Remembering September 11th

There are two events in my lifetime that I will always remember exactly where I was – when Challenger exploded and 9/11. Today is the 17th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth. Each anniversary, I like to take a few moments to reflect on where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt.  It was an exceptional time – one of those events that can never be recreated and which we will all struggle to explain to our children and grandchildren.  But, regardless of the difficulty, I try my best to recreate those memories each anniversary, to help ensure that I never forget them.

Where were you?

Here’s my story.

I was still in graduate school. I was working my way through my master’s degree at GW in downtown Washington, DC at the time, and as part of my benefits package, we were given free classes. I was an administrator in the campus housing department, and one of my primary responsibilities was as the fire safety officer for our branch of the student services division.

Once every semester we had full fledged fire evacuation drills that were unannounced to the students, and we would observe the results and see where we needed to make improvements. This was a big deal, requiring cooperation with the University Police, our Risk Management staff, the local fire department (to make sure they knew the alarms were a drill), as well as my staff of student employees.

We had just gotten to the first dorm we were going to drill and we had gotten everyone staged when people started gathering around the big-screen TV in the lobby. At the time, we were on the far edge of campus – less than three blocks from the White House. We saw the results of the first plane hitting the towers, but time was pressing and we needed to get the drills going.

We rang the bells and the kids started shuffling out of the dorm. It was around that time that the second plane hit the south tower and things got out of control rather quickly. We cut the bells as fast as we could and got everyone back in the building. The University Police radios we had been using to coordinate the drills started going crazy.

All of our students were ordered to hunker down where they were, and after a quick pow-wow with the UPD and Risk Management staff, we called the rest of the drills off. About that time the next plane hit the Pentagon. At first, no one was sure what exactly had been hit. Our radio was dispatching UPD to the State Department because there had been rumors of a car bomb going off there, although we hadn’t heard anything like a bomb going off and we were mere blocks away.

I had taken a number of courses in national security policy and counterterrorism at school in preparation for my old dream of becoming an FBI agent, so I had some pretty good guesses as to what was going on, and my main concern was to get the heck away from the White House as quickly as possible. I grabbed my boss and told her we needed to get back to the office and inside ASAP, so we hurried back across campus.

We could see a plume of grayish black smoke to the southwest, which made me think that maybe the reports were right and the Pentagon had gotten hit.

We got back to the office, and there was yet another crowd around the TV tuned to CNN, and we watched the towers on fire.  The crawl on the bottom of the screen had all kinds of crazy unconfirmed reports of different things happening across the city – there were reports that there were car bombs going off down on the National Mall, the Capitol and White House had been evacuated, etc. Then we heard confirmation that the Pentagon had gotten hit.

I went into my office, which was right off the lobby, and I could still hear the TV. I tried to get onto the CNN website, but it was so slammmed I couldn’t get it to load.  Fortunately, I knew a URL that was less well known to get on CNN’s site, and I was able to get on and get some first hand news. I started to get some emails, including one from a buddy of mine who was ex-NSA who told me what he thought happened, and he was pretty accurate. We both thought it was Bin Laden, because “He’s the only one with the balls to pull something like this” as my friend said.

I tried to call out, but my cell phone was out-of-service. So many people were trying to call out on the University phone system that it completely failed.  The school had a large population of kids from New York and New Jersey.

I went back to the lobby and watched with everyone else as the towers fell and as we heard the first reports of the amazing heroism on Flight 93.

It was eerie outside. No one was talking. Cars were gone, there was no one on the roads except for Metro Police, Uniformed Secret Service and other police cars zipping around. There was nothing in the air, either. It was just quiet. I’d never seen DC like that before and none of us will ever see it that way again. It’s hard to put into words how things felt.

The phones eventually came back on, and I called my parents and let them know I was okay. I went home early at around 3 PM, as most people were told to just try and get home. My apartment was about a mile from the Pentagon, but the Metro was still running, so I got on and walked back to my apartment. From there I watched the news coverage until I fell asleep around 1 or 2 AM.

The next few weeks were surreal.  Major events like the Oscars and baseball games were canceled.  I remember wondering how anybody could watch a ball game or read People magazine and gossip about celebrities anymore after something like this happened.  I remember that for the first time in my adult like in DC, people were driving like rational people and being polite on the roads.  American flags sprouted up on buildings and cars across DC and northern Virginia.  It was a sad time, but it was also a time when all Americans came together and reacted as one.

Never forget.

(Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared on on September 11, 2010. It has not appeared on Bearing Drift before, and was edited to reflect the current date.)