Back then, I lived only a few blocks from the Pentagon and could see it burning from my apartment window. White smoke curled against the sky like some ominous papal decree. An occasional flicker of red was blocked out by a film of virulent pewter haze; a horror film come to life.
The news reports were impossible to believe. Every few minutes they reported another bomb at the State Department, or the White House, then showed thousands of people fleeing the Capitol. All I could think of was my husband in the midst of all that. Where was he? Was he okay? Cell phones were down — one of the reasons I will not abandon my landline even today. Relatives from all over the country called our home to find out if I had news of daughters and sons working in DC. They knew it was impossible for me to tell them much, but the fright of parents had them clutching straws.
To get a better idea of the situation, I and another tenant went to our apartment building’s roof. It was littered with shrapnel from the crash. Twenty floors below, we heard whistles and police ordering people to get down. People ran through the nearby park, through the fountain, and threw themselves on the ground, fearing another plane attack. There was no place for my fellow tenant or me to run. Like terrified statues, we watched the events unfold, not knowing if these were our last moments on earth.
My husband finally called for news. At work, there was no TV or radio to update him. He was the last person to leave the large office where he was employed, determined to make sure everyone got out safely. It wasn’t his job, but I am proud of the fact that he cared so much for others — everyone else thought solely of their own skins. He is my unsung, real life hero.
He came home with refugees — a woman, eight months pregnant, stranded when the rail lines shut down, and an intern who didn’t know her way around the city and had no place to go. Of course, this was the day I’d planned to go shopping, we were terribly low on food, but I knew we’d make do.
The metro stopped long before they got to our home. They were forced to walk the rest of the way. He worried the pregnant woman couldn’t make it and called from a pay phone for me to come and get them (How I worry about losing all our pay phones!). Below me, I could see the streets packed with cars and pedestrians. No one was moving in any direction. I told him, it’d probably take me four hours to make the few miles. He decided they should keep walking.
Eventually, as night fell, the wind changed, bringing the foul, dense, greasy smoke from the Pentagon roiling down the corridors of our building. We had to evacuate. The streets were like those of a ghost town. Nothing was open, and we were grateful to have half a tank of gas, since there was no place to get more. Ironically, the barricades forced us deeper into DC — we couldn’t go south into Virginia. Arrangements were made for our guests to go home by train — since the rails were finally back in service and we couldn’t drive in that direction. Shaking, we drove through deserted DC, wondering if we’d make it across the border to a Maryland friend who’d offered us shelter for the night. A trip that should have taken half an hour took more than two. The relief and joy of being together, and safe, was indescribable.
People said we’d never get past 9/11, but we did. The nation pulled together, and I hope we can do it again. Our country needs it now so badly. Our economic plight puts us in more jeopardy than any terror attack — but like any other form of cancer, it’s silent until it’s almost too late. It’s time to stop worrying if we’re Democrats or Republicans and vote for people instead of parties.
We need to be only one thing — Americans.
(c) 2012 photos and text Diana Belchase