On September 11, 2001, I worked as a technical writer at the U.S. Mint building on Massachusetts Avenue, and our building wasn’t far from the Capitol.
I’d taken the Metro to Union Station that morning, bought a bagel, and walked the few blocks to work under a very blue sky. I was about halfway through the bagel when there was a sudden slowdown of our network. Being me, I went to a reliable news source to see what was going on and this is what I saw:
It took a few tries to call my (now ex-) wife, and when I said, “I think the United States is under some kind of coordinated attack,” she snapped in a terse and half-awake daze, “What are you talking about?” I got calls from friends (William and Tom, shout out!) and also my brother-in-law Marty, who raised the possibility that I should, perhaps, see about going home instead of hanging out near the Capitol building during what might be an ongoing…thing.
Huh, I thought. I’ll go ask my bosses.
When I went to my boss’s office, though, he was already gone. So, too, were the rest of the staff; they’d forgotten me. I was a contractor in my first month of employment there.
So I got my things together, stuffed them into a backpack, and started for home. I knew the Metro would either be crowded or shut down, so I simply walked. And because I’m terrible with directions, I headed for the only place I knew how to get home FROM: the Lincoln Memorial.
It was probably the safest eight-mile walk of my life. There were almost no other pedestrians, only men in suits on street corners holding M-16s and peering at me with my giant sapper’s backpack full of books. None of them stopped me because, hey, white guy!
I followed the Mall, passed the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and then crossed Memorial Bridge. That’s when the smell of burning plastic hit me from the smoldering Pentagon, and I continued down the center of the surreal deserted GW Parkway with its plume of smoke to my right. Marine helicopters passed overhead, circled the Pentagon, and then continued westward, and my only guess was that they were taking congressmen to look at the damage.
I made it as far as the marina on the other side of the airport before I reached a point where the parkway was no longer blocked off. By then I was exhausted and dehydrated, and my wife came to the barricades to pick me up.
I guess it’s somewhat telling that my 9/11 experience was mostly alone. I spoke to my mother and my friends on the phone briefly when I could get through, but for most of that walk, it was just me quietly wondering how the world would be different now, hoping that terrorists wouldn’t think to attack the Smithsonian, wondering if there was an accessible hose or water fountain at the marina. That’s what I do in a disaster, shove everyone away from me. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it isn’t.
I didn’t see any of the images until later, which might be why I’m still a little obsessively compelled by them today: I’m still catching up.
Or maybe I’m just still a little guilty that my 9/11 was a literal walk in the park compared to so many others’.