Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering 9/11

Each of us has memories of that terrible day eight years ago. These are some of mine.

That Tuesday morning I was at home in my apartment in Foggy Bottom, three blocks west of the White House. I had planned to go jogging that morning near the Pentagon on the Mt. Vernon Trail, but as usual, I was running late. My first indication that something was wrong was that my Internet connection had suddenly become glacially slow. A few minutes later . . .
I saw a headline on a news website indicating that a horrible accident had occurred, and I turned on the TV. (It's curious how in times of crisis we must often revert to older technology.)

By then, both towers were burning, and reports were coming in of smoke on the National Mall and possible attacks on the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Pentagon. I briefly considered the possibility that an attack on the White House could endanger me, but concluded that the three blocks of buildings between my apartment and the White House would probably shield me from any conventional explosion. Even so, I closed the blinds on my windows (all facing east toward the White House) to help deflect broken glass if the windows were blown in. I later opened the blinds, realizing they would be useless against any force strong enough to shatter a window.

After a few minutes of taking in the chaos on TV, I stepped outside to see for myself what was happening. I walked a few blocks east to the Potomac River, thinking I'd have a better view there and because walking west toward the White House seemed particularly unwise at the time. From the shore of the Potomac, I was stunned to see huge clouds of black smoke drifting east across the river from the Pentagon. This was war.

For some reason, I didn't stay long and returned to my apartment. On the way I briefly talked with another college student, who told me that one the towers had fallen. My disbelief turned to horror when I arrived home and learned from the TV that both towers had fallen.

After that my memories are less vivid. Sometime later that day, I received an e-mail from my brother calmly inquiring if I was still alive—or some such phrasing. (My Internet connection was still slow, but still "functional." The phone line was constantly busy.) I replied promptly and asked him to tell our parents and sister that I was still among the living and in no danger (although probably not in those exact words) and that I'd call them later when I could get through. Through the rest of day I remember exchanging e-mails with several close friends to confirm that they were unharmed and to reassure them that I was OK.

Later that afternoon, I went jogging over by the Pentagon as originally planned. The streets and highways were blocked by police and military, but they were letting pedestrians through. I distinctly remember seeing a number of medical personnel walking away from the Pentagon looking thoroughly exhausted. At that point, I though better of trying to approach any closer and turned around.

Several scenes from the days that immediately followed stick in my mind. National Guardsmen armed with machine guns were stationed with their Humvees at every intersection of K Street in the business district, which was both disturbing and humorous. It was disturbing because until then the only time I'd seen guards with machine guns posted in a city was at subway stations in Moscow on the days leading up to May Day in 1994. It was humorous because there seemed little threat of a riot by the lobbyists and lawyers that inhabit K Street.

For the next several days, I had trouble waking up on time. I loathe alarm clocks and avoid using one. While living in that apartment, the automobile traffic consistently woke me up between 7 and 8 am—or rather the motorists honking their horns woke me up. For the rest of week, I rarely heard a car horn anywhere in the city, and this from a city that seemed to have adopted the Manhattan creed of "I honk, therefore I am." Several mornings, I looked out to see that 20th Street was its usual early morning parking lot, but that it was unnervingly quite—not a horn to be heard. Even weeks and months later, Washingtonian drivers seemed rather subdued and unusually courteous.

The other deafening silence was at Reagan National Airport. While living in Foggy Bottom, I frequently went to Gravely Point Park, immediately north of the airport. It was a great place to watch the airplanes fly perhaps 100 or 200 feet overhead on their landing approach and to see the occasional game of rugby, which I still don't quite understand, although it can be quite entertaining to watch. For the next several weeks until National Airport reopened, the park was unusually peaceful, but I was glad when the planes returned.

The last memory I share is of part of a conversation with a close friend several weeks or months after 9/11. We were discussing how 9/11 had affected us and our friends. A common friends of ours had been working down the hall from the impact point in the Pentagon. She escaped physically unharmed, but I expect she will have nightmares for the rest of her life. Until 9/11, I had seriously doubted I was capable of deliberately killing someone. I told my friend that I doubted no more. My experiences of 9/11 and its aftermath had awakened in me a deep, extremely focused, and controlled anger that could be quite deadly to anyone who dares attack my country, my people. That anger is still there, although it's not as close to surface.

9/11 Links
The Black Day—911 Memorial Site: a powerful compilation of photographs from 9/11.
Inside 9/11: National Geographic's series on the terrorist attacks.

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