September 11, 2001 dawned clear and brisk in Washington DC. There was not a single cloud in the sky as I walked to the East Falls Church station on the Orange Line for my commute to my office. At 6:20 a.m. I distinctly remember seeing a US Airways Shuttle jet roaring north overhead on its way to New York La Guardia and I remembered also thinking it would be in New York before I arrived at my office.
Exiting the train at Ballston Metro I walked to a nearby bagel shop called “Manhattan Bagels” where, as part of my daily ritual, I practiced my Spanish while giving my order to a woman working there who was from Cochabamba, Bolivia. I had recently become her hero when I told her that not only had I been in Bolivia but I had spent several days in her home town. As we talked I casually glanced at the logo for the company that included the Manhattan skyline and prominently on it were the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m. that morning my supervisor casually walked into my office to tell me he had heard a report that “a small plane” had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. We chuckled and dismissed it thinking that probably some student pilot became confused, flew off course, and entered the ranks of the non-survival of the least fit as Charles Darwin once predicted. However a few minutes later John returned to my office with fear on his face as he informed me that “a 747 just flew into the other tower at the World Trade Center. Someone is attacking us.”
It wasn’t a 747 but a 767 and the size and shape of the plane didn’t matter. What mattered was a lot of people were obviously dead and none of us had any understanding of why.
Someone turned on a radio in the center area of our main office and as some people listened to it for updates a colleague, Kathy Bangert, walked across the hall into my office and with the same fear in her eyes that my supervisor possessed a few minutes earlier asked me “Craig, why would an American Airlines 757 fly 500 feet over our office building?” Kathy had just seen the doomed American Airlines jet from Dulles to Los Angeles as it was on final approach to the Pentagon less than a minute later. A phone call to one of our secretary’s from a friend of hers at the Pentagon a couple minutes later provided the answer to Kathy’s question about the low-flying American jet.
Our Division Chief ordered everyone out of the office and out of the building. We didn’t know if some anti-government anarchist was on the attack or who it was. There were nearly 1,000 people crammed into the 8 floors of the Arlington Square building on Fairfax Drive in Arlington, Virginia, and each of us was a Federal employee. If some anti-government nut case was at war with us the last place we wanted to be was in an office building paid for by the US government. I stayed with my Division Chief until we had all of the people in our program safely out of their office and into the stairwell walking down to the first floor of the building. Unknown to us at the time there were thousands of people doing the same thing in the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. The only difference was that all of my colleagues safely exited the building. Not so at the World Trade Center.
Outside the building I was greeted by three things that have never left my memory. First was the blindingly clear sky. If you have ever been on the ocean in the Gulf Stream you know how the deep cobalt color of the water appears. That same incredibly blue color was in the sky over Washington DC. Also in the sky was the sound of sirens everywhere and with the sirens was the sight and sound of helicopters all of whom seemed to be headed south to the Pentagon. From my perch on Fairfax Drive I could look down the street and see smoke rising from the Pentagon.
Now in the safety of my home I can check Google Earth and I can tell that the Pentagon was exactly 3.12 miles from my office building and the American Airlines jet was only 500 feet above the surface of the ground when it streaked by us. However I didn’t think of that when I saw the smoke rising from the crippled building. All I saw then was pandemonium all around me.
I ran to the nearby elevator leading down to the Ballston Metro stop and took up a position along the track waiting and waiting for the next Orange Line train to come along. At that time of day there should have been a train every 8 minutes but this morning was different and it took more than 40 minutes for a train to arrive. As we waited like sardines packed in a can on the train platform someone’s cell phone rang and on answering it this fellow learned that one of the towers at the World Trade Center had just collapsed. Collectively we dismissed it as a false report because, after all, no building the size of one of the WTC towers could simply collapse - or could it.
After 40 minutes waiting for a train one limped into the Ballston station and there didn’t seem to be a single fillable space on any of the cars. The doors opened, nobody exited, and I resigned myself to waiting until the next train came along. As I did a woman reached out, grabbed me by the collar and said “You’re coming with us” and pulled me into the train. Nobody said anything to anyone on that sad and mournful ride to East Falls Church. As we moved along I noticed a woman in her 30s standing near me who had lost bladder control no doubt from the fear and emotions that were palpable on the train. Seeing her and sensing her embarrassment I removed my sweatshirt and handed it to her telling her to tie it off over her hips. I then stood in front of her to help her hide her embarrassment.
