9/11 happened to the world. Only the remotest, most primitive corners of the world didn't experience it in rapt attention, gathered around a television screen.
It happened most acutely to Americans, of course. But it didn't happen equally to all Americans - for some of us, the bad luck of proximity made it happen very intensely.
I'm one of those Americans, and this is my 9/11 story.
I've been officially a member here since either December of 2004 or January of 2005. I had lurked for a period immediately following Kerry's loss in November of 2004, seeking the comfort of fellow disappointed travelers. I've kept my employment specifics necessarily vague - but I work in information technology and I live in Northern Virginia. My career has been exclusively in the private sector, but my customers are exclusively Federal.
In September of 2001, I was working for a software company. My primary - and only - customer was the US Department of the Treasury. After several years of building relationships at a high level within that Agency, I had landed the "big get". I had been granted a meeting with the Treasury Department's Chief Information Officer (CIO) and several of his staff liaisons to the various Treasury bureaus. I had meticulously worked to cultivate that meeting, to impart my seriousness, my knowledge of my business, and my knowledge of my customer to this CIO. The meeting was set weeks in advance for Tuesday, September 11, at 10:30am.
I was wrapped tight about this meeting. It was the kind of meeting that, if successful, would open doors for me and would make the going infinitely easier with this large, decentralized customer. I had been preparing my presentation for three weeks. I had refined it, honed it, and rehearsed it. I didn't sleep much the night before, with each slide of my PowerPoint presentation cycling through my mind. I mentally went over what I wanted to say, what points I wanted to make, and why they should matter to this customer.
On that morning, I woke early - tired and irritable from lack of adequate sleep. I bathed, fixed myself up, and put on my best "big meeting" suit. I had wanted to leave the house no later than 8:30 that morning to begin the trek downtown - of course, I was running about 15 minutes late, which didn't help my overall frame of mind. As a lifelong resident of the DC Metro area, I know that getting into downtown DC could be a trial. I had wanted to leave myself plenty of time, allowing for any unforeseen traffic or accidents. I was headed to 1500 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington DC. That's where the CIOs office was - right next to the famous 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW - the White House.
From where I live, the best way to get into downtown DC is to get on Rt. 66 Eastbound. You have to time this just right - because inside the beltway, 66E is HOV-2 only. Leaving at 8:30 would allow me to hit 66E almost exactly when the HOV restrictions were lifted at 9am, so I was slightly behind that schedule but still ok. From 66E, I would get almost all the way to DC and take the exit for 110 South. From there, I would skirt along by the Pentagon and pick up 395 North to take me over the 14th Street Bridge. From there, I could valet park at the Marriott just across Constitution Ave. on 14th and walk the block over to the Treasury building. If was lucky enough to be early, I could slip into the Marriott and relax a bit with a coffee and go over my presentation once last time.
I usually listen to the local news and traffic station on my way in. But not on September 11, 2001. I was so absorbed with the presentation I was about to give and its import that I was making the trip in silence, running the presentation alternately in my head and then out loud as the meeting hour approached.
Right as I merged onto 66E from the Dulles toll connector road, my phone rang. My husband. I was annoyed.
MR. RENARF: Where are you?Didn't think anything of it. Normally, I think I would have asked a few questions and what have you. But I was so focused on this meeting that I just wanted to get off the phone and go back to reviewing my presentation.
ME: Just getting onto 66E. Why?
MR. RENARF: The strangest thing just happened. I was watching Today and there's this small plane that had hit one of the buildings in New York. As they were showing the building, another plane hit another building.
ME (distracted): Huh. Well... when are you leaving?
MR. RENARF: As soon as I get dressed.
ME: Ok. Love you.
It was about 9:17am. I continued down 66E - no matter what time you get on 66E, there is always a backup. The way I was coming in, four lanes have to merge down to two and no matter what time - with the exception of between about 11am and 2pm - it's backed up. I had more or less allowed for that in my travel plan, even with the late start.
I struggled through the first Arlington exits, rapping my fingers and getting frustrated, my concentration on the presentation broken. At about 9:30am, my phone range again. It was my best friend, who also happened to be a colleague of mine at the software company where we worked.
ME: Hello?By now I'm nervous. I've turned on WTOP, the local news and traffic station. It's confusing, what they're saying - they're talking about New York mainly, and it's the first time I hear anything about "terrorist" and "attack". I call the CIOs assistant and am told that yes, they're evacuating - we'll have to reschedule the meeting.
FRIEND: Where are you?
ME: On 66 heading down to Treasury. Why?
FRIEND: Are you listening to the news? Something's happened. They're evacuating the FBI building downtown. Someone said there's a bomb at the State Department. Someone attacked New York. They're starting to talk about evacuating in DC. Can you turn around?
[NOW I'm paying attention]
ME: I don't know - I have this meeting. Are you sure?
