On March 6, 2002, I contributed this story to the September 11 Digital Archive, http://911digitalarchive.org/ . It’s as “real-time" as my recollection of that day’s events could possibly get, but feels as if I wrote it on 9/12/01. If I hadn’t composed this at the time, I couldn’t possibly recall so many details nine years later. Contemporary history–or, a near-eyewitness account–is narrow in scope but potentially more revealing of the moment.
I started the day at Dulles Airport, from where American Airlines Flight 77 departed and crashed into the Pentagon. I spent most of the afternoon of Sept. 11 safely in Pizzeria Uno, locked out of my apartment. Here are some details I remember:
- My fiancée, Paula, dropped me off at Dulles’s departure terminal at precisely 8:10am, Sept. 11. When I left the car I handed Paula my keys for safekeeping. American Flt. 77 took off at 8:21am.
- Worried about being cramped on plane (I’m tall) as I hurried to the gate, but was pleasantly surprised to find the plane, a 757, mostly empty…I had an entire row to myself. My colleague, Lindsay, was already aboard and thought I was going to miss the flight.
- 8:50am: The pilot announced a mechanical problem; a maintenance man came aboard to look at it, couldn’t repair the problem, and so we de-planed and moved down to another plane three gates away.
- Along the way to the new gate, we saw on an airport television, the kind hanging from the ceiling, an image of a tall building with smoke pouring out near its top. We supposed we would find out later what happened. Nothing to stop us from going to Nashville, right?
- As Lindsay and I waited to board the new plane, we overheard some flight attendants talking about a plane crash. Maybe more than one. Still, we entered the jetway and boarded the new plane, an even larger jet than the first, and just as empty. As we settled in to new seats, people around us with cell phones started getting and making calls. Neither of us had a phone, as I packed the company cell phone in my luggage. We sensed something was not right in the world. One woman assured her grandmother that she was alright; a man a few rows up exclaimed something into his phone I couldn’t understand. Then the pilot told us that the entire system–all the airspace over the United States–was shut down, and we should leave the plane. Something more about a plane crash. And buildings. And New York.
Both a little nervous now. We exited the plane back into the waiting area. There, around that ceiling-high TV, where a few minutes earlier just a couple of people had stood, about fifty ex-passengers watched the screen intently. I joined them and then learned the news about the World Trade Center. A local reporter on assignment near the Pentagon, reporting on the military angle of the apparent attack on New York City, announced live, to his anchors, that a plane just hit the Pentagon. It was about 9:45am.
There was a rush to the pay phones. Lindsay and I called our office to let them know we were alright, and to relay messages to any family who called. My mom had called; Paula called, too. She managed to get all the way to her office in D.C. without hearing the news, and now was stuck there. I reached my dad and let him know I was safe, for the moment.
But, we stayed in the gate area as reports of further bombings near the State Department, the Mall, the Old Executive Office Building filtered in, wondering, of all things, if we would be able to get our luggage back. We watched the coverage until an announcement ordered us to leave at once and proceed to the baggage area.
The baggage area was filled with people from all over the airport. Security officials and flight attendants stood around nervously. Some baggage belts were operating and delivering luggage. We looked for our bags but didn’t see them. Seemed fairly normal; nobody really knew what was happening out in the world. A flight attendant standing near me told me in a hushed tone that it was more serious than airport officials were saying, and that we ought to forget about our bags and leave at once. A few minutes later, that very order was announced.
Lindsay had driven herself to the airport and parked in the remote lot. We caught the shuttle over there and found her car. It was such a beautiful morning. There was very little traffic leaving the airport; perhaps we beat the rush, or just were among the few who left immediately when told to. NPR, of course, had nothing but attack coverage and we were desperate for good information about the events of the morning as we drove along I-66 toward Arlington, where I live. Lindsay lives in College Park.
We heard reports of all the Potomac River bridges being closed, of additional hijacked airplanes in the sky, of escalating death tolls. We were incredulous that such events were occurring nearby, and just up the East Coast, in familiar places. As we got closer to Arlington, I looked for smoke that I thought might be visible pouring out of the Pentagon, towering into the sky. The closer we got to Arlington (Ballston to be exact), the heavier the traffic became; firetrucks from outlying counties–Fairfax, then Loudoun, then Prince William–passed us. Rescue and police vehicles from all over sped past heading toward the Pentagon. Helicopters thumped overhead. Couldn’t see the smoke.
Lindsay negotiated the thick traffic through the Ballston area to my apartment, where I hoped to find Paula, or a neighbor who would lend us a phone to call. No one was there. With reports of the bridges being closed, and the massive traffic jam along the main roads, Lindsay decided to wait it out. We walked over to the Mall to find some place to sit, and perhaps eat. The only place open was Pizzeria Uno. We needed water, too.
We spent the next four hours in Pizzeria Uno. The bar was full of people watching coverage of the horrible events, and drinking. As we waited for our food, I kept going into the bar area to see more images; a man stepped out in front of me and announced that the buildings had fallen down–a bomb exploded at their base. I wasn’t sure he meant that literally. Impossible, maybe just the tops collapsed.
Later, we returned to my apartment to find the neighbors home, so we sat with them for a while until Paula and her dad arrived. The four of us spent a few more hours riveted before the TV, disbelieving. Lindsay left that evening when it seemed that the traffic had abated and the bridges would be open (which never actually shut down).
I spent the rest of the night at home, watching TV with Paula and her dad. They talked about seeing the doomed people jumping from the WTC towers, scenes which I thankfully missed. And that was about the worst of it for me, really. A chilling but not uncommon coincidence, a series of odd choices and insignificant worries, and mostly minor discomfort and dislocation in a maelstrom.
Fred Dews, 2010