Outside the Gates to History
On 9/11 I was working for the National Park Service at President’s Park as a seasonal Park Ranger. We were the people who handed out tickets at our Visitor Center in the Department of Commerce Building to tour the White House, answered questions from the history of the presidency to where’s the bathroom, and admitted tourists to the White House for their tours. I wrote the following the next day as an email to send to our friends and relations.
If I had thought at my job at the White House “you never know what is going to happen” before, boy do I think so now...
Yesterday was hectic, and if you don't have time to read my novel - I understand, but maybe you'll be interested in what was going on from my (little) point of view.
We got back from a 10 day vacation in London late Monday night, flying out of Boston and arriving in Washington at 12:05 am. Our first plane was cancelled, and the second after we switched airlines was delayed. When we hoped we wouldn't be stuck overnight, we didn't realize how much that was so. I made it to work the next day after 3 hours of sleep. Tuesday, I wound up being stationed in the information pavilion on the Ellipse, just south of the White House. One of our maintenance men told me about the planes hitting the Trade Center in New York, and just to make sure he wasn't joking I called Will to ask him to check the internet to see if it was on there. All the news sites were responding too slow to load any of them up, but based on that, it seemed true. At that point they started to evacuate the White House, but since I was talking to a visitor, I heard the radio transmission but didn't understand that that was what it was all about, so I didn't yet know that was what was going on. Then, after a visitor asked me a question, he says "what is that fire on the mall?" After looking to see what he was talking about, I had to say I didn't know. (It was the fire across the river at the Pentagon, just after it had happened.)
I then got a call from my supervisor to shut down the booth and return to the visitor Center. It's across the street from the ellipse, in the Department of Commerce building. He said that he would tell me why when I got there. I ran into him at the door, and he and I went back towards the White House to help with evacuating the tourists out of the park area that borders the White House. It was an orderly evacuation, but ironically there was only a two foot space to get them out of the park because it was surrounded by jersey barriers to combat truck bombs. Once people stopped taking pictures of the police and realized how serious this was they evacuated pretty fast. The Secret Service ended up clearing the entire ellipse, Sherman Park, Freedom Plaza, basically much of the area around the White House.
Besides knowing the Pentagon had been hit, there were also rumors of other strikes in the city. We heard at various points that the State Department had been hit by a car bomb, and that they had also hit the Lincoln Memorial.
definitely kept in mind that these were all rumors, because there I was and there was nowhere else to go. t would definitely do no good to panic, when we were in no apparent danger. Admittedly, t was a little scary when we heard a loud boom coming from the direction just north of the Capital building. We were sure they had hit something else. Someone thought they had heard that it was a gas tank at the Pentagon exploding. Later we figured it was a sonic boom from a military jet.
By the time all the park's employees were accounted for and gathered at the visitor center after helping evacuate tourists from the area, the Secret Service had closed down the roads around the White House, including the area where the park's employees park. We were ordered to stay in the Department of Commerce until being allowed to leave. We had a TV, so we saw the Trade Center towers fall from there. I kept my ranger hat on and sat at a desk; the summer hat is hard, and I thought I could dive under a desk. It seemed silly at the time to think that way, but they I thought that if something happened I wouldn't be sorry then. It seemed like we were there hours, but was only about one. At 11 am, our Park manager finally was able to convince the Secret Service to allow us to leave, but we had to do it fast and as a group. Anyone who had taken the subway got a ride with others going the same way, because no one was sure if it was running. I got a ride from someone else going north. The closed streets were deserted, and they were being patrolled by Secret Service and other police with very big guns. It was all very surreal and like nothing we ever expected to see.
we left and hit the roads, the traffic moved at a crawl. What normally took 50 minutes took 3 hours. Every government office was evacuating all at once. It was super rush hour, instead of over many hours, everyone was leaving at one time. Will knew where I was because after many tries, I got a call out to him when we had been kept in the Visitor Center, and then again from the car, but that too took many, many tries just to get through once.
Will was also calling family and letting them know the status here. On the drive out, I did see a military jet zoom over, and Will saw a number of them later that day too and into the evening.
And today, it's business as usual. No visitors expected us to be open but were and will continue to be. I support that because even though we're working next to a target (which we always knew) to stop what we do means we are afraid and that's what terrorists want. As each visitor to the White House today left, White House staff passed out small American flags, and it was nice to see.
We did find out today that the Secret Service knew that one of the planes was heading for the White House, and as they were evacuating, they did think it was all over for them. But during the evacuation, it was amazing to see them do exactly as they are trained in an emergency. Normally our view of them is looking a bit bored, watching visitors enter the house.
PS. You should know that normally, I would not be in any danger - We don't work in the house, only with visitors at and around the house. We also have the Secret Service and the Park Police between us and anything dangerous - it's their job to deal with the bad stuff. And if it had hit the house yesterday, I still would have been (probably) far enough away that I feel I would have been out of danger.
Twenty Years later, I feel a little possessive of Washington, DC. My teenager wanted to protest climate inaction a few years ago, to "Shut down the city". I've seen the city shut down, and don't want to see that again even for the best of reasons. I have a visceral reaction to TV shows and movies like "Designated Survivor" and "Olympus has Fallen" where a plot point is the destruction of our symbols of freedom. And the January 6 insurrection- that was terrorism, no question.