Monday, September 10, 2007

9/11 - My story

(I originally wrote this piece two years ago.)

As I've written before, we homeschool our four children. One of the great things about that is that allows for tremendous flexibility in what you do, where you go and when you travel. In the spring of 2001, my wife and kids (8, 7, 5 and 3 at the time) started planning a field trip. They decided that we'd visit our nation's capitol. So they got guide books, found a hotel, and started putting together an itinerary. They studied the history of Washington, figured out where and when we could go, what we could see, and booked hotel rooms. We chose early September, after the summer vacations ended but before we thought school field trips would be in full swing, figuring that we'd have good access without big crowds to the sights we wanted to see.

So, on a Sunday morning in September, we loaded up our van and started south. We stopped a couple of times for bathroom breaks along the way, and made our way from Massachusetts to Washington, DC. One of our bathroom breaks was at the Vince Lombardi rest area on the New Jersey turnpike. As we got back in the car, I said to the kids, "Look over that way. See that tall building, the highest one? You watch as we drive here, and you're going to see that it's actually two buildings. They're called the Twin Towers, and they're the tallest buildings in NY." So we watched as we drove, and saw the buildings separate.

In Baltimore, we stopped at Fort McHenry. Our timing was just right, as we got to watch them take down the flag. And it was the big flag, the replica of the flag that was flying when Key penned the Star Spangled Banner. It's so large that they cannot actually fly it very often. If there's no wind, it doesn't move, and if there's too much, it's a threat to the flagpole and the flag itself. But it was a lovely day, with just the right amount of wind, and we saw it fly, and saw them take it down. You really need to see it being handled to get the perspective on how large it really is.

We made it into Washington in the late afternoon and drove around a little bit before finding the hotel. We drove around the mall, across the river to Arlington, and back around the city. Then we settled in to get some dinner and some sleep so we could get an early start the next day. We stayed at the hotel Harrington, just up the block from the Old Post Office building, and within pretty easy walking distance of everything that we wanted to see.

Monday was a busy day. We got off to an early start, before anything was open, and walked over to the mall. We stood at the Washington Monument for a few minutes, enjoying the view of everything that's viewable, and then started towards the Smithsonian.

We went into the Smithsonian castle for a little while, and then up to the Air and Space Museum, where we spent most of that day. At around noon, we crossed over to the National Gallery and had lunch, as the restaurants at Air and Space weren't open. We went back to Air and Space and enjoyed the rest of our afternoon, found some dinner, and put the kids to bed.

Tuesday's plan was to go to the Museum of American History. Or possibly Natural History. I'm not sure which. But the first thing that we did was to get on the metro and head to the Capitol building for a tour there. It was a beautiful morning, clear skies, not too hot or too cool, and everything was lovely.

We got into the line out front, got passes from the Ranger, and settled down to wait.

Shortly after we'd gotten into line, the rumor started that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in NY. Thinking it was a small plane, like the one that had crashed into the Empire State Building some years ago, we didn't let it impact what we were doing. As the tour group was going in, we had to go in the downstairs entrance, because we had a stroller, and when we were going through security, the uniformed officers were talking about the event in NY. That's when we learned that there had been a second crash, and that both planes were apparently commercial jets.

At that point, it was obviously a coordinated attack. But we were in the Capitol building, with four small children, and everyone was going on with the day, so we did as well. We took an elevator up and met up with our tour in the rotunda. Our guide gave us the background on the rotunda, all of the normal tourist information, the whos and whens, and then we moved on into statuary hall. As a native of Maine, I was attracted to the statue of Hannibal Hamlin, the only VP ever from the state of Maine, and I took this picture of my 8-year old. As I was doing that, the Pentagon was being hit.

Less than 30 seconds after that picture was taken, something happened, someone came running through the hall, and people started running for the exits. I still don't know what was said (though I had the perception that it was a bomb scare), but there was panic, and the crowd was moving. Fortunately, we were all together, but we had three walking and one in a stroller, and two of the kids got knocked down, and the stroller got pushed into one of the velvet ropes in the melee. By the time we got everyone upright again, most of the crowd was in front of us. A security guard led us to an elevator, and we went back down to the ground floor and out through an exit on the south side of the building. The first thing that met the eye was thick black smoke, lots of it, over the buildings facing southwest.

