On 9/11, I witnessed the American Airlines jet crash into the Pentagon. Every year on this day my emotions ride very close to the surface. In the States, every year on this day I would avoid television, because it was inevitable that at some point (and more likely at many points) tributes and actual footage would be aired. Being in the UK helps place some distance, physically and mentally, between me and the events that happened on that day, but I still feel after affects.
About a year after 9/11, I wrote down all that I remembered experiencing on that day. Emotionally, I couldn’t do it sooner, but at that point writing it down helped me to process what had happened. Today, on this eleventh anniversary, I opened the document and read it for the first time in years. Reading it makes it all seems so fresh again.
So we don’t forget, I’m posting what I wrote of my experience:
Today is September 11, 2001. My boss and I are driving towards the Pentagon on our way to Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the Capital. It’s only about 9:30 in the morning, but this day is already turning out to be anything but routine. During a normal day, I would have been working at my desk for eight hours before walking home to my husband and our one-bedroom apartment in Northern Virginia. Last night I learned that my aunt had died, so tonight I’ll be driving several hours north to attend her funeral tomorrow morning.
I’d planned to get a lot of work done today before leaving, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. When I got in to work this morning, my boss asked me if I’d be willing to go to Rosslyn at around 3:00 p.m. to get some contracts signed. Parking was notoriously bad near the office in Rosslyn, so he only needed me to sit in the car with the engine running and, if needed, move the car in order to avoid a parking ticket while he ran in with the contracts. Just as he was explaining this to me, he got a call from the guy in Rosslyn telling him of a scheduling conflict and asking if he could come right away. With nothing pressing, we had left our office building in Alexandria immediately. Now, here I am, sitting in the passenger’s seat of my boss’s big tank-of-a-car, talking with him about work.
The traffic is beginning to slow. I take advantage of a break in the conversation to tell my boss that I need to take a few days off to attend my aunt’s funeral. I feel bad leaving him with so much work, but he assures me that work is the last thing I should be thinking about right now. He expresses his regret for my loss and tells me that if there is anything he can do to help, I should just ask. I thank him then we sit in silence.
I hadn’t been paying much attention to the world outside the car, but now I look around and notice that we have just passed under the 395 overpass and are on the 27, heading north in the far left lane towards Rosslyn, approaching the Pentagon on our right and the Navy Annex on the left. Traffic has slowed to a crawl, which seems unusual because I thought it is past the normal rush hour. We are discussing this very point when I suddenly feel as much as hear a staggeringly loud, unearthly roar.
I look up, trying to understand what the noise is and where it is coming from. This is not right. A grating noise, like a squeaky door hinge magnified a thousand times, joins the increasing roar already almost too loud to bear. I connect the grating noise with what I see. A light pole across the road is ripped from its mooring and is beginning to fall. I look up and catch a glimpse of shimmering silver and a streak of red. The underbelly of an airplane. A big plane. A commercial-sized jet. But it’s too low. Definitely too low. I now see it out of my side window. It shouldn’t be here. National Airport is on the other side of the Pentagon. Is it trying to land on the open area between the highway and the Pentagon? But the plane is flying fast and the space is too short. It’s not going to make it. I think, “Pull up!” willing the plane to rise, but it is too late.
The plane appears to be melding into the lower floor of the Pentagon. It does not slow. The wings appear to bend back as the plane is disappearing into the building. A loud flash and a tremendous boom exit from the hole where the plane entered the building. The earth shakes. We shake. Deep red clouds roll up and out, reaching twice the height of the building. Black begins to form around the edges of the billowing mass. All I see is roiling red and black. It is so dense. A solid substance. So real. Too real. The black begins to take on its own form and rises above it all in a mushrooming column. Debris is raining down. Small pieces. Big pieces. Pieces. Oh, my God!
I can’t breathe. Clutching my chest, I am gasping for air. This is not real. It can’t be real. But it is. My boss steps out of the car. I am still watching the scene that did not just happen. A woman in the car beside us is stepping out of her car. She is alone. She is a young, attractive woman dressed for work. She seems so put together. Our eyes meet. Her mouth is hanging slightly open. Her flawless, dark skin is slack. Her eyes reveal nothing. Is she seeing the same face staring back at her? Our eyes, our faces, showing nothing. And everything.
