented were trying to account for all their Washington and New York friends. I was the last one missing in action. I was surprised at all the buzz about finding me, so I immediately posted. So did the instant messenger, reassuring everybody that I had been found. I quickly explained that I had just then gotten in and called my mother and aunt.

I was accounted for by those who cared about me. Everybody I loved was safe. The numb, preternatural calm and logic suddenly wore off and I burst into tears. It felt like the dam finally bursting.

Today, I didn’t want to remember it. Instead, I wanted to feel safe. I wanted to be innocent again. None of us ever will be. The worst thing that Osama bin Laden robbed us of was our innocence. Our sense that we live in a safe and friendly universe.

The boogey man came that beautiful September day and made our worst nightmare come true.

1 comment:

Mike Stark said...

sorry to post this as an OT comment, but could you contact me at stark dot m at gmail dot com? It has to do with VA democratic netroots. Please note that you ar Anonymousis a woman in the email you send. Sorry for the cryptic comment, but the project is in development right now and I can't afford to tip my hand just yet - at least not in public...

thanks!