Social historians tell us that there are one or two events in each generation that almost everybody remembers vividly – exactly what they were doing at the time they learned of the event, and what they did during the rest of the day. Two in my generation were the assassination of JFK and, of course, 9/11.
On the morning of 9/11, I was attending a meeting of the United States Postal Service Board of Governors in its eleventh floor meeting room at the L-Enfant Plaza headquarters building. The room, which is also used for grand receptions, enjoys a magnificent panoramic view of the Potomac River, looking almost directly down on the Pentagon.
The meeting began about eight-thirty a.m. Somewhere around nine, the Postmaster General briefly interrupted the meeting to announce that they had been a major airplane crash into the World Trade Center in New York. He would tell us as soon as he learned more. The meeting proceeded.
Around 9:40, a friend was aimlessly looking out the window toward the Pentagon. He suddenly said “Oh my God!” A few of us looked out and immediately saw a huge cloud of smoke and fire rising from the far side of the Pentagon. Our first thought was that a helicopter had crashed on Pentagon helipad. Probably less than a minute later, the Chief Postal Inspector came into the room, halted the meeting, and quietly addressed us.
He told us that an airliner had crashed into the Pentagon and that now two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center. While it was still not known exactly what was happening, he told us that it was imperative we immediately evacuate the building.
More than 100 of us calmly filed down the stairs to the tenth floor elevators, which took us down to the street exits and, one more stop down, to the entrance to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station.
The station by that time was mobbed, but there was no panic. I jammed myself into a Blue Line train going toward Roslyn. When we arrived, I exited to transfer to an Orange Line train to the Virginia Square Station, where I had parked my car.
That quickly proved to be impossible. So I went up and out, and began the long trek up Wilson Boulevard to my car and home on Military Road.
It was a somber walk for the hundreds of us who were doing the same thing. The roads were jammed. As I approached the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Wilson, it hit home that we were experiencing a major catastrophe. The entire street was closed to all but emergency traffic all the way to the Pentagon.
I finally got to my car almost two hours after I took the elevator down to L’Enfant Plaza. As I walked in the door, my wife was watching television – then showing a panoramic view of New York City. I couldn’t believe what I saw. There was no more World Trade Center! We remained glued to the television set for most of the rest of the day.
Fortunately, we had no friends or relatives who died that day’ but that did not diminish the emotional impact.
One thing all Arlingtonians should be proud of is the heroic first response of the Arlington police and fire departments. They were the true front line in the first day of our war against terrorism. Occasionally, I get a little irritated when a commentator will speak of the 9/11 terrorist attack on Washington. “No!” I call out to no one in particular, “it was Arlington!”
Be that as it may, it is a day that will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life. And what were you doing on 9/11? I know you remember every detail.