Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On a Clear Day

Except for the blindingly bright blue sky, it was another day at the office, just like any other.

As I did hundreds of times before, I boarded a Metrorail train early Tuesday morning and rode into Washington with thousands of fellow commuters. As I did hundreds of times before, I arrived at my office in a building on the National Mall, checked my phone messages, checked my e-mail, and turned on the television to check the latest news on CNN.

There was nothing extraordinary. Another day at the office, just like any other.

I had an 8:30 meeting scheduled with a member of my staff to talk about financial issues we had to address as we were approaching the close of our fiscal year. We were exchanging pleasantries and getting to the issues in the discussion when I turned to glance at my television to see an unexpected sight. There on the screen was hole shaped like the cross-section image of an aircraft embedded in the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Meeting over. The two of us sat there looking at the image of the smoke billowing from the gaping wound in the tower, and I thought to myself, “what was a commuter plane doing so close to a skyscraper in Manhattan?” At the moment, the news reports said nothing about a commercial aircraft, let alone any mention of hijackings or terrorism. We were just left to watch events unfold, just like millions of others turning on their televisions.

Barely 10 minutes later, as we were watching the feed looking out on the burning tower, we gazed in disbelief as another aircraft circled into the South Tower at more than 500 miles per hour, a fireball rising from the hole torn in the skyscraper. There was little left to the imagination; we were under attack.

What followed in our small corner of the world was confusion. We did not have procedures to follow in such an event. Who could conceive of it? And then another explosion, this one much closer. Strong enough to rattle my windows and physically move me in my chair across the floor and into my desk. I walked to the office next door to assure myself I wasn’t imagining things and asked my colleagues if they heard or felt that. Assured that they had, I said “I don’t know what it was, but it will be on CNN in five minutes.”

It was. The feed broke to the Pentagon where it was said an aircraft flew into the west face of the building. One could not help thinking that there was more to come.

The lack of information, both in the news reports coming over the media and circulating within our offices, left a void into which people started letting their imaginations and rumors run free. An explosion at the State Department. Another attack just minutes away. The National Mall is on fire (seriously!). Do we go home? Do we stay in place?

By this time a crowd assembled in my office, it being the only one with a working television. Few words were being spoken, the images on the screen doing all the speaking that needed to be done. And who could wrap their minds around all of it, anyway, at least enough to be able to explain what was going on?

Nothing could prepare us for what was about to unfold…the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, looking like a mushroom cloud settling into the streets of south Manhattan below. I remembered sitting on a train years ago as a youngster on my way through New York and seeing the towers rising under construction, the lights in the scaffolding in the upper floors shining brightly. In seconds, one tower was reduced to rubble and jagged shards of walls.

Not long after, the other tower met the same fate. We watched the communications tower at the top of the building settle into a cloud of dust as the upper floors gave way, another mushroom cloud descending into the streets. The images were almost too much to comprehend, and details began to emerge, if only in a trickle. Likely a terrorist attack and we all became familiar with the term, “al Qaeda.” More planes unaccounted for; then, CNN reported a crash of a “747” in Pennsylvania. Not sure if it was related to these attacks or not. It would not be until much later that the story of a Boeing 767 crashing into a reclaimed strip mine near Shanksville in western Pennsylvania – United 93 – would be made known.

We then got the word that we were released. People were fearful for how they were going to get out of the city. Traffic would surely be horrendous. Was Metrorail even safe? We just did not have any guide for what to do or how to behave.

The stubborn Irishman in me said not to go anywhere, to wait until the crowds dissipated. I stayed in my office watching the reports continue to flood in. Time seemed to have been suspended. It was all becoming something of a blur. Deciding it was time to go I looked at the clock. It was about 1:00 p.m., more than four hours since I was sitting in a room with a member of my staff to talk about things that just did not seem nearly as important anymore.

I closed and locked my office, the lights in the hall already out and not a soul in evidence. I walked to the door of our building, not knowing what I would find on the other side. I opened it to streets that were empty, sidewalks without a tourist or a commuter walking upon them. Only the traffic lights changing broke the stillness of the image, but the constant wailing of sirens reminded me that this was different.

It was now a day unlike any other I had ever known.

Remember those who were lost that day, and remember the heroes on the ground, in the towers, and in the air who tried to save others and defend our country.

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