FRIEND: Just turn on the news. I'll call you when I hear more about what's going on.
The next exit I can take to turn around and head back into Virginia is the Rosslyn/Key Bridge exit. Traffic is jammed. My plan was to take the exit, get up onto Key Bridge itself, and then turn left onto M Street/Canal road and travel along to Chain Bridge, where I could pick up 123 South back into Northern Virginia. I'm stuck, sitting on the bridge. If I looked to my left, I'd be looking up the Potomac River towards the American Legion (Cabin John) Bridge. Looking to my right would have me looking down the Potomac towards National Airport.
9:37am (although I didn't know the exact time at that moment). I look to my right in the direction of the boom, stuck on the bridge in traffic. It seemed like minutes, but it was probably only seconds before, over the trees on a beautiful, clear September morning, a smoking fireball rumbles skyward.
Oh. My. Fucking. God. And in that moment I looked at the cars on either side of me and in my rearview mirror at the car behind me and I see shock and silence on the faces of their drivers. No screaming - just... stunned silence. The woman in the car behind me moved her hand, as if in slow motion, to cover her mouth. The man next to me on my right just stared down the river so I could only see the back of his head. The guy in the car on my left - who was coming the other direction out of DC and into Rosslyn - looked directly at me, his eyes wide, and most likely a perfect reflection of my own expression.
All hell was breaking loose in DC at that point. I know it sounds movie-cliche - but I can't remember hearing anything for quite some time after that boom. My adrenaline immediately kicked into my body and set my nerve endings to tingling, and I felt a flush followed by vague nausea. But after that, sound literally rushed back in to me. I could hear sirens and ambulances and helicopters from what seemed like every direction, even though I couldn't actually see them at that point.
Holy fuck.That's what I said. Holy fuck. That pretty much summed it up, and all the pieces fell into place in my mind. We were under attack by terrorists. New York and DC were definitely under attack, and I was on a bridge leading into DC with no way to turn around. I had to just stick with the traffic getting over the bridge (which was hideous by this point, with many people who had apparently decided that discretion truly was the better part of valor as we all beat feet away from the City) and make my way back into Virginia.
The first call I tried to make was to my stepson's school. He had moved in with us when he was 11 and now, at 16, he was a student at Langley High School in McLean. If the name "Langley" strikes a chord of recognition in you and you equate it to "the CIA", you're not far off - Langley High School is less than a mile and a half from the CIA's headquarters. I was, I think understandably, concerned about the proximity of his school to CIA headquarters given the circumstances. I kept dialing the school - fast busy. Circuits were jammed. Miraculously, though, just after finally turning left onto Canal road, my cell phone rang and it was my stepson. He was calling from the guidance counselor's office because the school was being evacuated and the guildance counselor needed to know that it was ok with me if my stepson left with a friend. He handed the phone to the counselor and I gave my consent. (click)
I tried to call my husband next - fast busy. I was crawling on Canal as everyone struggled to get out of the City itself. I had the radio on in the background as I tried to call my parents. They had moved to South Carolina a year earlier after an adult lifetime and career in Washington DC. Both of them worked in the same industry that I did, and they both knew that I had The Big Meeting that day at 1500 Pennsylvania Ave. I figured if they'd seen the news, they'd be panicked about where I was at what time, so I kept trying to call. Fast busy.
Finally I got through. They had been out playing tennis and had zero idea that anything was going on. I told them to go turn on the news and that I would call them back after I tried to reach my husband. (click) I did eventually reach my husband and he was safely at home and staying there, waiting for my stepson.
Time had really become... weird through all of this. Traffic on Canal Road was more stop than go - but everyone was uncommonly patient and uncommonly kind. You'd think there would be panic, being stuck on a road fleeing a city that was under attack. Yet at Arizona Ave., where there was jammed traffick trying to get ON to Canal heading out of town, the traffic on Canal road patiently backed off and alternated - one car from Canal would make room and let an Arizona Ave. car merge, then the next car on Canal would let another Arizona Ave. car merge, etc. and so forth. Trust me - we're not usually that nice in traffic in DC.
I guess it was about 10:25am when I reached my parents again - the radio had been turned down as I had been trying (and sometimes succeeding) to use my phone. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was apparently babbling - very hyped up, telling my parents what had happened that morning as I witnessed it.
ME: ...and then BOOM and I think it was the Pentagon and I saw all this fire and smoke. I decided to go home then.It took me nearly two hours to get to Fletcher's Boat House on the C&O Canal, a point about halfway beween Key Bridge (where I got onto Canal) and Chain Bridge (where I would get off of Canal). I had been in the car for a good three hours by that point, and I had to use the bathroom in a most critical way. I knew that Fletcher's Boat House had a public restroom for tourists and just prayed that it was still open after Labor Day - one way or another, I was pulling off to use the bathroom.
MOMRF: Where are you?
