I remember working in downtown DC, right off McPherson Square, three blocks from the White House, when a friend sent me a message on AIM that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
I assumed it was a small plane like the Cessna that hit the White House 7 years earlier almost to the day (9/12/94).
Then, after a few minutes, they said a second plane had hit the South Tower.
I ran downstairs and let others know and one of the lawyers turned on the TV to CNN and there it was.
Like the rest of the world we were transfixed, glued, some folks listening to radio or watching another channel in another office, reports of planes everywhere.
And then a noise we’d later find out was Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon 3 miles away.
Phones stop working. There’s no getting calls in or out of DC. I’m back on AIM messaging friends to call my family and my girlfriend and make sure they’re OK.
Is my brother at the Pentagon OK?
Responses from friends: Family’s been trying to call me worried if I’m OK.
*Side note – 9/11 is when the internet really came of age. It was a lifeline for areas where phones just stopped working. Landlines and cellular were useless, jammed, busy.
The internet was key, real time information, and the aftermath was blogging, citizen journalism, etc.
Curiosity about what was happening at the White House sent me outside with one of the secretaries.
Looking back it was a terrible idea, heading toward what could very well have been the target of Flight 93 which would ultimately be brought down in Pennsylvania.
The streets were chaos. Traffic was locked. Sidewalks were packed. We got within a block of the White House before police started yelling at people to get back, they were blocking off up to two blocks from around the building.
And then a moment that was ultimately nothing but is etched.
A mass of people panic and cry out and want to run but where do you go?
That moment of chaos and momentary mass hysteria left a mark.
It was a sonic boom from the passing F-15s scrambled to pass over DC. But at the time, it was another plane crash, a car bomb at the State Department, a helicopter crashed on The Mall, it was an attack and there was nothing anyone could do.
We went back to the office to find the South Tower had collapsed.
We watched as dust and debris and smoke settled on New York City.
Pops in the distance. Canisters from a worksite where the Pentagon had been hit going off, but at the time no one knows that.
The North Tower collapses.
News is a mess. Reports start coming in that despite all flights being ordered grounded there are a handful of planes unaccounted for.
That one or more planes are headed straight for DC.
We move. The whole office grabs and goes, one of the partners offers his place for those who can’t go anywhere else and many of us end up there, a house only a few miles away, but away from the center of DC, away from any targets.
Lunch is Church’s Chicken while we all just watch, glued to the news, worried, wondering what happened, who did this, is it over?
It’s nearly 3pm before I can finally get a phone call to go through to family and friends and make sure everyone is OK. I’m OK. And that I’m coming home.
A long, quiet ride on a nearly empty Metro because everyone else who needed to got out earlier. I’m met at Springfield by my girlfriend.
And we hug and stay like that for a while.
After would be strings of chaotic reminders.
Passing the still smoldering Pentagon on the commuter bus just days later.
The anthrax scare just months later and mail handled every day coming from the Brentwood facility at the heart of it.
Suspicious packages in the park almost every other week.
Unease at any car awkwardly abandoned or left idling in odd locations.
Noting where the nearest bomb shelter was.
Having multiple routes planned out to get out of DC depending on what and where something happened.
But also a coming together. That this wasn’t going to stop us. That we would still go about our lives and not live in fear because that’s what they wanted.
We were all in this together. We were all Americans.
Hard to think that was 19 years ago.
That for so many it’s not even a memory because they were so young or not even alive at the time.
And how truly defining it has been for a generation now.
My experience isn’t unique. Or all that special, really. I’m not nearly as impacted as so many others, people who had friends and family that died that day, were themselves just at or supposed to be at or near as it happened. 23/
But everyone who remembers that day has a story and an experience and that shapes us. There was a before and there has been an after.
And be safe. Be kind. Know that while there is evil in the world there is so much more good. Know that a few don’t define the many.
And know that there are so many who can be their very best when things seem at their worst.