Friday, September 11, 2009

Sept. 11

It's been eight years since a woman I worked with ran into my office, screaming hysterically, telling me to turn on the television. It was just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. She was the last person I spoke to before the world as I knew it and saw it changed forever.

More people rushed into my office. We screamed in unison as the second plane hit the World Trade Center live on television. I remember saying, slowly, out loud, "There must be 25,000 people in there." I started to vomit, but managed to keep my breakfast down.

I later watched in horror as a plane hit the Pentagon less than 2 miles from where I sat. It occurred to me that I had just witnessed the last moments of countless lives in real time - on television and out my office window. In the streets below, I saw people filing out of buildings, pouring over bridges, trying to get out of the city. There were DoD offices in our building. We were evacuated around 10:30.

There are thoughts and feelings, articles I read and photos and images I saw, that are burned in my memory. I will forever remember the people I was with that day - Janet, my boss, who quickly left to go pick up her kids; Tina, who ran into my office that day; Randy, whose birthday it was, running down the hall to get a better view of the plane that rammed into the Pentagon; Len, an older gentleman and lifelong Washingtonian, who stood in his office stunned at the site of Pentagon burning; Sarah, who ferried me out of the city that day, inching along MacArthur Boulevard to College Park where Jim picked me up.

Jim and I lived in a condo in Crofton, MD, right in the flight path of BWI airport. In the days after Sept. 11, the absence of the familiar sound of air traffic was eerie.

That fall in DC was tense, uncertain, full of anger and fear for me, and unspeakable sadness. When I was afraid, a dear friend, an older woman who had become a mentor to me, reminded me that when the victims called their families that day, they didn't tell them how afraid they were. They talked about love.

A few weeks after the attacks, a pencil drawing showed up on the bulletin board at work of the towers burning, smoke billowing out and up into the arms of Jesus. I needed to see that every day as I left work and stepped into the DC Metro. Every time the train stopped short of a station, huddled inside the tunnel, lights flickering, instead of the usual grumbling about Metro, there was nervous silence until the train moved again. I needed the image of Jesus, arms outstretched around me and my fellow passengers in order to step on that train day after day.

As personal stories unfolded in news articles and on television, I found myself overwhelmed by the tragedy but unable to look away. An article in the Washington Post profiled a woman who was badly burned in the Pentagon attack; she had lost both of her hands. Her husband said he missed holding his wife's hands. Another story of a young woman on a business trip who got stuck in the WTC was particularly poignant for me. She called her husband of only a year and left a message on the machine telling him she loved him. Then she called her dad. He calmly talked to her, trying to help her find a way out. She didn't make it. Her name was Melissa Harrington Hughes.

That morning, around 9:30, as it was beginning to dawn on all of us what was going on, my father and I began chatting online. I saved the chat. Here are some excerpts:

joseed629 (9:51:03 AM): please call mom and tell her i am okay. all circuits busy
PJDaoust (9:51:14 AM): already did
joseed629 (9:51:30 AM): i'm terrified.
joseed629 (9:51:38 AM): i'm watching it all out of my window
joseed629 (9:52:07 AM): i called jim and he may come get me.
PJDaoust (9:52:09 AM): can you see the pentagon from your office ?
joseed629 (9:52:29 AM): i can see smoke
PJDaoust (9:52:32 AM): don't panic
joseed629 (9:52:33 AM): lots of smoke
joseed629 (9:52:36 AM): trying not to

joseed629 (10:23:27 AM): someone is going to drive me to New CArrolton metro
joseed629 (10:23:47 AM): it's pandemonium. i tried to hithc a ride with someone and they already had 6 people in their car.
joseed629 (10:24:02 AM): traffic is picking up and i'm afraid i won't get out of the city tonight.
PJDaoust (10:24:12 AM): k
joseed629 (10:24:19 AM): the pentagon hit was a commercial American Airlines plane
joseed629 (10:24:25 AM): i think i am going to be sick
PJDaoust (10:24:42 AM): maybe you should stay put for now
PJDaoust (10:24:58 AM): you may be safer where you are
joseed629 (10:27:41 AM): they just closed the metro down
joseed629 (10:27:51 AM): my boss may drive me to the metro station./
PJDaoust (10:27:56 AM): well then , stay put
joseed629 (10:28:19 AM): for now
joseed629 (10:28:40 AM): the oiffice is closing. i have to go now

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