Sep 11 2008

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Thoughts on 9-11

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Like a box of photos stored away for special viewing, each of us has a unique memory of September 11, 2001.

My memory of the day was etched early, well before the multiple, tragic events that would later occur.

Driving to work, I was startled by a sky that was so piercingly blue that it was almost moving. The visual beauty was complemented by surprisingly crisp, almost cold morning air that was such a change from the hanging humidity of August. Approaching Washington from the west, the rising sun and clear sky made the buildings of the capital gleam, looking almost fresh and new.

This was the first in a day full of studied contrasts.

Like so many others, I was a simple bystander to the great events that played out around me on 9-11. I wasn’t a first responder or an eye witness to the catastrophes as they occurred, as many of my friends in New York were.  I watched the day play out on TV, huddled with coworkers, worried about the safety of friends and family, doing what I could to bring order to the space around me.

But like any group that bears witness to tragedy, I was emotionally connected to the events of the day and to those that were with me, as part of our collective national family. Like that box of photos, 9-11 is stored in the abstract until taken out where it suddenly breathes with life. Seven years on, the same emotions of the day awake, seemingly as authentic and intense as when they were new.

As a native New Yorker, the Twin Towers were iconic for  me growing up.  I also had the unusual distinction of having worked at both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon during my career before 9-11, which engendered a unique intimacy to the day.

The confusion that defined the great actions of the day was played out on smaller stages, in agencies and companies across town, as leaders and managers tried to make sense of what was happening and what to do next.

My own leadership was quick to react, convening a meeting to identify steps to shelter and protect our employees. We discussed accounting of staff, phone trees, emergency contact information, as well as securing adequate supplies of food and water in the case of a city-wide lockdown. These were all new and unfamiliar things which we pursued in a rushed and ad hoc basis at best.

They would later become a basic feature of future disaster planning.

I remember the controlled anxiety outside our building on New York Avenue.

Traffic gridlock so tight that there was barely enough room for pedestrians to cross from one side of the street to another without scraping car bumpers. I was startled to see a fighter plane circling the city, the only time I had ever seen military aircraft in DC airspace outside of a parade.

When a large 18-wheeler carrying steel girders hit a pothole, creating an impossibly loud noise, the people walking on the sidewalk along side me instinctively looked up and ducked.

It was surreal.

Back in my office, we waited. With the intensity of events, rumor outran fact on the network news. There were reports of bombings at the State Department and Capitol, and a fire on the Mall, all later proven false. Despite the rumors, you could turn from the TV to the window to get two different views of smoke from the burning Pentagon.

In a day of epic events, I watched the collapse of the World Trade Center almost by accident. I was in a colleague’s office making small talk when, suddenly, the building started to fall. I was transfixed. Seeing, but not fully comprehending.

I lived a flash back to my days in New York, with vivid memories of the rush hour crowds, the commuters and workers, the noises, even the smells. I remembered the conversations of business deals and gossip, of date’s gone bad and marital fights, money problems and career balance. Those were work-a-day issues from people, each with a unique story, who would never have thought that they would suddenly be at the epicenter of horror in the first battle of a new war.

Although the grave damage to the Towers had become clear right after the attacks, it simply didn’t occur to me that more destruction laid ahead. Like the “unsinkable Titanic” it just didn’t seem possible that the great buildings could fall. Amid the noise and smoke and chaos that played out before me, a co-worker and friend reached out and hugged me, a very human gesture amid such physical ruin and suffering.

I left Washington that day in the late afternoon, the city long since deserted.

 I drove down New York Avenue to 15th Street, aware of and feeling uniquely exposed by the presence of men, dressed in black and carrying heavy automatic weapons, blocking the street to the White House. I rolled down my windows, took off my sunglasses, and slowed to a crawl, my directional on despite the absence of traffic, to make sure they could read my intentions.

There were few cars on the road as I headed toward the 14th Street Bridge and Virginia. As I passed the Jefferson Memorial and crested the small hill leading to the bridge, I saw the Pentagon and the smoke still swirling from it.

I had seen the image all day, but the repetition had not prepared me for the impact of this reality. I remember a thick black cloud mixed with a silted, almost gentle light brown that didn’t seem to belong together. In the silence of my car, I could only wonder about the chaos in the building, the survivors and rescue crews, and those that were less lucky.

Driving home, the roads were mostly empty.  Strangely, everyone seemed to drive at the speed limit and no more. It was if by doing so we prevented any further tear to our national fabric that had resulted from the day’s events.

With the Towers gone, the Pentagon burning and Flight 93 downed in Pennsylvania, it was over. The worst attack on American soil since the British advance on Washington 187 years before was finished in a matter of hours.

But we didn’t know that.

Not then and not for the days that followed when a simple ambulance siren stirred adrenaline and dread.

9-11 was a national tragedy but my experience with it was also deeply personal. The abstract of jihad, and of terrorism in places far away had been visited upon my country and my hometown without warning. The invisible and illusory sense of security I had felt was gone.

History lost its order on 9-11. Assumptions were scrambled beyond recognition. The day became a new reference point, a chronological “Ground Zero”, for both the nation and each of us as individuals.

Coming to work each morning, I see the planes that come in low to land at Reagan National Airport. At different points in the year, the rising sun will cast the planes as black shadows, and as they arc and dip to line up correctly, my mind automatically returns to September 11th.

Not too long ago, I found a paper copy of my schedule for September 11th.  It had been on my desk that morning and somehow had managed to avoid all the routine paper purges since.

It is like a time capsule, and artifact of a set of assumptions so at odds with the world that developed since.

When we remember September 11th, I will invariably miss the assuredness and security that was embodied in September 10th, found in the appointments on that calendar. I keep the sheet as a memento to a different and somehow safer and more confident time, and as a reminder that history can change on a dime when you least expect it.

Seven years ago, September 12th was the beginning of a different America. Each year since, on that day, I have resolved, if only in my own small way, to help make it a better America as well.

Renewal can be the flip side of tragedy.

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