I remember being late for work that day and hearing on the radio that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. I pulled into my parking spot at the office a little after 9am and was about to open the car when I heard the DJ say in a hollow voice...
"Oh my God"
"Another plane just crashed into the other tower"
I paused in confusion. What was happening? I rushed into the office. I told my boss what I had heard and he said he already knew that a plane had crashed. I told him it was two planes. He looked up at me, confused. What was happening? We bolted into the conference room to turn on the TV.
We watched the smoke coming out of both towers on the television. I remember how bright and blue the sky was that day.
Then the reports showed a smoke plume in the distance and skyline of DC. No one knew where it was coming from until a few minutes later when they realized the smoke was coming from the Pentagon. What was happening?
I ran to my desk and called my sister to tell her I was nowhere near the Pentagon and was safe. I sent a text message to one of my closest friends in DC who replied back that he was in a basement in a government building in DC and that everyone was scared.
Right after I made that call the phone lines were jammed. I remember feeling relief that I was able to make that call before that happened so my parents wouldn’t worry.
I went back into the conference room and stared at the TV in stunned silence.
Someone mentioned we were about 1 mile from the CIA headquarters. We didn't know what to do. We seemed to be very close to a potential target.
There were three of us left in the room watching Peter Jennings when the first tower fell. I asked my boss "Did that really just happen?" She looked at me and couldn't speak. We watched in silent disbelief. Then the second tower fell. We cried.
There were reports of another plane. Somewhere in the sky. Where was it going? The White House? The Capitol? I still pause for a second every time I see the Capitol dome and say a silent little prayer to the heroes on Flight 93. Who knows if it would still be standing if not for them?
I didn't know what to do with myself so I went back to my desk and stared at the wall. I couldn’t watch the towers fall again and again on the continuous loop they were showing on ABC.
I worked in McLean, VA but lived in Chevy Chase, MD. I would have to cross a bridge and two state lines to go home. The rumor was that no roads or bridges were open.
Around 5pm, I couldn’t take it anymore - what the hell was I doing in the office when the whole world just went mad? I wanted to go home.
I drove up the George Washington Parkway. At 5pm. Rush hour - this road is usually a parking lot. I was the only car on the road besides the VA State Police with their blue flashing lights. I drove slowly. It was eerie.
I approached the Key Bridge. There was a tank on the median. And soldiers in the street. With machine guns. I could see the Washington Monument in the distance across the Potomac. I remember thinking "There are soldiers with guns in the street in my country. In the United States of America. I am an American citizen being stopped at a bridge by soldiers before I am allowed to pass." What was happening?
They waved me across. I made it home.
I spent the evening watching the news, writing frantic emails and making calls to confirm that everyone I knew in NY and DC was ok.
I was thinking of all the firefighters. I confirmed Firefighter Rocco, my brother, was not in harms way here in VA. I remember the haunting sound of the firefighter rescue beacons that you could hear ringing on the TV. At the time, it was the sound of hope – they’d get those guys out.
- Number of firefighters and paramedics killed: 343
- Number of NYPD officers: 23
- Number of Port Authority police officers: 37
That night at about 3am - a car backfired loudly in the street right outside my window. It startled me awake and short circuited my nerves. I didn't stop shaking for hours.
With so many Colgate classmates in NYC, I breathed a guilt ridden sigh of relief when I confirmed that no one I knew was killed.
A few days later I received an email from Colgate that one of my classmates fell while hiking and died. Guilty relief was replaced by great sorrow. This can't be happening. Not now. Not now.
A couple days went by and I was driving down 395 South. I didn’t realize I would be that close to the Pentagon section that was hit. I stared in awe at the blackened and collapsed wall and could barely keep my car on the road. There it was - a few lanes of traffic and a parking lot away.
Friday - I wanted to go to the Memorial Service at the National Cathedral. But I couldn’t even bring myself to get out of bed until late afternoon. I just wanted to sleep for a very long time. And when I woke up maybe I would find out this was all a very bad nightmare.
Saturday, Sept 15th, we had planned a party way in advance to all hell breaking loose. We decided to still have the party. People needed to be together. It was the first day planes were authorized to fly again. Everyone paused what they were doing and stared up at the sky every time a plane flew over.
I went to a flag store earlier that day. They were sold out of flags. The shopkeeper went into the back and dusted off an old box and came out with a bunch of old 48 star flags. We bought him out.
One month later.
Columbus Day weekend. I took a trip to NY. To the site. It was still smoldering. And it smelled like an electrical fire. A tomb. And there were still soldiers in the street in my country. We sent the troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan that day.
2 months pass.
We didn’t get any mail for a few days. Anthrax. What was happening? Five people die. A few weeks go by and I came home to a huge pile of brittle and yellow tinted mail. This was the mail that was treated after it went thru the Brentwood processing station where 2 people died. Nobody wanted to touch it.
A few months pass.
Right after September 11th someone spray painted a flag on the big rectangular concrete sign on the Virginia side of the appropriately named "Francis Scott Key" Bridge. A few months later someone painted the words - "Support the Troops" - on the flag.
Time passed and I noticed one day that the sign was changed again. It said "Fuck the Troops" in big black block letters. I continued driving to class but I was troubled all day.
Later that day after class, I started walking from George Washington University up M street thru Georgetown towards the bridge where the sign was. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t on my way home. But I just felt like I needed to go see the sign because I couldn't get it out of my mind all day. On the way I passed an art store. I went in. I don’t remember making these decisions consciously - it just kind of happened that way – that there was an art supply store on the way to the bridge I don’t normally walk past that had a very bad message painted on it.
I bought 6 cans of spray paint - 2 red, 2 white, 2 blue.
I walked across the bridge – the same bridge where a few months ago a tank had its gun pointed at my car and where soldiers stood in the street with machine guns. And I started to paint over the black letters.
People started to honk and yell at me. I realized it looked like I was painting the words on the sign instead of cleaning it up. I got a little nervous since this was my first time at graffiti. I started to work faster. It is very hard to cover up hateful black paint with white and red stripes.
A police officer showed up.
"What are you doing?"
"I’m trying to fix it."
“WHAT. Are. You. Doing?"
"Uhh, I’m just trying to fix it."
I held out my palms - "Look at my hands."
He saw the paint - he saw the colors on my hands.
"If you want to arrest me - can you please wait until I am finished fixing it?"
He looked up from my hands, tipped his hat and said "Ma'am you have yourself a nice day" and got back into his cruiser and drove away.
It took a lot of coats but eventually I painted a nice Stars and Stripes in what was my first and last act of defacing public property. I think I even got the number of stripes right (13). Though I might have excluded a few states as I couldn’t fit 50 stars on my little spray painted flag as I have no sense of scale.
I remember feelng very helpless after September 11th. At the spot where I encountered a tank on my way home from work the day the world changed I had my own little public art therapy session.
Many thoughts and prayers today - for all of the families and victims.
On a typical weekday 50,000 people worked in the towers. The only sliver of comfort in the whole day is that thanks to the way we are in this country - because helping others and bravery are ingranined into us as Americans - it wasn't tens of thousands of lives lost as we all thought it might be that day. The evacuation amongst the chaos was almost orderly as thousands of people walked down flights of stairs. For the most part people who were in floors below the impact of the planes got out. It was the people in the planes, and above the impact floors and in the offices in the Pentagon that had no chance to evacuate who died - over 2,800 people. And the firefighters, police officers and EMTs.
My thoughts are focused on the brave rescue personnel – the ones who ran up into the burning towers while everyone else ran down.
PS: My flag was there for awhile before the county sandblasted it off eventually.