Monday, September 13, 2010

September Memories

I was in Seattle on September 11, 2001. I'd arrived the night before, and I was staying at a hotel next to the old public library that was under demolition. In the morning, I'd be conducting a training for new federal employees for the agency I was working for.

I woke up at 6:00am to the persistent sound of sirens outside; it sounded like a major emergency of some sort. I looked out the window and saw the partially demolished remains of the public library. There were some flashing lights somewhere in the distance, but I couldn't see where. Something was going on, but I had no idea what.

I turned on the teevee. I believe it was CBS news (with Dan Rather) was showing the World Trade Center tower on fire. They didn't know just what had happened or how, but it was thought that a small plane had collided with the building. Rescue efforts were under way. I flipped through the channels, and all the news shows were showing the same thing, from slightly different angles, but essentially the same. Much chatter about it, but no real news.

I did my morning routine, then went back to look at the teevee; I saw a plane headed toward the other tower and then a huge explosion out the side of the building. The astonishment I felt was mirrored by the newscaster, another "small plane?"

This couldn't be happening.

At that point, I did not think it was real. Call it basic denial, but what I was seeing struck me as some kind of staged spectacle -- which, if the stories be true, it was.

The report came in that the Pentagon had been hit by a plane or a missile. "We're under attack!"

The South Tower commenced to collapse. It was inconceivable.

I called the office -- located on an upper floor of one of Seattle's tallest buildings -- shortly after 7:00am when employees should be shuffling in to start their day. The person who answered the phone was someone I'd known for a long time, and she was in shock. She said she was almost the only one there, and she was terrified. "What if they hit here?"


"The people who did this."

She said that as far as she knew, everyone was called in to work normally, and she was frightened, terribly, for them and for her, and she asked me if I felt it was OK to go ahead with planned activities today. I asked her if they had heard anything from Washington.

She said not yet, she just got there. But she thought the Assistant Director should be arriving soon, and there would probably be a general message of some sort. She asked whether I was coming in (I was staying only a few blocks from the office.) I said yes, I'd be there about 7:30. She said, "Be safe." I said, "You too."

I continued to watch dumbfounded as the level of reporting deteriorated and hysteria increased. A huge cloud of gray dust covered lower Manhattan and out into the Hudson while the other tower continued to burn. There were reports of car-bomb explosions all over Washington.

I headed to the office.

When I got upstairs and into the secure area, most of the employees were gathered in a small auditorium watching television. The other tower had collapsed while I was on my way to the office. The level of shock was unimaginable.

There had been no word from Washington, but we were told that the Regional Director was on the phone with headquarters and we would receive word shortly. There were sporadic reports on the teevee about Bush and his activities in Florida and then getting on AF-1 and going... where?

Flights were being cancelled, then word came that all planes were grounded indefinitely. The Assistant Director told us that Washington was giving us the option of continuing with our schedule or going home today.

Probably half opted for home. The rest, including me, stayed. I couldn't exactly get home, as it were, since all flights were grounded. So I decided to go ahead with the training that was scheduled. It was a chore. But the trainees (who were also mostly from out of town and could not get home either) said they were grateful to have something to take their minds off... events.

We did a half-day training the first day. I let the trainees go watch teevee or make phone calls or whatever they felt they needed to do. We'd just take it one day at a time.

Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out if I could rent a car and drive home. Sure enough, Alamo had a special deal for Federal employees: one way rental at a reduced price and no drop off fee. I reserved a car for Saturday pick up, and another fellow who needed to be with his family in California and I decided to share driving on the two-day trek.

I was really in a daze most of the rest of the time I was in Seattle, and though I was a real chatterbox on the drive back to CA (unusual for me), I have no recollection of topics and only vague recollections of scenery. When I got home, it was with relief, to be sure, but that's when the shock really settled in.

My strongest impression then and now was that "this is not real."

But of course, it was -- in its own, horrible, way.

What really happened that horrible day is still not entirely known or understood. But the process of transforming our government and nation got underway in earnest almost immediately.

And we aren't going back to the way things used to be.

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