In remembrance of this tragic anniversary, I’m republishing this account of my own personal experience that day.
It’s funny how a day can start out so ordinary and in an instant turn out to be a day where everything changes forever. On Sept. 11, 2001 I was an editor/reporter for a news organization in Washington, D.C. That particular morning I was driving up I-395 in northern Virginia to my office in the District, listening to WGMS-FM, Washington’s former classical music station (no longer in existence) when a news flash came on about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center buildings. It was shocking news, especially when 20 minutes later there was a report of a second crash into the other WTC Tower.
I knew Howard Stern broadcast live from New York so I punched the radio button for his station and heard Howard and Robin and Bababooey talking about it. As they jabbered on, I eased off I-395 onto the off ramp for Washington Blvd., the way I always did every morning. Washington Blvd. runs right alongside the Pentagon. Halfway down the ramp, traffic came to a standstill. Suddenly there was a loud noise over to my left– like a tornado loaded with TNT. I turned and saw a big airliner that was no more than 20 feet off the ground, flying at the speed of a guided missile right toward the Pentagon building. I mean it was unbelievably fast. It was a moment of complete shock. Something like that, you don’t believe you’re really seeing it.
The off ramp I was siting on on cuts under an overpass where I-395 continues on to D.C. There was an embankment in front of me, so I couldn’t see the Pentagon building directly, but a second later there was an explosion on the other side and a huge ball of orange fire billowed up in the sky.
After listening to the New York attacks, I realized we must be under some kind of siege and the first thing I thought was how many more planes are coming? How big is this? For a moment everyone in their cars sat there stunned, but then some of us got out of our vehicles and climbed up the embankment toward the pillar of smoke that was rising on the other side of the hill. At the top we looked down and saw the Pentagon surrounded in a dense fog of black smoke, orange flames licking the sky. Almost immediately the wind blew the sickening smell of a burning airliner toward us. It was an unbelievable sight and there’s just no way to describe how I felt at that moment.
It took several minutes before I heard any sirens or saw any flashing red lights, but by the time the emergency vehicles arrived we all started back down the embankment to our cars. I got in my car and Howard Stern and gang were still chattering away. I clicked the radio off and sat in silence, my hands shaking, heart pounding in my chest and there was only one thought in my head. “I’ve got to get out of here!” How in the world first responders can charge into situations like that escapes me. The instinct for survival is strong, and when there’s danger your first reaction is to run.
But we couldn’t run, we were stuck on the off ramp, and it was an uncomfortable half hour until police arrived and made everyone turn around and drive back up the wrong way and follow detours that took us away from D.C. I drove home wondering what in the world is happening? What was it all about? I had just seen something that I never thought I’d see outside of a bad science fiction movie.
It was a day that changed America forever. There’s no denying it. Some things will never be the same. But other things will. The triumph of courage over fear shown by rescue workers, many who lost their lives trying to help others; the readiness of men in uniform to defend and protect the nation and its people; and the hope that someday things will be better, that love can overcome hate, and reason will vanquish ignorance, those things still remain. There’s always hope.