My Journey along the Potomac to get Home
One of the eerie things about September 11th, 2001 for me was driving along the Potomac early in the morning to my job in Rosslyn. The sun was just coming up over the river and it was particularly striking. I turned on NPR who said the date and for some reason, I kept thinking, what is this date?
It seems familiar…and I couldn’t stop thinking about it as I drove along, trying to figure out if it was a ½ birthday for my young daughter or Veteran’s Day, perhaps? Why does September 11th sound so familiar?
My husband, Rich and my daughter, Maya and I lived in Old Town Alexandria. I mostly worked from home part time as a software engineer, but Tuesday was my day to go into the office in Rosslyn and work while Rich stayed home. We worked in the same office and always messaged through the very early app by AOL called AIM.
He messaged me about the first plane in New York. He saw the second plane hit on TV and quickly messaged me again. Just then, someone rushed to my office with a panicky look and said we were all gathering in the conference room to watch the events.
As we sat around the table silently watching the trauma of New York, one of my colleagues, said startled, “Did you just hear that? It sounded like a plane!” We all glanced around and no one else seemed to have heard it.
But we were in the USA Today building which was tallest building at the time just across the river from downtown DC.
Then, a few minutes later, the local TV news cut in and said “There is a plume over the Pentagon!”. We all stood up, what??
Our security came in and said, we were evacuating the building. I was amazed at just how calm everyone was. My colleague had the presence of mind to stop me and say “How are you going to get home?” He was right, I hadn’t thought it through. Between the office and my house, was the Potomac River on the left and the huge Pentagon complex on the right.
Minutes later, I sat in the underground parking lot. Everyone had poured out of buildings and traffic was at a standstill outside, so we were all stuck underground. I parked my car again, left everything in it, and walked out.
I went down to the Potomac. Rich and I often commuted on the bike trail that hugs the river and I knew it very well, it was 7 miles to home. I was grateful I was wearing my old comfy oxford shoes, that look nice enough in the office, but capable of such a walk.
The thing I remember most from my vantage point on the shore of the river, were all the sirens, going everywhere along both sides and at the same time a hushed quiet blanketed the city. This was an era of flip phones only and sparsely owned. No one could make a phone call, the early and fragile mobile network was down. As we all passed each other on foot , we exchanged any information we had. We were all waiting for that 4th plane and trying to figure out if it was still coming and were trying our best to reassure each other.
As I neared the Pentagon, I could smell the sickening jet fuel. I came upon a group of people very near National Airport. The path was blocked, they told me.
That is when things become surreal. We were pretty close to the Pentagon building, the crash site was on the opposite side to where we were and water inlets separated us from the complex. There were many military people from the Pentagon (some highly decorated) that had been evacuated and were trying to get to Crystal City where they were staying.
All of us stuck out in an open grassy area, looking at the skies waiting for that fourth plane to appear and surrounded by all of Washington’s famous buildings and monuments. We knew this was not a place to be and everyone was scared, but calm. Then, a very large military helicopter buzzed over us.
Helicopters are very common over my neighborhood and the river, but not like this one, dark and brooding, ready to protect our fair city.
We all started to talk, offering suggestions on just how to get out. We were flanked by the river to our left, the closed trail along the airport in front of us, miles of parkland behind us, and the Pentagon to the right, with the smoke occasionally wafting over us.
Someone suddenly said “Hey! George Washington Parkway is empty!” He was right, we went up the hill and there was surprisingly only light traffic.
I flagged a car down. A nice gentleman with a southern accent picked me up in his Volvo and told me he thought we were all trying to get to the Pentagon to see it. To which I replied, “OH no! We are trying to get the heck out of here, not sure if that 4th plane is coming”. He quickly dropped me off at home just a few miles further.
During the whole experience, all I could think of was that I wanted to get back to Rich and Maya. I had stayed so calm during the whole journey home, but when I saw my front door, I finally started crying tears of relief and the whole experience washed over me.
There, my husband told me he saw on the news the 4th plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. I now know those brave souls on Flight 93 made the ultimate sacrifice and saved our city. I will be forever grateful to them.
didn’t watch any news, but rather sat out on our stoop with our other neighbors. We held vigil with our one neighbor who was a high official at the Pentagon and was waiting to hear about her staff. Amazingly, no one was lost.
Twenty years later, I still have the shoes that brought me home on that day that I will never forget.