Sunday, July 03, 2005

Recalling 9/11

Here we are almost four years after 9/11 and I feel that if I don’t write this down I will lose it. This story pales in comparison to the accounts I have heard from New York and even those closer to the Pentagon attack, but it is my little piece of history.

September 11, 2001 started out as a very typical day for me. I had taken a job in the District, working in an office building just off of the Potomac River. As every other morning, I took the VRE to the L’Enfant station and walked the remaining three blocks to work. I was just getting the caffeine level in my blood up to a manageable point when someone mentioned that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. My first thought was ‘Cessna’. No big deal, it had happened before. I had been chatting with a friend of mine named Gary when another of our co-workers said we should check the internet. Both Gary and I were Navy veterans and we were under-whelmed by the stories we had heard so far. Besides, it was time to actually get some work done. Finally, we had heard enough talk. Gary remembered that there were some televisions on in a break room on the bottom floor of the building, so we, along with another worker named Ellie, hopped the next elevator on its way down to the basement.

The three of us walked into the break room and all of us stopped in our tracks as the images of the first attack were being shown live on CNN. Gary immediately mentioned that no Cessna had made that hole in the tower. I concurred. Ellie broke down and started sobbing. I must have stood staring at the television for about 30 minutes. It then occurred to me that I was supposed to be at work. Gary and I decided to go back to our office and see what was going on. Feeling helpless, we got back on the elevator with Ellie in tow. When we arrived back in cube land, the members of our group were congregating and talking about the attack. At the time, no one really understood what was happening, though Gary and I were both sure it was Muslim fanatics of some vein. Osama Bin Laden was a media figure, but the general public was not tuned in to the threat that he posed.

I had been out of the Navy for almost two years and was not as aware of what was happening in the realm of military matters as I had once been. I had learned a lot in my career as a sailor, but my concern had been the Asian/Pacific region and not so much terrorism as much as geo-political events and military movements. I need to relay one other relevant chapter of my past. I spent a year working in the Pentagon. I worked nights. During dead times, in the wee hours of the morning, I would occasionally take walks around the halls of the various rings. I am a history buff, and the place is like a museum. There are various artifacts from American wars all over the place. Things like Macarthur’s uniform and Vietnam era weaponry are encased on every corridor. You could spend hours in the halls just reading and looking at the various historical shrines. I once found a picture of Bill Clinton giving a speech to a group of sailors on the flight deck of the USS Independence in Yokosuka, Japan. I was able to identify my own head from the back, and I can recall how cool I thought it was that a picture of the back of my head was hanging in the hallowed halls of the Pentagon.

Back to 9/11. My office mates were still gathered together chatting about the activity in New York when someone walked in and mentioned that the Pentagon had been hit. Well, I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew I wasn’t going to sit around in that office and trade gossip. I headed back to the elevator, but this time I was alone and instead of down, I went up. There was a smoking area on the roof of the building, with a good view of the landscape in every direction. I got to the top and went to the river side of the building. The Pentagon was off in the distance, sort of to the right. A huge plume of smoke was rising from the far side of it. There was a group of people on the roof standing and watching it as though they were watching the Pandas at the National Zoo. I have often thought of how calm the general populace seemed to be that day. No one panicked, other than Ellie that is. As I stood watching the plume of smoke rise up to the clouds, I decided that I should check in with my family. I pulled out my cell phone and tried calling my house but no one answered. Then, feeling I just ought to check in with someone, I called my mother in South Carolina. No answer. I then called my aunt, who also lives in South Carolina and got through. I was describing the events of the morning and telling her that everything was fine when there was a sudden, very loud explosion from the direction of the Pentagon. I think my aunt heard it on the phone, but I have never asked. It just hasn’t occurred to me to do so. After we talked for a few minutes, the phone went dead. I tried to make a few other calls, but there was no service to be had. I decided, for no particular reason, to go to the other side of the roof.

As I came around the corner of the roof, the first thing I saw was that Ellie had found her way up and was standing in a corner crying and chain smoking. After just standing there for a while and watching people mill around on the ground below, I heard the sound of aircraft. Everyone was looking up, but I could tell by the sound that it was a fighter of some sort, which was comforting. I finally saw them, as several jets took to conducting CAPs around the Capitol area. From this side of the roof I was able to see the Mall and I had a front row view of the Capitol Building. Rather than going back inside like a smart person would do, I stood there for a long while just taking the whole scene in. Then the building security told us to leave.

Ellie and I went back to the office where only a few people remained. It was time to go. Rumor had it that the Metro was not running, which made perfect sense as it runs directly under the Pentagon. I had decided that it was time to get out of DC. Ellie accompanied me to the elevator and we stopped on the street below to think about our next move. She then decided that she would go to the Catholic Church on the corner nearby and wait things out there. I was going to find my way out of town and back home, one way or the other.

