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Sep 11 2014

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Remembrance on 9-11

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I Will Never Forget....

I Will Never Forget….

The freshman class that just entered college were in kindergarten when terrorists struck America thirteen years ago today. But the passage of time does nothing to dull the senses or emotions inexorably linked to that Tuesday.

My memory of the day was etched early, before the violence and carnage. I remember the chill in the air as I collected the morning paper outside my door; a welcome change from the steamy Washington summer.

Heading east into Washington, DC for work, I was transfixed by a cloudless sky so piercingly blue as to take your breath away.  As I approached the District and its familiar monuments, the rising sun and clear sky made the buildings of the capital gleam, looking almost fresh and new, full of promise and potential.

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 at the scene of the catastrophes as they occurred, as many of my friends in New York were. 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. 13 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 for me. I knew the insides of those buildings, and it was simply shocking to accept that these structures had become the first targets in a new war.

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 in real-time and to plan coherent next steps.

The leadership of my agency was quick to react, convening a meeting to identify steps to shelter and protect our employees in place. We went about tracking down those that were flying that day. We put in place an  plan to account for staff, create phone trees and collect emergency contact information to ensure there was a process to keep employees informed of the latest developments if standard communications failed. We decided to immediately scavenge local delis for supplies of food and water to sustain our employees in the case of a prolonged 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 contingency planning that became all too normal.

I remember the palpable anxiety outside our building on New York Avenue, NW, four blocks from the White House. 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. It was like a scene out of the 80s TV movie, “The Day After.”

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 ducked against the nearest building and looked up and around.

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.

But we were also a city under attack. From my office window, I could see the smoke from the Pentagon rising in the distance. I remember the facial expressions of my colleagues as we were told that there was an aircraft headed for Washington; the flight that Todd Beamer and the other passengers of Flight 93 courageously stopped.  The 9-11 Commission later established that Flight 93 would have been in position to hit targets in Washington between 10:15-10:20am. The White House or the Capitol would certainly have been destroyed in such an attack, adding to the destructing and mayhem.

I remember the sense of panic at the White House as Secret Service agents rushed employees out the doors, women carrying their heels in hand as they sprinted away from the White House complex.

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 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 spats, money problems, proud parents, new beginnings. 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 about to be visited upon them.

Although the grave damage to the Towers had become clear right after the attacks, it simply didn’t occur to me that more destruction lay 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,  feeling uniquely exposed by the presence of men, dressed in black combat outfits and carrying heavy automatic weapons, blocking the street to the White House, and eying me intently. 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.

The encounter gave tangible measure to the gravity of the day.

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 on TV, and at a distance from my office,  but the repetition had not prepared me for the impact of this close up reality. I remember a thick black oily cloud mixed with a silted, almost gentle light brown that didn’t seem to belong together. I remember the burning smell.  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, those that were still on the road drove at the speed limit and not a mile per hour 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 102 minutes. That was the time-lapse from the attack on the North Tower until Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.

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, killing thousands indiscriminately. 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.

To this day, as I drive into Washington in the early 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.

Among the keepsakes I have from that day is a paper copy of my schedule for September 11th. I had printed it out the night before, and left it on my desk for easy reference the next day.  It is like a time capsule, an artifact of a set of assumptions so at odds with the world that has developed since. 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.

May god bless those who died 13 years ago today, and may He also watch over those who have had family and friends torn away, and have had to live on.

I will pray for you all today.

And I promise.

I will never forget.

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