At moments like this, time doesn’t stand still. The world continued to operate in the same way. The earth spins, the fire burns, the debris falls. Time did not stop. It ceased to exist. An eternity in a moment. Just this moment. This one, horrifying moment.
My boss climbs back into the car, turns the key in the ignition, and puts the car in gear. I say, “No.” but he doesn’t listen. He says that he has to get me out of here. I don’t see how since there are cars on three sides and a concrete wall on the fourth. Maybe it was his military training, maybe it was his life experience, but he said what he meant and he did what he said. He drove between the car in front of us and the concrete barrier, sometimes climbing up the side of the wall, through a gap in the barrier–how lucky we were that it was even there–and over the median. We jostle quite a bit before he makes a u-turn onto the near empty southbound lanes. Just before us is a black taxi cab stopped across two lanes at a 45-degree angle to the road. Two men stand beside the car, one being the driver and a second I assume to be his passenger. A bent lamp post lays part way across the road. The road is littered with glass shards from the post’s lamp and the taxi’s shattered windshield. I ask my boss if the men are hurt. Maybe we should stop. He says they look okay. I think they look how I feel. Not quite in the body; not quite in the same dimension.
I glance back. People stand next to their stopped cars in the middle of the highway. They stand, unmoving. They see what I see. Beyond the stopped traffic and the littered lawn, beyond the wreckage that burns on the ground, the building is being devoured. Orange flames pour out of the gaping hole, charring the fortress’s damaged wall. Black and grey smoke swirls above the flames, staining the clear, blue sky.
Then I think of my husband. No. He was not supposed to be at the Pentagon today. He had an appointment in Arlington. He’s not at the Pentagon. Please.
My boss and I speed down the road leaving the Pentagon behind us. I sit, shaking. Thinking. Thinking that it didn’t look like an accident. It had to have been an accident. Planes don’t just fall out of the sky and strike buildings like guided missiles. But it looked wrong. Why hadn’t the pilot tried to pull the plane up? Why had it hit so directly?
Something inside me pops. A question. A doubt. A horror beyond that which I had just witnessed. Tears fall onto my shaking hands clutching at a purse that I didn’t even remember I was holding.
Why had I been there to witness what I saw? I shouldn’t have been there. I wasn’t supposed to pass the Pentagon until sometime around three. I shouldn’t have been there. The traffic wasn’t supposed to be so backed up at that time of the morning. I shouldn’t have been there. The plane had been so low that it knocked down a light pole. It had been low enough to hit the ground floor of the Pentagon. What if it had been just a little lower? I could have been killed. But I wasn’t. But they were. When I saw the belly of the aircraft, they were alive. What must they have been thinking? What would they be feeling? How would a person face death when it was sure and unstoppable? In my mind’s eye, I can see them looking out the jet’s windows. Knowing. They were alive. They are gone. And the people inside the building. One moment outside of time and it was all over. But I’m still here. Why? How did time and events converge at this one moment and in this way?
My boss takes our exit and asks if he should take me home. I don’t want to be alone. I don’t know what I want, but I know I need something solid to hold, to prevent me from slipping away. I ask him to take me to my husband’s office. He knows where it is because my husband works at the same company.
My boss pulls to the curb in front of our office building and parks in the loading zone. I get out as he rounds the back of the car. I don’t know what possesses me. It’s not in me to be physically close to most people, but on this day, at this moment, I find myself hugging my boss. And he hugs me back.
We ride the elevator together, along with another man and woman. My hands, still clutching my purse, are shaking uncontrollably. The man asks me if I am okay.
“Yes,” I say. “No.” Sobs tear at my throat and chest. The doors open and I run off the elevator. Everything is the same but it is all different. And my husband is not in his office. My boss follows me, entering my husband’s office with my husband’s administrative assistant. My boss tells me that she is going to sit with me until my husband gets back from his appointment. Thank God. He had gone to Arlington. He was not in the Pentagon.
She asks me what happened. Word must have spread because several of my husband’s colleagues filter into the room. They listen as I tell them what I had seen. All of them wear expressions of awe and despair. Every one of them knows and works with people who work in the Pentagon. We all wonder if those we know are safe. And then there is my husband’s boss. He stands there, listening to the whole thing, and he is smiling. Not a smile of compassion or of understanding. It seems he is smiling out of sheer glee, lapping up every minute of the news-as-it-happens. For him, it is just some excitement in an otherwise routine day.
