So many images from that day seven years ago are burned into our collective American consciousness: the plane hitting the second tower. Bodies tumbling through the air like ragdolls. Blackened firemen shouting over the din. Bankers, brokers, deli owners and commuters, fleeing downtown Manhattan.
Let me tell you what was going on in Washington, DC, that morning.
In September 2001, I was working for a small non-profit in downtown DC, in an office building in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, less than a mile from the White House. That morning, I took the Metro to the Farragut West station and walked the five or so blocks to my office, arriving around 7:30 a.m. As I always did – and still do – I turned the television in my office on to the morning news.
It was a slow news day – the biggest news in DC was Michael Jordan’s move to the Washington Wizards – and the talking heads so chattered on about nothing that morning that eventually – at about 8:40 or so – I changed the channel to C-SPAN.
Because I’d changed the channel, I completely missed CNN’s first report – at 8:49 a.m. — on Flight 11 hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. I still had C-SPAN on when Flight 175 hit the south tower at 9:03 a.m., and remained unaware that something monumental was going on until I received an e-mail from a colleague in another organization, urging us to turn our televisions to CNN regarding a “probable terrorist attack.” I turned my television over to CNN, and four coworkers and I stood in my office, watching – just as you did – as the drama unfolded in New York City.
And then, at 9:37 a.m., Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
Our first notice that something had happened was a crawl on CNN, reporting that a helicopter had crashed on takeoff at the Pentagon — a report that was almost immediately modified to report a “huge fire.” I turned to look out my window – a south-facing view mostly of the building across the street, but in one of those holy shit moments I’ll never forget, I could see the sky was already filled with black and orange smoke from the Pentagon fire, about four miles south of my office.
There were a number of confused phone calls from family, friends, and colleagues outside of the area who had learned of the attacks and were calling to see if we were okay, and urging us to get out of the city. That was easier said than done – I had taken the Metro in to work, but with a possible terrorist attack underway in the nation’s capital, I was nervous about getting on an underground train, remembering with a shudder the sarin attacks in a Japanese subway.
The complete lack of information, while understandable, made me angry. One report claimed a car bomb had gone off at the State Department. (Given that we were only a few blocks away and had heard nothing, that seemed doubtful.) Another said the National Mall was on fire (an error based on the huge amount of smoke coming from the Pentagon). Reports were coming in that the Capitol was being evacuated (true), that a plane had been spotted flying in over the White House and was being shot down (untrue), and that martial law had been declared in the District (patently false).
With the city on the verge of shutting down – and with no information coming in that we felt we could rely on – we had no idea what to do. Finally, the five of us decided we would all climb into one car, head southwest across the Potomac River into the Fairfax region of Northern Virginia, and then wing it. At the very least – or so our logic went – we would be out of the city.
It was a beautiful day in Washington that morning – clear, crisp, and slightly warm — but as we pulled out of the garage in our building, it was almost eerily quiet. Cars moved slowly and deferentially down 19th Street toward the National Mall, where every driver in western DC obviously planned on taking the Eisenhower Bridge across the Potomac into Rosslyn, Virginia. All incoming traffic had been stopped, so all lanes were open leaving the city.
We crawled along — again quietly and respectfully, as if we all appreciated that we were all doing the same thing, for the same reason. With the weather so warm, nearly every car had its windows open, and the radios were blaring as we all tried to get some sort of news. In our car, we listened to Howard Stern (and say what you will, he reported courageously and magnificently that day, trying hard to filter out unverified information, and taking calls from New Yorkers providing harrowing, sometimes hysterical, eyewitness accounts) and rotated down the dial toward local coverage.
We were sitting on Constitution Avenue, stuck in traffic as we moved toward the bridge. Every car had its radio playing, and as we all waited to take our turns moving onto the bridge, people leaving town on foot would stop and lean in through the windows of stopped cars to listen to the radio. When the cars moved ahead, pedestrians would resume walking, until traffic stopped again, at which point the walkers would all poke their heads in through the window of another car, leaning on the doorframe like we were all old friends sharing news and gossip. Which, that day, we were.
As we moved onto the Eisenhower Bridge — with pedestrians continuing to stick their heads in rolled-down windows — a minivan, already crammed full of people, pulled across three lanes of stopped traffic, threw open its doors, and waved inside a young mother pushing a stroller.
That’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Humanity, I love you.
Seven years later, sometimes in spite of it all, I still do.