Saturday, September 12, 2009

Eight Year Later

It doesn't seem like only eight years ago.

At the risk of sounding like a cliche, it was such a beautiful morning. A perfect late summer-- the skies were a beautiful blue, it was cool with low humidity and just a hint of fall in the air.

I was running late (as usual) and was in the kitchen and first floor bathroom getting ready to leave for work when NPR, just finishing its Morning Edition broadcast and preparing to begin its morning classical music, paused and Seth Williamson said, "We're just getting news that a plane has hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York..."

There was still a lot of confusion. A plane? What size? Everyone was thinking a small, private plane, but how could a pilot have been THAT confused or lost on such a clear, beautiful morning with unlimited visibility?

Curious, I flipped on the TV and tuned in to CNN, figuring that they would have the most immediate coverage.

I was watching, casually interested, when the second plane hit.

I immediately knew what had happened, and felt a chill go down my spine.

The second plane was unmistakable. It was definitely a full-sized passenger jet, and it flew full-speed, straight into the building. It was clearly deliberate. The World Trade Center had been a target of terrorism just a few years before, and Oklahoma City was still pretty fresh in everyone's mind. I didn't immediately call up the name Osama bin Ladin, but I did recall that the Saudi guy who was behind the first bombing had never been caught.

I watched for a few minutes, then headed for work. The radio stations still hadn't caught up with events-- NPR was playing classical music and everyone else had their regular programming on. I finally found ABC radio on the AM dial and listened to Peter Jennings start sorting things out. He was the first one to use the word, "terrorism." I felt ill.

I got to work and told the receptionist and the facilities manager to turn the radio and/or TV on, two planes had just hit the WTC and it wasn't an accident.

When I got upstairs I told folks as I passed, "Turn your radios on!" Some already had-- word was starting to get around.

About the time I got to my office and got my radio turned on and my computer booted up, word was coming in that something had happened at the Pentagon. Reports were still sketchy: A plane had flown into it. No, a helicopter. No, a helicopter had blown up on the landing pad. No, it was a plane...

All of the news websites were overloaded and no one could get online. The radio now mentioned that a plane had gone down somewhere in central Pennsylvania, and that the Secretary of Defense had shut down all air travel and ordered all of the airplanes out of the sky.

Kristen, an Analyst who worked with me, was frantic. Her parents were scheduled to fly out of Pittsburgh that morning and she wasn't able to get them on the phone. There was no information about the plane in Pennsylvania and she was practically hysterical. We tried to assure her that the fact that she couldn't get through to their cell phones probably didn't mean anything-- communications were either down or overloaded all over the eastern seaboard, so most calls weren't getting through, especially anything north of us.

Meanwhile, Rachael, in the office next to mine, was calmer but still very worried--she had a brother and a sister living in New York, the sister in Tribeca, not far from the part of Manhattan that was under attack. No one in her family had been able to get through, but they knew that wasn't unusual.

Rachael and I tried, on our respective computers, to get onto a news website, any news website. CNN, NPR, all of the networks, the Washington Post, the New York Times... nothing. Too busy. Finally, I got onto the BBC website and we had our first look at the burning towers. We stood watching, horrified, listening to the live broadcast coming through from NPR. While we were watching, the North Tower came down. We started to cry, quietly.

The office was at a standstill. Nothing was getting done. Anyone who had gotten through to a website had several other people gathered around, watching in shocked silence. Several of our IT folks were supposed to be flying back to Charlottesville, some from Dayton, some from New York, and they hadn't yet checked in.

Before we could pull ourselves away, Security came through the building. They were shutting the company down and evacuating the building-- no one could stay behind. Across the street and down a couple of blocks from our building looms a tall, forbidding, fortress-like structure that until a few months before had housed the National Ground Intelligence Center for the US Army. Among other things, it tracked all of the air traffic for the country. Clearly the air traffic was under attack, and no one knew yet who was behind it or how current their intelligence might be. If whoever it was decided to do something to sabotage Army intelligence under such an attack, the NGIC would be a high-value target. Did the enemy know that the building on the edge of the Downtown Mall no longer housed this agency? Who knew? But all of the businesses in the area were advised to evacuate. Quickly.

I shut everything down and left. I went to the blood center to donate blood, but was turned away. The wait was over 2 hours and they were telling people to come back the next day. I headed home and called my parents, who were already watching, then Karen and Marcy who both live in Northern Virginia to see if they had gotten home safely. For the rest of the day I mostly laid on the sofa with my cats and watched the news, horrified, terrified, sad, angry. My only conscious thought, which I knew I would eventually soften, was, "Kill them. Kill them all and let God sort them out."

It wasn't a hot and angry response. It was a cold and furious one.

It turned out that Kristen's parents were fine. They had just taken off when the pilot came over the speakers and told them that they were turning around and landing the plane. I don't know how much explanation they got until they landed. Not long afterwards, Kristen decided to leave Charlottesville and move back to Pennsylvania to be closer to her family and to get her MLS so that she could become a law librarian.

Rachael's family was also fine, although her sister in Tribeca had to move out for awhile until power and services were fully restored.

Our IT folks all landed safely, but could get no further than Dayton. They finally rented a car and drove back to Charlottesville, arriving sometime Tuesday evening.

Unfortunately, two of our coworkers were not so lucky. Two Reed Elsevier employees from the New York office were on one of the flights that hit the WTC. The company devoted a memorial to them and has a scholarship fund in their names.

Over the next couple of days, the thing I remember the most is the expressions of sympathy and grief that came from around the world. Someone on the web compiled a collection of photos and it can still make me well up. It was so beautiful, and so humbling, to see the tributes outside of American embassies and consulate offices around the world--not the official expressions, but the heartfelt tributes from everyday people who wanted all of us Americans to know that we were not alone. It was all meaningful and touching, and I hope that they all know that.

This was also President Bush's one brief, shining moment. His speech at Ground Zero and later before the joint session of Congress were, sadly, the highlights of his presidency. He was never more articulate or more sincere than he was in those moments, which is one of the reasons that I hold him in such contempt. Clearly, he had the skills. He had it in him to be so much more than what he became. The fact that he squandered not only the national and international good will that poured out on him that day but also his own potential to rise up and be a genuine leader is disgusting. Sadly, for me that is going to be the epitaph of his entire administration: He could have been so much more.

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