September 20, 2012
As I write, it has been more than 11 years since Sept. 11, 2001.
To several generations of Americans, "Where were you on 9/11?" is the equivalent of, "Where were you when you heard Kennedy was shot?" a sudden loss of the great innocence that Americans, like no other people on earth, seem capable of recreating despite disaster, tragedy and war.
A more instructive comparison might be seeing the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on live television in 1986. It was a short, sharp shock. Once you'd heard the news, or seen the video footage, your involvement in the disaster was over. The emotional after-affects could last for days, but the disaster itself was discrete and decisive.
Not so with 9/11. We call it 9/11 because that was the day on which four airliners, symbols of American technological prowess, were turned against us, killing 3,000 people, including all 227 passengers on the four planes. But the confusion, chaos and uncertainty the attacks created lasted for weeks. No one knew if the attacks, or the deaths, were to be the last.
Anyone who was in New York City or Washington, DC, on 9/11 has connections to the attacks, direct and indirect. In middle America, the attacks were a television event like the Challenger disaster, only on a greater scale. To those in Washington and New York, they were immediate and inescapable. The day itself was a nightmare and the days that followed were dreams of only gradually lessening horror.
There were many people more directly affected by 9/11 than I but I lived in Washington in those days and split my work between Washington and Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were hardly remote to me. A week or so before 9/11, I was working in Midtown Manhattan. On the day itself, I was home in Washington.
If the details of the day are seared into memory, its timeline isn't. Never much of a morning television watcher, I missed the reports of the first plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., and of the second crashing into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. But those terrible events must have happened by the time I arrived at the Woodley Park metro station in northwest Washington for my brief commute downtown.
On arriving at the station, it became clear that something was dreadfully wrong although no one seemed to know exactly what. The Red Line was closed, and would-be travelers milled around the entrances to the infamously long escalators down to the subway platforms. An eerie feeling of what I can only describe as wrongness had settled on the crowd. Clearly I needed information.
I walked the block back to my apartment, turned on the television and was more confused than shocked by what I saw.
The flickering images could not have been real. Surely I had stumbled onto an odd and tasteless made-for-TV movie. That early in the story, the shockingly clear footage of the airliners dissolving into balls of fire inside the World Trade Center towers was not available but jittery, handheld footage of the smoking, but still standing, towers was.
By that time, American Airlines Flight 77, which took off from Washington Dulles International Airport at 8:20 a.m. with 53 passengers and six crew members on board, hit the Pentagon, across the river in Arlington. I realized that I would have to cover the story, which meant I had to get downtown to my office just off K Street, a mere three blocks from the White House. Either the metro was still not running, or it was only running outbound, to aid in the evacuation of downtown. I realized I would have to walk.
Downtown Washington is separated from its northwest residential neighborhoods by the great Taft Bridge, which spans Rock Creek Park. I found myself the sole pedestrian walking south across that span into a wall of thousands walking the other way. The federal government had released its workers. Many looked stunned. Improbably, a married couple I knew well, both attorneys for the Federal Trade Commission, were in the front rank of the walkers. They told me police were evacuating downtown and preventing people from entering.
That was, I think, an exaggeration. In reality, there were surprisingly few police or security forces of any sort downtown and the few present had bigger worries than one foolish reporter swimming upstream against the exodus of federal workers. I made it to my office without incident. From the moment I reached downtown, the huge plume of smoke and fire from the Pentagon was visible, and the reek of burning building and jet fuel was everywhere.
The rest of the day was a mixture of telephone work and walking inspections of federal Washington. The city was ghostly, unreal and deserted. Sirens screamed across the bridges as every emergency vehicle converged on the Pentagon, where 190 people had died.
I spent much of the day on the phone to New York when I could get a connection. The main telephone exchange serving downtown Manhattan had been knocked out, and most of the downtown mobile-phone antennae had been mounted on the Twin Towers.
The White House was long deserted by the president and his staff. I walked to its gates, expecting an overwhelming military presence. Instead, along Pennsylvania Avenue, the only unusual things were five parked horse trailers, four still holding mounts for district police. Two brown horses, a gray and a bay, looked at me, pensive but unconcerned, from windows in their trailers. The house of the leader of the free world was protected by police with 19th century transportation and small-caliber sidearms.
The National Press Building was one of the only active buildings downtown. I met my friend McHugh in the Reliable Source bar on the top floor, where we watched some of America's greatest buildings burn on the bar's bank of monitors.
For most of America, the story stops there, with the destruction of the World Trade Center and much of the Pentagon, and the channel changes to the overseas wars that followed. But in Washington and New York, the sense of unreality was not over, as was driven home the next day, when jeeps with mounted .50 caliber machine guns appeared on every street corner. The horses were gone, the barn door was closed.
For us, there followed only a week later an incident almost forgotten by the rest of the country: a series of anthrax-poisoned letters sent to media offices in New York and Florida, and to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont.
The anthrax attack killed five people and sickened 17 others, and probably generated more long-term fear in Washington than the Pentagon attack, because it was more inexplicable. The Senate office buildings were eventually decontaminated and their workers and regular visitors treated with the antibiotic Cipro, but the effects of the anthrax attacks did not end there.
Much of Washington, including my Connecticut Avenue apartment building, got its mail from the Brentwood mail-sorting facility that had processed the Daschle and Leahy letters. It was weeks before we got mail, and when we did, the mail carriers wore elbow-length latex gloves and surgical masks....continued on page 2