Why did the Smithsonian collect a handwritten note from September 11, 2001?

In moments of crisis, our first thoughts are usually to get in contact with the people we love. September 11, 2001, was a day when many people wanted to know that their loved ones were safe. At 9:37 a.m. the Pentagon was attacked by terrorists who crashed an airplane into the western side of the building. This was one of four airplanes that were hijacked that morning; two attacked New York City and a third crashed in Pennsylvania. Many people tried using the mobile phones that existed then, but few were successful. One couple at the Pentagon relied on pen and paper as the means to communicate with each other.

Standard circular clock with a white face and black numbers and hands.

Cedric Yeh, curator of our national September 11 collection, recently collected a handwritten letter from Daria "Chip" Gaillard to her husband, Franklin, both of whom worked at the Pentagon. A handwritten note might seem outdated to us in the digital era, but on that day a note provided peace of mind in the midst of chaos for this couple.

A handwritten note hastily scrawled on a large rectangular yellow Post-it

Frank and Chip were both members of the Air Force and worked at the Pentagon. They worked in different parts of the building from where the attack occurred. Regardless, they evacuated and had a previous agreement that they would meet at their car in the parking lot if there were any emergency. Daria was the first to arrive at the car and wrote a note to Franklin saying "Frank—Sweetie I am okay. I'm w/ my office over by the Lyndon B. Johnson Memorial Sign. I'll stay there till you come. Love lots & lots, Chip."

Frank found the note and was able to locate his wife in the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon. Not everyone was as fortunate as the Gaillards on September 11. Once the couple knew they were safe, they turned their attention and efforts to others. The child daycare center of the Pentagon was evacuating in the same area, and the Gaillards helped move the children to safety. Their focus on the safety of the children was one of many unselfish acts in the aftermath of the attacks that morning.

What makes this story so interesting is the handwritten note. Today in our digital culture we have a variety of ways to let people know that we are safe. Text messages, voicemail, and different forms of social media can be used to get the information out to loved ones. Facebook's Safety Check feature, for example, is a quick way for people who are located in a disaster area to tell their friends and family that they are safe. These all require a working cell phone network in order to be successful.

A battered-looking granite-colored flip-up cell phone laying open

In 2001 when these attacks happened, the cellular network was still growing and was not as robust as it is today. The people who had cellphones had trouble getting calls through, and the only other type of mobile communication were beepers, which have their own limitations.

An old rectangular black beeper that shows signs of damage and dirt

In the case of Franklin and Daria Gaillard, going low-tech served them well. In a moment when technology may have failed them, pen and paper did not. This letter is just one of the many objects that the museum has collected since 2001. To learn more about the objects collected, visit our online exhibition September 11th: Bearing Witness to History.

The museum will commemorate the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001, with screenings of Stories in Fragments, in our Warner Brothers Theater. Check our calendar for screening times.

Matthew Wong completed an internship in the Division of Armed Forces History and is currently a master's candidate at American University.