With nothing else to do, we started wandering around toward the mall, thinking at first that we might go to the museums as we'd planned, but knowing that was unlikely. As we stopped in front of the Capitol to take a picture, there was a huge boom that sounded like an explosion. (Looking at the timeline later, we determined that it been the sound of that section of the Pentagon collapsing.) Then, knowing that we weren't going to get into any museums that day, we started walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, heading back to the hotel.

The streets of Washington were filled with people. Washington's a company town, that company is the government, and it closed down. Every street was filled with cars (what I said at the time was that, for about two hours, no one was leaving Washington because everyone was leaving Washington), every sidewalk was filled with people. There were people who'd gotten out of their offices without keys, people without phones, without purses and money. There was a group of Congressional pages being led out of the Capitol back to their housing, and a woman who'd gotten kicked out of the Capitol without any shoes on her feet.

There were rumors flying wildly around, as no one really knew anything except that the Twin Towers in NY had been hit. We were told, as fact, that the Supreme Court had been hit. We were told, as fact, that a car bomb had gone off at the State Department. At one point we had to detour around some building because there was a cardboard box under a bench in front of it, and the police wouldn't let anyone pass by.

Eventually, we got back to the hotel, where we were able to call friends and family to let them know we were OK. We only had one room, and I really didn't want to watch any of the television coverage with the kids in the room, so, upon discovering that the local PBS station was showing "Sesame Street," we let the kids watch while I plugged in my laptop, figuring that there was no way I'd actually be able to get to the internet. But, as I mentioned earlier, the city was becoming a ghost town, and I didn't have any problem. The first thing I saw was this picture at the Drudge Report.

It made me feel sick.

Down the hall from us, there was a group of junior high school kids from New York. They'd checked out in the morning, then been unable to actually leave because of everything that had happened. The hotel had put them into a large conference room for the time being. There were a couple of them in distress, with parents that worked in the towers. I was able to send a couple of e-mails to people and actually spread some good news to both kids and parents over the next couple of hours.

Later that afternoon, the city streets, which had been so full earlier, were empty. We'd see the occasional groups of men walking arounds with earpieces and wrist mikes, but there was little to no foot traffic other than that. And there weren't many cars left, either, as people had vacated Washington. The information that I had, I got off the web, but it was all sketchy, and, not having seen the footage of the towers collapsing, I didn't understand that that had happened. There was a little information, and a lot of misinformation.

We'd been planning to meet some friends from south-east Pennsylvania at the Nation Zoo on Thursday. As Tuesday afternoon went on, we decided that there wasn't any point in staying in DC. We weren't fleeing - my take on it was that there was no way on God's earth that anything else was going to happen in Washington that day. No planes were going to fly, and anyone who wanted to set off a bomb and kill people had largely missed his chance. No, we were tourists, and everything that we wanted to see was going to be closed for the rest of our trip. So we checked out, loaded everything into the car, and headed to Pennsylvania. (Another piece of information came at a gas station/convenience store in Maryland, as I was told by someone who KNEW that the Air Force had shot down the plane in Pennsylvania.) There was a brief moment when I debated whether to go through the long tunnel in Baltimore, but decided it was probably not an issue. It was late afternoon, with the kids all playing outside, when I finally saw the footage of the towers collapsing, and the enormity of what had happened began to sink in...

(I originally wrote and posted this 2 years ago.)

On Thursday, we drove home, seeing the NY skyline without the towers and with smoke still billowing. A few days later, I saw the picture that I've thought about, and considered prayerfully, many times in the past four years.

I don't know why they hit the Pentagon instead of the Capitol building, but if they'd come a little bit north-east, I wouldn't be here today. I didn't lose anyone in the attacks, but I took them personally...


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