I started walking, at first not sure exactly where to go. The crowds of people on the street were standing around aimlessly. There was no way to get out of the district other than employing your own two feet. I went around the block and started walking towards the Smithsonian with a couple of business men from out of town. I asked one of them what they had heard of New York. It was at this point that I learned that one of the Towers had fallen. I can remember trying to envision it and just not being able to put that together in my mind. I kept walking towards the Mall and found myself stopped in the middle of it, staring at the Capitol Building again. At some point I had actually gone towards it, but I don’t remember doing so. A woman walked up to me and asked me if I needed help. I told her I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t exactly sure where to go. She suggested that I should walk towards Georgetown. She lived in the area with her husband and said that if I couldn’t get out that way, I could hold up at their townhouse until things returned to normal. We started off in the direction of the Key Bridge. She was heading north from that point and I decided that my best hope lay in reaching the bridge. I must have walked five or six miles that morning and by the time I reached Georgetown it was starting to get hot.

Some Georgetown students were heading in the same direction and we all were walking together by default. As we crossed the bridge and got to chatting about the attacks, the subject turned towards ‘who did it?’ and ‘what would happen next?’ By this time I had gone from stunned to angry. We had a nice view of the burning Pentagon as we walked across the bridge, and that combined with the news that the businessmen had given me had set me into a pattern of fury that would stay with me for months. I can remember mentioning to one of the students that I thought that the Taliban would be toast very soon. It was a memorable moment for me and has in my mind, been symbolic of the inherent weakness of some parts of the American populace. This kid, maybe 24 or 25 years old just starred at me like I was some sort of really nasty infection. It actually made me sort of laugh that a person could be walking across the Key Bridge, and watching the Pentagon burn, yet react with disgust to the prospect that the United States military might actually retaliate for an attack on the homeland. It had also entered my thoughts that Saddam might be history as a result of this event. At the time, a lot of the speculation was that this attack had been from Iraq, not Afghanistan. I was glad I didn’t mention that part of my thoughts.

I walked across the bridge and stopped at the MacDonald’s to grab some grub. I hate MacDonald’s, but I was starving by this point and would have eaten anything. I heard that the trains were running, so I crossed to the Roslyn Metro Station and finally jumped a train out of town. The problem was that I needed to go south and I was on the wrong line. I ended up going west instead. I can’t remember which stop I finally got off at, but I called my corporate office from a pay phone and a business associate drove out to pick me up and took me back to the company’s corporate headquarters in Tyson’s Corner. I was sweaty, hot, tired and furious. When we got to that office, I walked in and a group of the employees there were huddled around a television in a meeting room. This was the first time I saw the images of the second plane or the falling buildings. One of the vice presidents was walking in and out acting like all things were normal and worrying about billable hours. I wanted to kick him in the shin, so rather than lose my job, I just left. I found someone that lived in my area to the south of town and caught a ride home.

Several things have occurred to me in the years since that day. First and foremost is that if Flight 93 had not crashed in Pennsylvania, yours truly would probably have had a front row seat for the destruction of the US Capitol Building. Of the theories that I have heard, the one that makes the most sense to me is that the plane that hit the Pentagon was probably looking for the White House, and the Pentagon was a secondary target. Anyone who has been to DC knows that the White House is really hard to find, especially from the air, because of the way they have it back in the tree cover. The Capitol is not hard to find, and if that plane had been looking for it, it would have found it. So most likely, it was flight 93 that was inbound for the Capitol. I guess I owe the ‘Lets Roll’ crew a debt of gratitude, for I probably would have been either on the roof of an office building adjacent to the Capitol, or standing in the mall in front of the Capitol.

It also has crossed my mind that the picture of the back of my head with Bill Clinton was probably destroyed. I have never been back in the Pentagon since my night job there, but I believe that it was the Navy side that was hit. I could be wrong on that point as I’m not even sure if that was where the picture was.

I have always been a Republican, though I jumped on the Ross Perot train briefly back in the early 90s. The formative event in my life was the 79 embassy takeover in Iran and the subsequent Reagan years, so 911 did not really change my way of thinking. But the impact that it had on me could be characterized more as a hardening.

As I hear Bush get battered on a daily basis for doing things that no Democrat would have possibly considered yet I believe are right, it makes my stomach hurt. To hear members of my own government sympathize with terrorists, not because they actually sympathize with them, but because they want to damage the President, is simply depressing. These people are supposed to be protecting me, or more importantly, my family. Please, if you are a partisan Democrat looking for a way to bring down George Bush, consider what you are doing. I can sympathize to some extent, as I endured eight years of Bill Clinton. To add insult to injury, I actually had to participate in one military adventure that I did not agree with as my time at the Pentagon was spent in support of the Kosovo Operation. But I would never, ever, turn my back on this country when it was at war. I never once found myself hoping our military failed. I never had any sympathy for the Serb Army that we blew into oblivion, though I believed the Albanians we were supporting were just as bad.

So if you have taken the time to read this far, you perhaps know the source of my energy in regards to issues surrounding the War on Terror and the War in Iraq. Democrats lost power for one reason and one reason only, their perceived weakness in regards to security and military matters. Rather than align their own position with the needs of the country, they have taken on a strategy of destroying the credibility of those on the side of strength and protection, the Republicans. They are also fond of beating up on Rumsfeld. Please remember that Rumsfeld was in the building fighting fires and attempting to save people on September 11. So when someone asks me if I find it un-patriotic to speak against the president, I say yes, when it is simply a means to ones own power. Sadly, it is also very destructive to the soul and backbone of America.

I will leave this post up top through the remainder of the holiday. I would love to hear your own accounts of 9/11 if you have one. Enjoy Independence Day.