I don’t think I ever planned on this, but after reading AllahPundit and Brian Faughnan’s memories of eight years ago today, I felt compelled to write out how I remember the day unfolding. Everybody has a story, and I can’t say that mine is particularly dramatic; mostly a tale of confusion and misinformation while wandering around what could have been an easy target, being a reporter in the middle of the biggest news event of the decade and incapable of filing anything.
On September 11, 2001, I was working at a small wire service based in the National Press Building. My commute from within D.C. was uneventful; I probably was underground on the Metro when the planes hit in New York City, and probably emerging from Metro Center when the Pentagon was hit, utterly oblivious.
I entered the office to find our office phone system had crashed and the few functioning lines were ringing off the hook. I managed to check my voice mail; my soon-to-be-wife had left a very terse, very this-is-not-the-usual-tone message that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I remembered that when I was a child, I had seen a picture of a small, Cessna-type plane, flying near or between the towers; I figured some idiot tried to pull a similar stunt and hit the building. (Despite remembering it, I never have been able to find that image.)
Then another reporter in our office, who worked for some papers in Nevada, told me that it was two planes had hit the towers, and that it had to be terrorism. He said something like, “the only good news is that something this big, it’ll leave a lot of trails back to them, and make it easier to find who did it.” At that point, there was a report of a car bomb or some sort of explosion at the Pentagon, but that it had only exploded near a helipad; I distinctly remember the initial sense that whatever had happened at the Pentagon, it wasn’t that bad. Then CNN reported that the White House was on fire. We looked out the window; while we didn’t have a view of the White House, the street looked normal. Another reporter and I figured that if that story was true, we could verify that in about ten minutes.
We walked out on the street and it was another Tuesday morning in downtown Washington. The usual traffic honking and tourists wandering around. The other reporter looked around and said to me, “They have no idea what’s happened.” I had a strange sense of awareness that these would be the last moments of normalcy for a while.
We quickly figured out that the White House looked normal, as far as we could tell. But there was a hell of a lot of smoke in the sky to the south. Something had happened, and so I headed that way. I got towards the Mall, and obviously, there was a towering column of smoke rising from across the Potomac. By this point the streets were starting to fill with cars, lots of unmarked cars with dashboard flashing lights and sirens, going much faster than normal. I crossed the mall, and heard an enormous BOOM. I wonder if it was a sonic boom from jet fighters overhead, arriving too late to do anything.
I tried to get back towards my office, and found myself trying to get in to the center of downtown while everyone else was trying to get out; federal workers had been evacuated from their offices and told to go home. Each block, uniformed Secret Service and D.C. police diverted me another block away from my intended direction. I managed to make my way towards what was, in retrospect, an ironic and horrible choice, the White House. There was a DC EMS official holding a street-corner press briefing, and he didn’t have too much information – New York had been hit, the Pentagon had been hit, and there was a report of at least one more plane headed towards DC. He couldn’t say anything about reports of car bombs that had exploded outside the State Department or the Supreme Court. If I’m remembering correctly, the only real piece of information he could share with the handful of reporters gathered around him was that every emergency-service agency in D.C. had been put on a “condition five” alert, which was as high as it went and was the first time that condition had ever been declared.
This was my pre-laptop days, and so with nothing but a notepad full of notes, I kept trying to return to my office to file something, anything, on the little morsels of information I had. It had now been an hour, maybe two, that I had been wandering around the streets, being told I couldn’t go down this street but if I went down two blocks they might let me pass. Finally, I got back to the National Press Building, and in their lobby they had six televisions always tuned in to the news channels. It was then and there I learned what so many had watched live. The screen image was just smoke and wreckage, but the chryon tried to explain the incomprehensible:
BOTH WORLD TRADE CENTER TOWERS HAVE BEEN DESTROYED
I just stood there, stunned, feeling like the wind had knocked out of me. That’s not real. That’s a science-fiction headline. I heard the voice of one of the most unflappable men in news, Brit Hume, saying from the television, “This is a country that really needs to hear from its government right now.” Apparently it was one of the moments Bush had been in the air, I don’t know if anyone had heard from Giuliani yet, and the country trying to come to grips with what they had just witnessed.
Knees wobbly, I went to the entrance . . . and the security guard told me the building was evacuated. “I’m a reporter, I have to file about all this,” I half-argued, still not believing what was going on around me. He wasn’t interested. “You cannot go in there, we’re evacuating.”
It took me about five seconds to realize I wasn’t working that day. Of course, I was downtown and still had to get back to my apartment near Dupont Circle. The Metro had been evacuated and shut down. Even if you could find a cab, every federal worker and many others deciding to leave downtown simultaneously had turned the streets into a de facto parking lot. I started my walk, with everyone else around me in the same messy state — disbelieving, dazed, crying. Sirens were everywhere, even though it seemed no car could get anywhere.
A hot-dog stand had its radio turned up, and the radio host did his best to keep people up to speed, while calling for calm – a sudden influx of traffic had hit parents in a hurry to get their kids out of school, and this had led to accidents, which had led to tempers flaring. It wasn’t abject panic, but everybody wanted to get somewhere else as quickly as possible. Nobody knew where that other plane was; nobody knew whether there was only one plane to worry about. I overheard one animated discussion about whether the towers in New York had fallen, confirmed for them that they had indeed, and added that someone was going to get nuked over this. I realized that any photo of New York would always be a clear marker of before today or after today. I remember passing a café that was closing, with staff putting up quickly printed signs saying “DUE TO EVENTS IN NEW YORK WE ARE CLOSED.”
Sometime in the early afternoon I finally got home. I didn’t have a cell phone then; I knew where none of my loved ones were, and none of them knew where I was, although they probably could surmise it was unlikely work would bring me to the Pentagon at that hour. I got to the phone and started dialing, trying to think of everyone I knew in New York and how likely they were to be in lower Manhattan; how likely the folks I knew in New Jersey were to be in the city that day.
Everyone I knew personally had gotten through the attacks okay, although it could easily have turned out otherwise that day. One friend had been on a bridge, crossing the Potomac, as the Pentagon was hit. Another had been on a Metro train, passing through the Pentagon station, perhaps ten minutes before the attack. Earlier that year I had been briefly hired, then laid off, to work as a Pentagon correspondent. Had the publication been on firmer financial footing, I might have been in that building on that day.
My father had said he wanted to hold his retirement party at Windows on the World. At their workplaces in New Jersey’s suburbs, my parents had been watching coverage when the second plane hit, but for them, the screen simply turned to static – the channel they were watching was dependent upon the tower’s antenna. My brother had watched the tower fall live on television; co-workers told Mom that if they looked towards New York from the building’s upper floor she could see only one tower was left.
In fact, I had been in Manhattan the day before, meeting with a friend at the New York Post and National Review’s Jay Nordlinger. I remember I got to Penn Station just as the skies opened up for a mid-afternoon downpour, and looking up at the towers, where the clouds were so low the top stories were obscured. What if I’d gone into the city a day later? What if the attacks had been planned for a day earlier?
Calls came in – “I’m alive, I’m fine, but I’m worried about my friend.” On the television behind me, the networks kept showing new and ever-more-unbelievable footage of the attacks, the second plane flying directly over one cameraman’s head into the tower.
Finally, I heard keys entering the apartment door. The Mrs. walked through the doorway – she was a few months away from becoming the Mrs. – and the world was as okay as it was going to get on that day.