A Personal View from Washington, DC
On that September 11, I was working on the eleventh floor of an office building in downtown Washington, DC. The office was four short blocks up 16th Street from the White House and across the street from the Washington Post newspaper offices, both of which could easily have been targets.
At 8:29, I had been at work over an hour. Shortly after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the admin assistant heard on the radio about the attack, and she ran down the hall letting us all know. Somewhat unbelieving, we left our desks and went to the top floor of the building where there was a television and watched the tower burn and then saw the second plane hit the other tower. It was hard to believe my eyes and the whole thing felt, quite frankly, surreal. It was difficult to breathe.
Because of our location so near the White House, we were very unsure that we were safe ourselves. And then there was a huge thump sound that seemed very nearby. I rushed to the corner window and could see the cloud of smoke that appeared to be directly behind the White House and turned out to be the crash at the Pentagon.
We evacuated the building and stood on the street for quite a period of time. One young woman came up to me, was shaking, and wanted a hug. I hugged her and told her that this was as bad as it would ever get. I have rethought that statement with the onset of the COVID pandemic.
I was the most senior staff person in the office and with the entire city seeming to panic, I told everyone to try to go home. No one was actually capable of working right then and who knew if we were safe in that location?
The streets were already completely impassable because of everyone trying to get away to -- well, somewhere else. Cell phone service was impossible as everyone was trying to call someone else. I couldn't get to my car because it was in the basement of the building and there was no way to drive it in the city-wide traffic jam.
I usually could have taken the DC metro subway home, but the word on the street was that it was non-operational. My only option was to walk to our home in northern Virginia across the Potomac from Georgetown. It was a surprisingly hot day and I really didn't know where pedestrians could walk on that route, but I did reach home after a four-plus mile trek in uncomfortable office shoes.
I never could reach my husband by phone and I didn't know if he was OK until he finally showed up at home at about the normal time. News reports were entirely chaotic and full of rumors. He had opted to remain at the office for the full day and let the area clear some.
His office was in Crystal City (between the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport) and he could see part of the Pentagon from his desk. He knew the pattern of shadows cast by planes flying into and out of National, and then one unusual shadow passed over going in an unexpected direction. He looked out and the hijacked plane hit the Pentagon and he saw the mushroom of debris and felt the shock of the impact.
A very good friend worked for the Department of Defense in family support and was put in charge of the entire process of establishing and operating the support structure for the families of those personnel who were killed or hurt at the Pentagon. It was a many month undertaking.
I don't know quite how, but we all were back to work the next day although we all were clearly in mourning. I still have difficulty breathing when thinking of it.