Recollections of 9/11 and the Aftermath
In 2001, I was thirty seven years old at the time and was living in Fairfax County, Virginia, where I worked as a federal employee for the Defense Logistics Agency at Fort Belvoir. I was a native of northern Virginia, having lived there my whole life at the time.
Each year, I would travel by air to North Las Vegas, Nevada and visit my mother. That year, I made the decision to fly out late in the first week of September from Reagan National Airport. I remember on the evening of September 10, we were having super at a Las Vegas restaurant, when I got to talking about current events. Being more up on the news then my mom, I often found myself explaining things to her she did not know about. I don’t remember how it came up, but I began telling her about the terrorist group Al Qaeda and the various attacks they had carried out in the last few years.
The following morning, September 11, 2001, we were both asleep when sometime after 6:00 AM the telephone started to ring and although it woke both us up, we made no attempt to answer it. I recall feeling uneasy at the time; given my sentiment to this day that early morning and late night phone calls always meant bad news. I started to drift back off to sleep when the phone started to ring again and my mother picked it up in her bedroom. About two minutes passed, when I was fully awakened by my mother running into the living room shouting terrorists had hit New York City. I quickly joined her; the television turned on and tuned to CNN. I found out the phone call had been from her brother, who also lived in the area, telling her of the attacks.
The rest of the day is something of a blur, as we spent it in front of the television watching non-stop coverage of the attacks, including the collapse of the twin towers, the attack on the Pentagon, and the crash of Flight 93.
It seemed like nearly every cable channel was carrying the coverage, even those that did not do news. I do remember at some point turning to my mom and saying, you know that group I was talking about, I bet they were behind this. When the towers fell, I could not help but keep replaying in my mind a 1990 visit to the World Trade Center, during which I went up to the observation deck. I just could not believe that it was all gone and so many were dead.
We were both worried about people we knew. We had family in northern New Jersey who sometimes went into New York City. My mother tried to reach them, but the phone lines were jammed. Finally, that evening, my mom finally got through to her sister, who told her about seeing the towers burning and one of them collapse from New Jersey. Thankfully, no one we knew was hurt.
I was also deeply worried about the safety of my colleagues. It was not uncommon for some of them to attend meetings at or run errands to the Pentagon. I tried calling my office to no avail. On September 12, I finally got through to a coworker who told me everyone was safe. They initially evacuated everyone into the basement of our building and had them shelter in the fear the structure would be hit. Later, they shut down Fort Belvoir and sent everyone home. I would later learn one of the employees in our building lost someone at the Pentagon.
In the days following 9/11, there are some memories which stand out. On September 13, I remember walking around downtown Las Vegas and seeing a city normally vibrant and active, quiet and subdued to some extent by the tragedy.
Another is trying to get back home. I had been scheduled to travel back to Washington, DC the following week and found my flight had been cancelled and the airport I’d flown out of was closed indefinitely because of its proximity to the city. In order to reschedule, people were required to go to the airport and do it in person. I recall going to McCarron Airport in Las Vegas with my mom later that week to do so. It was early evening and the airport looked like a fortified ghost town. Every light was turned on, barricades and guards were everywhere, and it had a surreal feeling about it.
I managed to get another flight which would take me to Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, one day later than I had originally planned. The flight back was very quiet and subdued. When we arrived, we were met on the field by a motorized carrier instead of going to the gate, who took us to the terminal, something I had never experienced before. I was finally glad to get home that night, but it seemed as if a hundred years had passed since I had left.
Looking back through the lens of twenty years, how did 9/11 affect me?
I view it in the perspective of being one of several traumatic events we collectively experienced in the Washington DC area over a fourteen month period, which sadly seemed to blend together. We had the 9/11 attack, followed by the anthrax attacks in September/October 2001. An arsonist was running around setting fires and then in October 2002, we were terrorized by the sniper attacks.
But on an emotional level, I now felt a sense of deep unease I had never had before. I was shocked but not surprised by 9/11 as I had always had a feeling in the back of my mind that the time would come when the oceans would no longer protect our country from those who wanted to hurt us. But to think about it in the abstract is one thing, it is another when reality comes knocking in your neighborhood.
Northern Virginia was my community, my home. I lived fifteen miles from the Pentagon. Over the years my job had taken me there on occasion and I had commuted through the transportation hub located on site. My father, a World War II/Korean War veteran, is buried in Arlington Cemetery in a spot that looks on the section of the building that was hit. I learned later the hijackers of the plane which hit the Pentagon had used the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Springfield Mall, a place I frequented, to get their phony drivers licenses. I was chilled by the realization of how terror had so easily strolled into our area and was so very angry and upset at how my government had allowed it.
On another level, it affected me as a federal worker. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, it was hard to come to grips that just because you chose to work for the federal government you had a target on your back. I had learned to deal with it over time, but 9/11 and the anthrax attacks helped to resurrect that worry. That once more innocent workers were being targeted for the sin of choosing to work for the government.
Physically, life changed around me in big and small ways. You constantly worried about the various security threat levels. We watched around the world as new terror attacks occurred and wars broke out and you wondered when the next shoe was going to drop. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I remember being so worried, I took the day off and stayed home.
On the base where I worked, buses had to be rerouted because roads were now closed for security. In time this would lead to some buses being cancelled altogether causing problems which would last for years. Increased security was now everywhere and we had to learn to navigate these new layers. In time, emplacements, first sandbags then bunkers, appeared outside the gates of the DLA building with heavily armed soldiers and security manning them.
Flying became a nightmare of long lines and screening, which only got worse over time with every new terror attempt. National Airport would remain closed for four years, before being reopened. You got accustomed to watching flight attendants barricading the front of the plane with service carts whenever the cockpit door was opened or being informed you could not get out of your seats thirty minutes before landing in Washington, DC for safety reasons.
For my father’s generation, everything changed when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese. It was the same for me when the terrorists attacked us on September 11, 2001. The old world went away in a cloud of fire and dust and was replaced by a new one which we shakily entered, like a person stumbling around a dark room looking for a light switch. In time, we learned to live in this new world, as painful, sad, and scary as it was. In retrospect, 9/11 seemed to mark the beginning of a twenty year period where we, as a country, seemed to have lurched from one terrible crisis or event to another.
Every year, I take the time to stop and remember what happened on this day.
I still feel as emotionally drained as I did then when watching videos of or about 9/11 today, filled with great sadness, breaking down in tears at times.
But as long as I live, I will never forget where I was that terrible day and what happened.
Thank you for the chance to share my memories.