Cancelled meeting kept me out of the building

I was scheduled to be at a project kickoff in the Pentagon on the morning of 9/1. However, I was informed that the meeting was cancelled due to funding issues and a shifting of priorities by the new Bush administration.

Our team had been putting in long hours testing a new system for a defense client so we decided to come in a bit later than usual that morning.

I remember it being an unusually pleasant and clear morning for a September in the DC metro.

I lived just across I-66 from Dulles International in Centreville, VA at the time.

On the short drive in, I flipped the radio to a local radio station and caught a live broadcast of the Howard Stern Show. Ordinarily I would have passed by it on the dial, but this morning seemed different. Stern was known for some rather outlandish pranks at the time, but this seemed in poor taste for even a shock jock like him. He was speaking more quickly than usual and as i pulled into the parking deck, I overheard him say “a second plane has now been confirmed to have hit the World Trade Center”, and something about how terrorism could not be ruled out.

I recall switching off the car in the deck and thinking to myself, “Buddy, you’ve done some sick things in your day, but this is beyond the pale even for you.”

It wasn’t until I arrived in the lobby of the then TRW building and saw people crowded around the televisions in the lobby that i realized this was no joke.

My mind immediately went to the college friends who had recently moved to New York. I wondered if they were safe.

We crowded around the television as the news came in that the Pentagon had been struck and was on fire. Immediately I thought about the coworkers and my boss whom I knew were in the building at the Army’s accounting office.

From across the room, I saw a project manager with whom I had been working closely in tears. I approached her and asked if she was ok. She had just received a phone call from her parents in nearby West Virginia who were in tears themselves to learn their daughter was safe.

We stayed in the lobby for what seemed like an eternity watching the broadcast. I saw the smoke rising from the towers and noticed a puff of smoke coming out of the side of the building. I gasped and don’t recall if I said it aloud or thought, “My God, that building is going to collapse!”. It seemed as if on que the first tower began to implode.

Shortly thereafter, one of the partners came down to the lobby and suggested that we go upstairs and gather our things and head home immediately, as we did not know if or when another attack was imminent.

The drive home was surreal, and I don't remember much about it.

I arrived at my basement apartment to a surreal silence as, by that time, all domestic air traffic had been ordered to a halt. The most surreal thing of all was that for the next several days, my normally loud location was deathly quiet. Normally, the sound of planes taking off from Dulles and the honking of horns and traffic from the interstate through the woods created a constant hum of activity and noise. Now, I could not even hear the sound of birds in the woods that separated my complex from I-66.

Over the next few days, the silence became deafening and disturbing. It felt as if the world was ending. Phone lines stayed jammed for most of the next day or two as people frantically flooded the lines trying to get word out or in to tell loved ones they were safe.

I was two months away from my 23rd birthday. I had been a driven guy who wanted desperately to carve a name for myself. Now that seemed unimportant.

I would learn that all five of my teammates had made it safely out of the Pentagon by crawling down the hallway and past the fire doors into the courtyard just before the doors closed.

We lost 30 or so staff in the Army accounting office that day. The plane had hit the newly renovated wedge of the building in which their office had been located. Some time later, we learned that many of those who perished had likely died of smoke inhalation, and I had nightmares about the unknown coworkers who had been trapped in the building when the fire doors sealed off the wedge to prevent the flames from spreading.

Soon, I would report back to the building for a new project. We would have a new set of protocols including carrying gas masks wherever we went within the building. The Department feared that a chemical/biological attack was probable in the coming weeks.

Over time, we got used to the uneasiness of working so close to where so many had lost their lives.

I toughed it out in DC for 3 more years, but ultimately, decided to move home to my native North Carolina. I would never be the same. The drive to succeed and advance career was replaced by an understanding of how short and precious life is; and understanding uncommon for someone in their early 20s.

I still cannot sit with my back to a door. I have been a nervous flier ever since and opt to travel by car whenever feasible.

Loud noises startle me, and, for most of the next ten years I would have recurring nightmares involving plane crashes and other disasters that would wake me in a cold sweat.

As the years passed on, I recall growing angry with not only people who talked about conspiracy theories and who dared suggest 9/11 was “not real”, but also with those who seemed to seek attention by talking about the events as if they had been there. I grew enraged at the politicians and people who used the banner of that day to promote personal causes and who would use those events for self aggrandizement, political and financial gains. It felt disingenuous. It made me angry. I became cynical and distrusting of my fellow man. I still do not trust others easily, preferring to keep to small groups and avoiding crowds and gatherings. This had not been who I was before then.

I’ve come to accept these events and I’ve let go of much of the anger.

I still mourn the loss of innocence and life that 9/11 represented for me. I do not talk about it even with friends and family, and I usually take the day of the anniversary off and take my dog for a long hike in the woods in the mountains on that day, preferring to be alone with my thoughts to the company of others.

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