It began like any other day. I was running a little late to work. Living in Arlington, Virginia and getting to my office in Alexandria was only about a ten mile drive. Right in the middle of my commute, on the George Washington Parkway, sat the Pentagon. It’s tall, fortress-like walls greeting me every day as I drove to work. Of course, this day would turn out to be very different.
I remember pulling into our parking deck at work and one of the local radio morning shows had just started conducting an interview with musician Ben Folds. The morning DJ interrupted to mention that something had hit one of the World Trade Center buildings. There was no alarm yet, just seemed like an oddity. It was first believed to be a small commuter plane.
I walked into work and immediately went to the first floor break room where we had a TV hoisted on the wall. I watched live coverage as commentators tried to make sense of what was happening. They kept racking their brains – even if there was some sort of navigational failure how could you hit that building on such a clear day? More of my coworkers began to trickle in and watch what was going on.
Then, we all watch aghast as the second plane crashed into the other tower, sending a fireball out the other side. I will never forget, Peter Jennings talking, then, as the second tower collapsed, being rendered speechless. It took him a while to compose himself to start talking again.
After a short time we all realized we were now looking at footage NOT from New York. Once you’ve lived in a place long enough you notice certain small landmarks or buildings that distinguish it from any other place. We were now looking at the Old Executive Office Building (next to the White House) and smoke rising in the background. This was here. Then an overhead shot of the Pentagon in flames.
It’s hard to explain the anxiety from that day. A plane headed for the Capitol? A car bomb at the State Department? More hijackings throughout the day?
They closed the office at around 11:00 a.m., but I stayed a little longer, unable to tear myself away from the TV. Finally I headed to my car. As soon as I opened the door leaving the building I could instantly smell the smoke, coughing as I walked to my car. And I had to go right by the Pentagon to get home. It was an eerie feeling. There was no other car on the GW Parkway and I was worried for a moment that I wasn’t supposed to be there. The scene near the Pentagon was chaotic – people walking down the side of the parkway as if they were refugees, the thick smoke billowing into the sky, about ten helicopters flying overhead.
Surreal is the only word that can describe what I felt that morning. Your adrenalin kicks in and your body says “OK, this is really happening.” I remember that night getting calls from family and friends, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in ages, just to know I was safe. The next day the Washington City Paper ran a front page that simply said in thick black letters on a stark white background: The First Day of the Rest of Our Lives. Even though it has been ten years since 9/11, the images and emotions from that day are still powerful to the American psyche.