Monday, September 06, 2021

My 9/11 Story

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is this Saturday, and there will probably be many TV shows, videos, and articles to commemorate this tragedy. I realized that I never really shared where I was on 9/11, so I thought I would do that now.

I moved to Alexandria, Virginia on August 1st, 2001 after earning my Masters degree in higher education a few months earlier. My girlfriend (who is now my wife) got a job in Fairfax County and although I didn't have a job yet, I figured that the Washington DC area was a great place for me with so many colleges and universities here. While I applied for many positions, nothing panned out, so I went to a temp agency. My first job was a 3-day gig demonstrating a Harry Potter board game at the Springfield Mall. No, not this Springfield Mall.

My next temp job was doing data entry at an educational organization in Old Town Alexandria. The job and organization had nothing to do with my Masters degree, but while I continued looking for a full-time job in my field, I had to pay the rent. On Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, I was driving from my apartment to that job listening to Howard Stern when I heard about the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center. It was unclear what was happening, and I parked and arrived at the office when the second plane hit. That was when everyone started to realize the gravity of the situation. The organization didn't have a television, so we gathered around a radio to get news. There were much fewer websites in 2001, and sites where you could look for information like ABC or CNN couldn't handle the traffic. Any news websites were painfully slow if you could even get on. Cell phone service was also non-existent with everyone calling each other. In 2001, you couldn't use your cell phone to browse the internet, and I don't think that texting was even an option. (I didn't even have a cell phone yet.) So we just sat there, mostly in silence, listening to the radio.* 

There was a lot of confusion and information being thrown around. Besides the World Trade Center, I remember there being reports about something happening in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and a bombing at the State Department in DC. Those turned out to be false. A plane hitting the Pentagon in Arlington and another plane crashing in Shanksville, PA were sadly true. 

After a few hours, the company's director told us to go home. Everyone was in shock and no one could do any work. It was a surreal drive home. I was only 6 miles away from the Pentagon and could smell burnt metal. There was lots of traffic, but it was extremely quiet. 

I don't remember much from the rest of the day. I was pretty much glued to the TV watching videos of the plane hitting the second tower and then the two towers both going down. I talked to my parents at some point. Some friends knew that I moved to the DC area but didn't know exactly where, so they wanted to make sure I was okay. I tried to contact several friends in New York to make sure they were okay.

Things were eerie in the DC area for weeks and months after 9/11. Washington National Airport was closed for some time. For any flights out of Washington Dulles, the flight crew would announce that you could not stand up for the first 30 minutes. You couldn't stand up during the last 30 minutes descending into DC either. There were definitely dirty looks from passengers and angry announcements by airplane staff if someone did. The Pentagon Metro station was also closed for months. I remember taking the Blue Line from the Franconia/Springfield station into DC, and you would pass right through an empty Pentagon station. 

As for me, I returned to the temp job either on Wednesday or Thursday and stayed for a few more weeks. Then, I got a job with a company that did emergency management. Only a few weeks into this, I traveled to Florida to do a training scenario with a local community's lead public employees in government, police, fire, etc. Since this wasn't exactly a "high profile" target location, the scenario was that a terrorist was driving a dirty bomb from one place to another and crashed in this area. Everyone had to describe what to do and how they would communicate. Most of what I did was change the slides of a presentation. 

This was also around the time of Anthrax attacks where this poisonous powder was mailed to Senators and media members. The company received a contract to figure out contingency plans if a big government agency could no longer use their space. How many offices would be needed and how many people could fit in the office? What supplies and equipment would be needed? I learned a lot about OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations. I also learned that I shouldn't have worn a Steelers short-sleeve polo shirt to an important meeting where everyone else wore suits and ties and dresses. I stayed at this job for a few months before they didn't have enough work to keep me. I also got a security clearance that has now lapsed many years ago.  

After 9/11, people definitely seemed nicer to each other (though this wasn't the case for many Muslims and Sikhs in America). People were scared but also came together. As we know, that didn't last. 20 years is a really long time. Current college students and anyone younger than that have no direct recollection of 9/11. For example, Katie Ledecky was 4. Najee Harris was 3. Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo weren't born yet. For my kids who are in elementary school with little sense of time and history, 9/11 and World War II could have happened around the same time.

I'm writing this just before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. This is a time of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah meaning repentance, prayer, and charity. It's also a time of reflection. Given that I'm writing just before the Rosh Hashanah, I'll probably think about 9/11 and the aftermath at some point, possibly if my mind wanders during services. I'll also watch some of the 9/11 programming for this 20th anniversary and be transported back to 2001. Please be good to one another.

* I don't want to share the name of the radio personality here, but I remember one specifically saying that this (meaning 9/11) would still be remembered in 1,000 years. Even during the shock of the moment, I found this to be a ridiculous statement. I mean, what do you know that occurred 1,000 years ago? Maybe the Battle of Hastings? The Magna Carta (which was actually 800 years ago but I had to look that up)? 

UPDATE: After I published this post, I remembered something from just after 9/11. Not long after I started working for the emergency management company, my supervisor and I drove over the American Legion bridge connecting Virginia and Washington DC. He noticed the wind direction and said it was important on the direction to leave DC in case there was a dirty bomb. Good times!

Photos by Robert Clark, the US Department of Defense website, and Jin S. Lee from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum website.

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