ME: On Canal road, trying to get up to Chain Bridge and get back home. I can't believe this. I heard all kinds of things - they said that there are bomb scares all downtown. Can you believe what happened in New York? But I heard that the planes hit pretty high, so I hope all those people got out ok.
MOMRF: ...Rena. One of the World Trade Center towers fell. It just crashed down. And now it looks like the other one is about to fall.
(I don't actually remember this part - my mother had to tell me this, and I still don't remember to this day)
I wasn't the only person who had decided, on that day, to make a pit stop and just take a break. The folks normally at Fletcher's Boat House are a mix of tourists with cameras and casual clothes, and bikers/walkers/runners in atheletic clothes. But on that day, there was a clatch of commuters - suits, ties, dresses, skirt - pulled over in the parking lot. They were all - myself included - out of their cars with their doors open, listening in silence to the radio. I used the rest room and came back to my car and stood outside of it with everyone else, just listening. At one point, a guy next to me who had loosened his tie and had taken off his jacked turned and said in my direction "You hear that? No planes." It took me a moment to process that - but he was right. The Potomac River is on the flight path for planes taking off and landing at National airport. I guess it's kind of like street noise in NYC - when you live there, you don't hear it. But when it stops, you notice. The lack of low-flying plane noise was almost deafening in its silence.
As we stood there, I could see these two ladies in bike shorts and sports bras coming off the bridge after a power walk. As they approached but were still at a distance, I could see them chatting amicably, smiling and gesturing. Two friends out for a late morning power walk. I thought - "they don't know". And then I felt simultaeously sorry for them and envious of them. As they got closer, though, I could see that they were tuned into the odd appearance of a bunch of commuters in business clothes parked in the normally sleepy post-Labor Day parking lot, out of their cars, silent and listening. They seemed to start to listen, too. As they stood there, they didn't say anything - didn't ask us what was going on or anything. They just listened. One looked at the other, and I could literally see the moment that she realized what had happened. It was awful - her face fell and she burst into tears and then went to her own car. I'll never forget that - it was as if I witnessed the moment that someone's life changed.
I was there at Fletcher's Boat House for a good hour, sharing the silent cameraderie of strangers bound together by an extraordinary and horrifying event. I left after noon and finally made it back home by 2:30, just under six hours after leaving that morning. I got to witness visually what I had just experienced emotionally, and it was overwhelming.
In the days that followed, others had even more chilling stories to tell. Many of you know that I have a band, but very few know that all five members of our horn section are active duty military - Army Band - based at Ft. Myer in Arlington VA. At least one of them, eyes haunted, told a story about standing in (I think) Patton Circle at Arlington National Cemetery, where they always formed up before playing a graveside ceremony. By sheer happenstance, that member happened to be looking at the Pentagon on that day and instead of just seeing the fireball, they saw the plane go into the building.
To a person, my friends and members of the Army Band volunteered at the Pentagon to run security checks on all the search and rescue crews that were coming from all over the place. Although many don't realize it, it's a point of pride for the members of the US Army Band that it was their flag that was unfurled in defiant brilliance in the days following 9/11:
Life resumed, thank God. I went back to work and we all tried to get back to something that felt normal. But I had many occasion in the days that followed to travel along 110 South directly past the Pentagon - and every time, the gaping black scar in the side of that building took me back to the fireball and the shocked faces of that day. Nine years later, I can still see everything with alarming clarity.
I wrote about all of this not as catharsis, although that's always a side benefit to putting what happened on that day into words. I wrote about it to provide some level of context for what comes next.
I've been deeply distressed by - specifically - the hatred surrounding the subject of the NYC Islamic Cultural Center and - generally - the anti-Muslim sentiment that seems to have grown to a point where it almost seems acceptable in polite circles.
I was talking with a friend of mine - a good person, someone who goes out of his way to hellp others and is iminently fair and kind - about the NYC Islamic Cultural Center. He's not a bigot of any kind. Yet he was basically sympathetic to the people who had a problem with the Cultural Center. He said that that day was so hurtful to so many... maybe the Muslims should consider these people's feelings and locate elsewhere. Yet that day was hurtful to me also - to all of us, in varying degrees that intesify with proximity. And I can't think of a better thing to have come from such a shitty, life-altering, traumatic day than that lower Manhattan would embrace their peaceful Muslim countrymen and women and welcome them into the embrace of their compassion and community with open arms.
If they don't, then that day is just... meaningless on some levels. That day will become emblematic of our inability, collectively, to learn from our experiences and grow to a better place despite the trauma. If they don't, then all the deaths are truly unavenged. Because the vengeance is not in Afghanistan or wrought by a surgical strike from an unmanned drone. The vengeance should be in our willingness to embrace all people - and especially Muslim people - as fellow victims, to recognize their own unique hurt borne out of something as inevitable as faith.
That's all I really had to say. That, and a request - on this day, endeavor to be peaceful with each other.