In 2001, within days of President George W. Bush being inaugurated, I joined his administration as an appointee at the U.S. Department of Labor. In the months before September 11th, new staff from the Administration was joining and we were beginning to implement the President’s agenda. Business was normal on September 10th and we had no idea how much different September 11th would be.
If you have spent any time in Washington, DC you know that in most government offices, there are TV’s to help keep people up to speed on the news of the day. You just never know when something will happen each day to throw your schedule out the door. On September 11th, as I walked into my office, the first plane was flying into the World Trade Center. Being naïve, and not even for a second thinking about terrorism, I remember questioning the abilities of the pilot. But otherwise, I didn’t really give it a second thought. I was more focused on what I needed to accomplish that day. Shortly later we were in a morning staff meeting when the second plane hit the other tower. At this point I believe the light turned on for all of us that this was not an issue of incompetent pilots but rather an attack. As we, and others in DC, started to realize these were not mistakes, rumors started flying.
For those of you who may not have been old enough to work at the time, please remember we did not have the same communication tools you have today. Yes we had cell phones, but on September 11th after the attacks started, getting through to anyone was a challenge. Our only real option for communication was email from our computers, our desk phones, or a cell phone. I feel old saying this but Twitter, TikTok. Instagram or Facebook had not been invented or released yet. Needless to say, communication was a challenge.
When I heard something had happened at the Pentagon, I went to the top floor of the Department of Labor where there was a cafeteria at the time. (I don’t know if it is still there) As I went out on the patio to see what I could see, you could see the black smoke coming from the direction of the Pentagon. As rumors were swirling about more planes or bombs targeting other major buildings like the Capital, White House and State Department, I remember looking to see if there was any smoke anywhere else in the area but seeing nothing. It never crossed my mind that being outside about 6 stories up near the Capital was probably not the wisest choice I could have made.
Being that I was a lower-level staffer at the Department of Labor, I did not have a parking spot. My fiancée, now wife, used to drive us both into work as she was working at the U.S. Department of Education. When I left the Department of Labor, I walked across the mall to the Department of Education to get out of the city and head home. On the walk, there were fighter jets that flew over the Mall that absolutely terrified me in the moment. I also saw the gridlock that took place. Everyone was trying to leave at once and nobody was going anywhere.
What still sets my blood boiling today is my drive home when we were finally able to get out of DC. Like many young staffers working on the Hill, or in government, I lived in Shirlington, a little development off King Street and 395 that was used as military housing during WWII. Generally, it was a fairly easy commute home, but on this day, it took forever. As I watched people cross the 14th Street Bridge on foot, you could see the heavy smoke at the Pentagon, but you couldn’t see much of the site where the plane hit. However, that didn’t stop the driver in front of me from swerving across the bridge onto 395 with a 35 mm camera out the driver side window taking pictures of the smoke and the Pentagon. To me it felt disrespectful, obscene and dangerous. Every time I think of that drive and that driver, I get angry. Even right now. For weeks afterword as I would go into work, I would drive by the Pentagon and see the smoke, and then the rebuilding of the Pentagon. It was a constant reminder of the attacks of 9/11 and I will remember it vividly for the rest of my life. While thankfully, my story is more of fear and stupidity, it is a moment in time that we cannot ignore or forget. Now 20 years later it is as vivid to me today as it was then.