Hundreds of people poured from the train and onto the platform when we reached East Falls Church. As each of us left the train everyone staying on said, almost in unison to those of us leaving, “be safe out there.” It was a simple but overwhelming display of humanity directed at people in stress by people we would never see again.
US Air Force fighter jets from nearby Andrews Air Force base were now in the air circling over the city and I listened to them roar by overhead as I quickly walked a mile from the station to my home. At first the sound of the fighter jets was unnerving but after a few days that same sound was soothing and reassuring. The sound remained reassuring for several weeks until the alert was removed and there was no longer a need to keep the planes in the air. It was curious to me at the time that as soon as I could no longer hear the planes I started to wonder what happened to them and imagined another attack under way.
Reams have been written about that day and more video collected and recorded than I care to imagine. And it seems that 99 percent of what has been written and recorded was done in New York City and it surrounded the planes flying into the World Trade Center. That attention makes the attack on the Pentagon seem almost like an afterthought and at times that becomes a bit annoying. People seem to forget that nearly 200 people died at the Pentagon that day and nobody but a few of us in 4401 North Fairfax Drive in Arlington knew that the ill-fated American Airlines jet flew past us not 500 feet over head and we were almost as much in the cross-hairs as the innocent people in the Pentagon just 3.12 miles away.
Seven months after the attack on the Pentagon I took a trip to Sweden to look for a species of owl and a species of eagle I had never seen before. While there I took a ferry from the Swedish mainland to the Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea. These islands, a part of Finland, are the home of several nesting pairs of White-tailed Eagle and I went there to look for that bird. My hotel on the island was a bizarre outpost of Graceland in Memphis it seemed. Its owner was an Elvis fan who was convinced, as he told me, that “Elvis is alive and living in the Aland Islands. It’s my job to find him and I will.”
At dinner, I sat alone in the restaurant that had also been decorated in an Elvis Presley motif. A large group of Swedes with their hockey playing children had sailed on the ferry with me today. They also stayed at the same hotel, and descended on the restaurant when I did. An attractive Aland Islander who worked at the hotel walked up to my table and said I looked lonely. Had I been in the Dominican Republic or Fiji, my first impression would have been that she was a prostitute. Instead she was hoping I was British so she could practice her English on me. Her name was Maria. She had coal black hair, dark eyes, and fine Scandinavian features. She spoke six languages and felt the least secure with English.
She asked if I was British and when I said America she asked where. I told her suburban Washington, D.C. and learned that she had visited the city the September before. From her purse she extracted a postcard she mailed to her family. Its front was a picture of the White House and the Washington Monument. On the back, the postmark was from Northern Virginia and the date was September 11, 2001. I looked at her and said, “You were there?”
Maria had Aland Island friends who were students at American University. She had traveled extensively in Europe and Asia but had never been to the United States. On that fateful day in September, she was on the nine o’clock tour of the White House. Her group had barely entered the building when “the Secret Service came and told us that we were to leave immediately. They just chased us from the building and left us on our own. Someone else said an airplane was going to crash into the White House. When I got outside I just ran toward the Washington Monument. We were all running down the street when we heard an explosion. We looked to the right and saw smoke in the air. I didn’t know then that it was the plane that hit the Pentagon.”
I asked what she did after the explosion.
“My friends and I didn’t know what to do so we found our way to your subway. Suddenly there were sirens everywhere and helicopters in the air and people running down the streets. I thought someone had started a war.”
Her friends lived in northern Virginia and commuted to college on the Orange Line subway. “We waited forever for a train to take us out of Washington and back to Virginia. We waited and waited. I didn’t think the train would ever come. We got to Virginia and didn’t wait for a bus. We just ran to my friend’s home and turned on the television.” She learned about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon about eleven. I told her that I was walking away from an Orange Line station wondering when the next plane was going to fall out of the sky about the same time she was running to her friend’s home.
Many have said that the attack on September 11, 2001, brought the world together for just a brief moment in time and for a brief moment in time I believed that. And my belief in it was further reinforced seven months afterward when 4,100 miles from home sitting on a snow-covered island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, I met a Finnish woman who just like me was petrified that day as she stood waiting for what seemed like forever to get on an Orange Line train and get away from the danger.
And my memory of that day began with the sight of a jet flying to New York City through the cobalt blue skies of sunrise on a morning twelve years ago that looked just like this morning.