At the National Museum of American History on September 11

At work, at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Called to an all-staff meeting, with huddled admin making a guarded announcement: “Go back to your offices and await further developments.” I and many others weren’t in the practice of keeping an online news report on our desktops, yet word still spread rapidly throughout the building—planes had struck NYC’s World Trade Center. Now, the Pentagon. Perhaps the Capitol? A co-worker packed up her belongings and said, I’m outta here—and I realized, yes, I didn’t need to wait in a windowless basement office for official word. I left, too.

The catch-in-my-throat as I saw the babies and nursery school-age children aligned on the museum’s sidewalk, awaiting their parents, who were already trapped in the jammed traffic. The stalwart school staff, staying calm.

Like so many, many others, I was struck by the incredible blue skies and soft breezes.

I walked up 15th Street, hearing the sirens, seeing the smoke billowing out from the Pentagon, listening to reports from radios in cars, now also stuck in the northbound gridlock. Sharing that information to others in the crowd.

We walked not cheek to jowl as per usual on crowded city sidewalks, but five or six feet apart, in the streets, looking sideways at our mostly silent fellow walkers, suddenly suspicious.

Our uptown flow was stopped as young, earnest military police and first responders from Walter Reed Hospital came careening down 15th Street. A young female Marine jumped out of the first truck, stopped pedestrians and cross-town traffic, and urged the convoy through.

I’d left phone messages to my family: husband, daughter in Virginia, son in Colorado that I was walking uptown to a friend’s office for a ride home.

Her office didn’t close until 2 pm, then she and I rode out of the city, to our Gaithersburg, Maryland, homes, through now silent streets under silent skies, mostly quiet ourselves.

Turning on the televisions and watch the replays that evening. Again and again until we couldn’t anymore.

The relief later that day, when my family and friends known in danger zones had checked in, balanced by the unknown horrors still unfolding.

The many calls and messages from friends and family across the country knowing where I worked; sharing the horror and giving numbed assurances that I was okay—but not really.

And the anger at those who didn’t initially grasp my horror of being in a building downtown, two blocks from the White House, aligned with the Capitol, across the river from the Pentagon, the ‘what-ifs’ that I’d remember forever.

The encouragement from my son, in college but already primed for a military career, who insisted, “Yes, you have to go back to work, otherwise, they’ve won.”

So, I did, but I’ve kept a breaking-news alert app on my phone ever since.

I look at bollards and enhanced security measures and increased military presences, and know that there was a Before, and it’s now, always the After.

Story Campaign: 
Stories of September 11