September 11, 2001 memories

Here, slightly edited, is an email I sent out to family later in the day on September 11, 2001, written after I had a chance to collect my wits. Add it to the collective memory archive for that traumatic date.

I thank you all for your concern for my safety. In the back of my mind are always scenarios like the one that happened today. More than once I have stood outside the Hubert H. Humphrey Building where I work and wondered if an Oklahoma City bombing happened whether I would survive. Ours is a weird looking building with the first two floors much smaller than the rest of the building. Much of the building hangs out over the street. And there is metered parking right next to the building so it wouldn’t take much to park a Yellow Rider truck along the street and do another Oklahoma City. Needless to say I am glad I don’t work in the Pentagon anymore for lots of reasons, my own personal safety being only one of them. Had I still been working for the Air Force my office would have been in Rosslyn so I would have been safe. The part of the Pentagon that was hit was on the Heliport Side far from my old office in 3A153. Had I still been there I probably would have escaped but I’m sure I’d be a lot more traumatized.

Terrorism is just a risk of being a federal employee but so far it has been a pretty abstract risk. I figured my particular building was unlikely to be a target but one never knows about these things. HHS tends to be a pretty low-key sort of place and is rarely in the news. But I do work in HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson’s building (most of my agency is actually in another building) so I’m perhaps more vulnerable than most in my agency.

Like most of you I was just sitting at my desk at work when I heard rumors of the World Trade Center explosion from a colleague. I tried to get news on the ’Net but I couldn’t connect to much of anything. The story grew in the telling. I started getting frantic phone calls from Terri. It was after the Pentagon got hit that I felt a more immediate presence. I watched part of it live on MSNBC in a nearby conference room. Terri called with rumors that the White House was hit, which proved unfounded and urged me to come home immediately. There had been no executive decision to release us but my vanpool was leaving so I high tailed it out of there.

Since I work in SW it is not quite as gridlocked and frantic as NW. Still there was a lot of traffic and not much of it moving very quickly as everyone tried to bug out. Intersections were a bit more jammed than usual but people were largely obeying traffic lights. I had to scoot though because I have to walk four blocks to pick up my van. Dan, our crazy vanpool driver, called about 10:15 saying he was leaving. Dan works in the Department of Transportation building in L’Enfant Plaza and parks the van in the garage.

The atmosphere on the streets was something bordering on mild panic. No one was screaming or shouting but lots of federal workers decided they didn’t want to be in their buildings and were out on the streets. Cell phones were everywhere. People tried to hail taxis to take them home with little luck. There were rumors that the Metro was not operating that proved to be unfounded. But at the time I felt lucky to have a van as an escape route.

As we headed west on Independence Avenue we could see plumes of smoke from the fire at the Pentagon, which is not that far away rising, ironically, over the Holocaust Museum. We progressed fairly well on Independence Avenue until it ground to a crawl near the Washington Monument. Dan made a strategic decision at that point to try Constitution Avenue. It’s hard to tell if that was the right decision since that was completely jammed too. Nonetheless we eventually crept out of DC and onto I-66 west, which was stop and go, but with periods of freeway speeds.

The reality of it was hard to miss as we crossed the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge. It is actually a glorious day in Washington with clear blue skies, low humidity and temperature in the 70s. From the bridge one could appreciate the massive amount of smoke coming from the Pentagon. It was hard to imagine that so many people were dead or dying over there. I hope at least they died quickly.

Of course we had on the radio all the way back. No one was panicking in the vanpool but there was a lot of concern. I was glad to escape but I also suspected the worst was over. The journey home took about 90 minutes altogether, which wasn’t too bad under the circumstances.

I’m still in the process of analyzing my feelings over this whole thing. I’m sure it will take weeks or months to put it in perspective. It’s one thing to deal with in the abstract and it’s another thing to deal with it in reality. Like most of us caught up in it I didn’t see any mangled bodies or bleeding people. I was largely on the periphery of a crisis, which was fine with me. I fear when all this is over more than 50,000 innocent Americans will have lost their lives, most in New York City. That of course fills me with sadness and a sense of outrage. Embracing my wife after my successful journey home was quite emotional but I felt more than a little sick to my stomach. The last time I really remember feeling this was when we moved into our first townhouse to discover it had flooded overnight. This is a bit of a different experience but the feelings are similar. The uneasiness comes from realizing that security blanket we put around ourselves is mostly an illusion.

And yet something like this was bound to happen. It’s amazing in retrospect it didn’t happen sooner. The plane at the Pentagon shows how simple it is to destroy a good part of our command and control structure. Like with Pearl Harbor I got the feeling we got caught napping as a country. In reality our military has failed utterly to protect us against what are real threats are. All those words about how well protected we are against domestic terrorism I always thought were pretty empty. Rest assured we will bomb some probably innocent victims in return and cause more death and destruction. If the politicians play this right we can turn into another xenophobic Israel with hatred forever coursing through our veins and a feeling of self-righteousness that is still not justified.

The sad reality is that guns, metal detectors and sniffing dogs can’t buy this country national security. If we truly want to minimize this stuff we simply have to be less obnoxious on the international stage. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. But we could learn a lot if we imitated Switzerland. So I’m sad to say I expect more of this stuff, possibly even worse, in our future. All I can do is hope that this federal employee escapes unscathed.

Terri went to donate blood first. Rosie is having an orthodontic emergency I must attend to instead. Hopefully I can donate tonight.

Later that day I wrote in an email:

An online friend of Terri’s probably lost a sister in the World Trade Center disaster.

One interesting observation from these tragedies is it brings home those who really care about you. Terri got a phone call from her childhood friend Frieda. I also got one from Cyndi, our former foster child now approaching the ripe old age of 30. And of course we heard from Terri’s Mom who was very concerned. I guess it’s nice to know that if I’m the victim of one of these things I’ll be mourned. In addition there have been emails from others. All those concerns from parents and siblings were flattering too.

I think both Terri and I have a minor case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. We were both closer to the action than we would have liked and having fighter jets cruising at low altitudes over your house and workplace leave you feeling creepy and on edge. At some point I suspect the emotional impact is going to hit me and the tears will be flowing. I got as close today to war as I ever want to get.

Terri did manage to give blood but had to wait five hours. They were taking only O- blood since they are universal donors. When they get around to O+ I will be glad to donate.

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