When I finish telling what I could, I muse out loud that just maybe it might not have been an accident. My husband’s closest colleague and friend asks if I had heard about the twin towers in New York. What about them, I wonder? They, too, had been hit by airplanes.
Earlier, a television had been pulled out of one of the conference rooms and was placed in the corridor around the corner from my husband’s office. We walk over to the crowd that had gathered to watch and listen. As we stand around the TV a collective gasp accompanies the collapsing of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. I know now, without any doubt, that plane was meant to hit the Pentagon. In that moment of realization something inside of me changed forever. I am not the same.
I had heard of pure evil on television, in books, and certainly in the religious arena, but up until now it had been more of a concept. This was not theoretical evil. This was evil as real and as in-your-face as the TV that brought it to you. This was not like a human that did bad things. This was not a situation of “love the man but hate the deed.” This was pure evil. Evil to the nth degree. Evil beyond individuals with a substance completely and separately its own. It had come close enough to kick me in the chest.
My husband finds me standing among his co-workers. He escorts me back to his office where he holds me, firmly and long. His administrative assistant had told him that I’d been at the Pentagon. He’d heard about the World Trade Center on the radio in the car. And he’d seen smoke in the sky above the Pentagon on his way back from Arlington. Now, he wants to know what happened. I tell him everything while he holds my hands. Again, his work-friends enter the office and stand with us. Through the north-facing window, we can see smoke above and between the apartment high-rises. A large grey cloud rises along the smoky trail. Moments later, a sonic boom shakes the building and rattles the windows. We hear people talking in the hallway. Part of the Pentagon just collapsed. Someone says there’s another plane in the sky and it’s headed towards Washington. We wait for more news.
The administrative assistant enters my husband’s office and tells everyone that, if we want, we can leave for the day. The company is allowing us to go home early. My husband puts on his jacket and grabs his bag. He’s taking me home. Waiting for the elevator, we hear that the North Tower has just collapsed. My husband drives me the four blocks home, all the while craning in every direction on the look-out for jetliners.
I feel empty and vulnerable. Our apartment, usually a place of refuge from the city, seems hollow and fragile. I’m waiting for the next blow. I know it will happen. It’s out there right now. I just don’t know how and I don’t know when. My husband turns on the television. It doesn’t matter what channel. Today they’re all the same.
Engines roar across the sky and my stomach knots up until I can locate where the sound is coming from. The knot eases somewhat as fighter jets buzz past our window. The television plays the same footage over and over again. I can’t bear to watch it, but I have to know what happened to that last plane. And I need answers.
It has been over an hour and we still haven’t heard anything new. I can’t watch the collapsing towers and the ash-covered faces any more. I go into our bedroom, draw the blinds, and lie down on the bed. I close my eyes to rest–I’d sleep if I could–but horrible images play over and over in my head. Not the images on the television, but the images trapped between two worlds. Between the worlds of B.C. and A.D. Between the moments of “Before the Crash” and “After the Destruction.”
Those few moments between the two separate worlds couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but right now they seem to stretch for an eternity. Frame by frame, the images replay in my mind. I re-witness the horror over and over. And I can’t stop it. I give up. As exhausted as I am, I don’t think I will ever sleep again.
I leave the bedroom and rejoin my husband in the living room who is still sitting exactly as I left him. His vacant eyes move from the television to meet my gaze. He asks me to come join him on the couch. I snuggle up to his side and he pulls me in closer, wrapping his arms around me. I rest my head on his chest and close my eyes, listening to New Yorkers’ raw emotions and eye-witness accounts as my husband slowly strokes my arm.
Finally, the local news confirms that there is no fourth plane circling Washington. The rumor was only partly true. The reported plane was the same one that had crashed in Pennsylvania. There are no more planes in the sky. None, except for the fighter jets. So why don’t I feel any safer?
More news. All major roads between New York and Washington, D.C. are closed. I will not be leaving town tonight. I will not be attending my aunt’s funeral. I will not be there with my family. I don’t think I’m even here.