Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It All Seems So Long Ago - Dispatch from New Hampshire

Dateline: Pittsburg, New Hampshire

Today marks the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, and the crash of a fourth hijacked commercial airliner in rural Pennsylvania.  Everyone of a certain age can remember where they were that Tuesday morning, a date and event that is simply known as “9/11.”  You say it, and everyone  knows what you mean.

I remember that morning like it was yesterday.  We were at the lake in Maine for much of August 2001, returning home to our suburban home on the edge of Washington, DC just three weeks before that portentous date.  I was still gradually settling back into my routines at home and work, hoping to hold on to the lake’s serenity as long as possible. 
That morning I arose from bed around 6am hoping to get a little writing done before it was time to shower and dress and begin making my way to my office in downtown Washington.  It was a beautiful late summer day, a gentle breeze and the sky a robin egg blue.  I walked the block to the bus stop and shortly thereafter I was sitting on the Metro for the short ride into the center of the city.  People were reading newspapers and magazines while others stared vacantly forward or out the window at the urban landscape before we dipped underground at Union Station.  It was an ordinary morning commute in every way.

Leaving the station and taking the escalators to the street level I stopped at the local deli for a cup of coffee and within a few minutes I was at my desk and looking through what I had to do that day.  I walked to the other side of our suite of offices to check my mail when I realized that I was the only one around.  The usual hallway traffic was strangely absent and no one seemed to be in their office.  As I passed by our conference room I was surprised to find most of my colleagues sitting around the table.  We never had meetings this early in the day.  Had I missed something?

I walked in and nobody seemed to notice my arrival; everyone’s eyes were focused on a CNN reporter on the television.  “What is going on?” I inquired.  “Apparently a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” came the reply.  I sat down and watched as a thick column of black smoke rose from the upper stories of one of the towers.  The information was sketchy at that time.  Was it a plane?  What kind of a plane was it?  Big? Small?  The newscasts on all the channels were saying pretty much the same thing.  It was only speculation.  In the meantime there were televised scenes of New York City’s emergency response teams - the police and fire department - arriving at the plaza at the base of the towers.  As we watched we were suddenly horrified to see a large commercial jet fly directly into the mid-section of the second tower followed by a large, fiery explosion and a shower of debris onto the streets below.  Suddenly the speculation came to an abrupt end.  What we were watching was an intentional attack on the United States.   But who was responsible?  Shortly thereafter we heard a very large plane pass directly over our building and a few minutes later the television was showing smoke and fire at the Pentagon.  Another plane had crashed there.  Soon the cry of sirens could be heard and fleets of police cars and fire trucks began to move through the downtown streets of Washington.  I walked outside and I could see the smoke from the Pentagon as it gradually dissipated into the blue, late summer sky.  Fighter jets and helicopters were flying low over the city.  I returned to the conference room in time to see the twin towers collapse into piles of wreckage and clouds of dust and debris over lower Manhattan.  Fires raged at the Pentagon.

What followed seemed at the time like an eternity of confusion.  The radio and television broadcasts were full of guessing and wild speculation.  There were reports of bombs going off around Washington, that more hijacked planes were heading toward targets in the city.  The Capitol . . . the White House only two three blocks from my office; I could see the flag waving from its roof.  Suddenly more police cars were everywhere you looked.  Soldiers in Humvees cruised up and down the streets just below my office window.  What should we do?  Should we stay where we were?  Should we go somewhere, and if so, where?  All we knew was that something very terrible was happening all around us.  Finally came the word to evacuate.  Get as far away from downtown as possible.  I threw a few things in my bag and called home to tell Sally Ann I was safe and walking out of the city.  I locked my office and joined the multitude as we flooded out of Washington on every compass heading, keeping our eyes on the sky and calling friends and family on cell phones to assure them we were safe . . . or were we?  We still had no idea what was happening.  I recall that there was very little talking; nobody really knew what to say each other.  Once I got far enough away from downtown I called Sally Ann and she drove down to pick me up and take me the rest of the way home.  Neighbors gathered to watch the television in disbelief as the details of that morning gradually came to light.  And we have been living with the consequences of those heinous acts for over a decade.

This morning I am sitting in a rustic lodge at the rooftop of New Hampshire.  Those  events of eleven years ago seem so long ago and so far away and remote from the tranquility of this peaceful locale.  But as far away as we can get from both that place and time, we shall never forget what happened on that date that will be forever seared into on our consciousness.  Live for the future, but never forget the past.

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