Sunday, September 11, 2011

My Story: Ten Years Ago

I think I've told my story before, but I've never written it.  Below is what ten years later I can remember of our personal experience on September 11th in Washington, DC.  I write it now to remember, to share with you and so my kids know our story.

Ten years and a day ago, I was a 22 year old newlywed living in Alexandria, VA.  We had married and moved to Alexandria about two months prior.  During those two months I worked for Senator Inhofe.   As September began,  I was in my second or third week of law school at the George Washington University, in Washington, DC.  My husband was in his second year of the Neurscience PhD program at Georgetown. We were living on his stipend and thus had neither cell phones nor cable TV.  We also had just one car so each morning he would drive me into DC, drop me off at GW, then drive back out to Rosslyn to part at Georgetown's parking spaces in the basement of the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel.  Then he would walk back across Key Bridge, up the big hills and all the way across campus to work. I would usually get to school around 7am, but had no class until after 9:30 or so.  I spent these first two or more hours every morning, reading, briefing cases and preparing for class, which was pretty much a never ending task in those days. 

On September 11th, all of the above went as usual. Our morning commute, as usual, took us past the Pentagon and into the heart of the city.  I, as usual, was studying diligently away.  I vaguely remember a few more people at the computers and a little bit of muttering, but not much.  I went to my 9:30 class and the buzz began to grown as the news spread among my classmates waiting for Contracts.  A very large portion of my class was from NJ, NY, PA or metro DC.  I could feel them panicking a little, but we really had no clue what was going on (remember this is pre-smart phones).  My Professor announced what he knew and said we would have class.  He tried this for about twenty minutes or so before they dismissed us to the basement classroom.  We were asked to shelter in place there as no one really knew what the danger might continue to be.  The basement classroom fits maybe 250 people and has huge screens where we watched the video, saw the reality of the day and heard many rumors about what might be happening in our own city.

There was just one payphone outside.  We waited in lines to try and call home. 

Across town, Brent was in class too and his usual fairly calm self.  When he heard a rumor that the State Department had been bombed, he decided it was time to leave class, head back to his lab and try to find me.  My Dad or sister, I think talked to him somewhere in here and was rather amazed at his calm.

Eventually I reached Brent and we tried to make a plan, which largely involved me staying at the Law School for the moment.  I also reached the high school and told them I was OK.  You may have heard about this from my sister as after my Dad died she found the slip they took him telling him I was OK still in his Bible.

It became clear that nearly all the stories about DC were rumor.  The National Mall was not, in fact, on fire.  There was nothing bad at the State Department.  The White House and Congress were untouched.  Brent and I moved to the next part of our impromptu plan which involved me walking to Georgetown as the subway was closed and there was no way to drive in the city.  It wasn't even clear how we would drive home as our normal drive past the Pentagon was now impossible. 

Walking made sense as it was away from all the targets and in the general direction of our car and home.  Keep in mind that once I leave GW we have no way to update this plan so we just went with it.  Georgetown is about two miles or so away, roughly, but I had never walked there before and only once did again.

I grabbed my books and started walking west, up Pennsylvania Ave.  It was surreal.  As I went, bums were directing traffic and people were listening in to the homeless people's radios as we walked along.  I vaguely remember some music playing at one point along the way.  I walked past an Embassy and remember the staff standing outside, just staring.  Lots of people were walking, but the road was also completely clogged with traffic.  The cars and buses were basically not moving. 

The elevation increases as you go from Foggy Bottom towards Georgetown.  As I got a bit closer I could see the huge billowing black cloud of smoke rising out of the Pentagon.  I'm not sure I've ever seen smoke so completely back.  That smoke stayed to my left the remainder of the day and longer. 

I have no idea how long it took me to get to Georgetown, but when I arrived at the gates, gates that are always open and un-garded, they checked my ID and my story. I walked across the placid beautiful, historic part of campus to Brent's lab.  It was good to be together, but we had no more plan than before.  We stayed in the lab awhile as I don't think we really knew how we could make our way home.  More checking the news, calling people and eventually decided we'd try to walk out of the city to our car and work on getting home.  So, retracing my steps a bit, we went back down the hill, walking with masses across Key Bridge, along with unmoving traffic, with the black smoke in huge clouds to our left.

We found the car and began a three hour or so attempt at finding our way home by meandering in a loop to the west in Virginia.  We eventually circled back to our apartment after many twists and turns.  I remember getting home about 4pm.  So, about six hours after it all started.  We attempted to watch the news on our TV antenna as, perhaps ironically, our cable was supposed to have been installed that day, but obviously wasn't.

Through all of this, I don't remember crying.  I tend to be quite pulled together in a crisis and save my falling apart for later.  Fall apart, I definitely did and I remember sobbing tears in our bed later that day or the next, probably both.  I don't remember feeling afraid for myself.  I do remember feeling horribly sad for our country, our community, our way of life.  Just devastated.  I remember talking a lot with Brent about how our feelings paralleled the OKC Murrah Bombing (Brent was probably less than 1/2 mile away from that bombing in high school). 

Law School was closed for two days, I think.  I think Brent only stayed home for one.  It was a surprisingly short time before we were able to drive past the Pentagon and see that incredible devastation.  It eventually was part of our daily commute as the rebuilding continued.  Back in DC in the early days, there were military vehicles and armed soldiers on the streets.  I still don't recall feeling particularly scared for myself.  We clearly realized there was a distinct danger.  A danger that I guess is always there, but was suddenly much more cognizable.

That said, Law School is fairly all consuming, as is a PhD program and early married life.  We continued on.  We prayed and depended on each other.  My sister even came to visit us just a week or so later in a great fit of bravery in that chilled time.  We stood in incredibly lines to make it home for Christmas.  We did the drills, read the preparedness guides and stocked up on provisions in case we needed to evacuate.  My parents paid to get us cell phones so they never had to have that terrifying gab in contact again. 

We changed.

We remember.

We always will.

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