Thursday, September 8, 2011

Where Were You?

The September 11th tragedy is one of those events that was so catastrophic one will always remember where they were when it first happened.

I was at home in suburban Washington, DC and had just opened the Washington Post homepage and saw a photo of a plane striking one of the twin towers. My first thought -- someone had hacked into the website and inserted the photo. A few seconds later, I got a call from my mom. Information was still sketchy. Was it an accident?  I hung up and then got a call from my managing editor at AP. "Get here as quickly as you can," he said. 

I was ready for work, so I jumped in my car and drove to my Metro station. I recall flipping on the radio to National Public Radio, but there was nothing.

A few minutes later, I am on the Metro for the 20 minute ride into DC.  The train was eerily quiet. One rider, a middle-aged man, was listening to the radio on headsets and periodically, he would relay what he heard to the rest of us on the train. No one spoke except the man listening to the radio. There was something about a suspicious car parked in front of the U.S. State Department -- a plane was flying toward DC. It was frightening.

Then, the train pulled into Rhode Island station. The station is above ground and off in the distance -- I could see a huge black cloud of smoke. I remember it being so black and so big. I'd never seen anything like it.

It was 9:37am. I did not know it at the time, but American Airlines Flight 77 had just struck the Pentagon.

What I did know is that something terrible was happening and I needed to get to work. This may sound strange, but my biggest fear was that my Metro train would terminate service before my station stop and I would have to literally run dozens of blocks to the Associated Press office. 

We approached Union Station  -- stopped -- and then continued on and finally arrived at my stop, Farragut North.  I ran the two blocks to my office and burst into the newsroom. 

TV monitors were showing the planes striking the Twin Towers, one of our reporters had witnessed the plane flying into the Pentagon from the balcony of his condo. He was being interviewed on the phone -- describing in detail what he had seen. It was surreal. Is this happening? When am I going to wake up? In the background, the news channels kept playing the same video over and over. I am trying to make sense of it all, knowing that within a few minutes I would have to go on the radio and calmly tell listeners what was happening. 

For the next 12 hours or so, I somehow managed to do my job. It was probably the most difficult day of my life -- in terms of trying to remain coherent and calm while inside -- I am refusing to accept what I am seeing before me -- It really felt like I was part of a movie and at some point, the director would shout: "cut."

By the time I finished anchoring -- some 11 or 12 hours of coverage -- I was mentally exhausted.  My head was filled with all the sounds and images from our reporters and the TV.  Walking onto K Street that night, the air was refreshing -- it was so quiet.

Half a block down the street from my office, I was shaken by what I saw: troops were parked in military vehicles at the intersection of K and 18th Street. I seem to recall seeing an anti-aircraft gun.  It was shocking.  One just didn't see such things in America.

It was almost as if what I was seeing confirmed everything that I had been describing on the radio for the past 12 hours.  Sitting inside a studio -- in a cocoon-like environment -- I had been isolated, in one respect from what was happening, but walking onto the street and seeing the troops -- somehow -- made it all real.

What do you recall from that day? 

Feel free to share.

Click here to listen to real time audio from September 11.


Winged Archer said...

That post of yours was very solid and gripping; thanks for sharing.

babbler said...

I agree with winged arecher, this was one of the most compelling stories I have read. I saw it happening live on TV, I was watching the morning show Good Day LA in Los Angeles when life changed that day. The rest of the day was spent glued to the TV, I was afraid to go outside. When I finally did, it was very quiet. At dusk, the neighborhood emerged from livingrooms and held citywide candlelight vigils.