Ten years ago, on September 11, 2001, it was a beautiful morning in Washington, D.C. The sun was out, not a cloud in the sky. The unbearable summer humidity had disappeared earlier than expected. It was one of those perfect mornings.
The city was bustling back to life. Congress was returning from its recess, which meant the federal city was back to business after a sleepy vacation-filled August and early September.
Our CFM DC office was getting back to business, too. Congress had a busy fall agenda. It had lots of appropriations bills to finish while tackling other new Bush Administration priorities, such as making big changes to the Medicare program. We had clients lined up to come to town. It was going to be a mad dash the remaining four months of 2001.
My CFM colleague, Mike Gruber, and I were attending a morning meeting of health insurance lobbyists. Toward the end of the meeting, a staffer came in with a note for the meeting moderator. She read it out loud…”a plane has hit one of the World Trade Center buildings.” As we broke, no one seemed to know what it meant. My first thought was it had to be a freak accident with a small plane getting too close to Manhattan.
We made our way to the street and jumped into a taxicab. That’s when our world turned upside down. The cab driver had a talk radio station tuned in. That’s when we first learned about what happened to the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
Lots of crazy rumors filled the airwaves. Callers were reporting that the U.S. Capitol had been hit by a plane and there was a car bomb that had exploded outside the State Department. We were only going a few miles back to our office, but the cab ride seemed to last an eternity as we thought about our nation’s capital under attack.
Finally, we got back to our office, which we shared with the Stoel Rives DC law firm staff. We knew that the Capitol was fine since we could see the dome from our 12th floor K Street office. We also could see black smoke in the distance. It was emanating from the Pentagon.
We turned on office televisions and saw the World Trade Center towers collapse. The beauty of that September morning was now a distant thought.
About this time, just about everyone who worked in downtown DC started heading home or out of the city. All federal office buildings had been quickly evacuated.
The streets and freeways in and around DC would be jam-packed for hours. I decided to stay put. I had my TV, my computer and telephone. For me, information was the most important thing, and sitting in a car for who knows how long didn’t sound appealing.
For the next several hours, I was glued to the TV while exchanging emails with caring West Coast friends and colleagues concerned about my well-being.
Mike Gruber had just started at our firm and his wife was still in New York City. I felt horrible for him because it took a couple of hours to find out his wife was okay. The stress he went through while trying to call her countless times was unbearable.
By early afternoon, downtown Washington, D.C. was a ghost town. Almost no cars or trucks on the streets – except for the occasional police car – and all businesses had closed.
Without knowing the full extent of casualties at the Pentagon, I decided a useful thing to do would be to give blood at the local American Red Cross donation center. It was only a few blocks away so I started my trek. As I got close, I ran into two friends who had a similar idea. They had just left the blood donation center having been turned away because no more donations were needed (lots of other caring folks that afternoon).
I started my return to the office by taking the long route by the White House. The security perimeter had been moved back a few extra blocks. Even the press corps was kept at distance. At the corner of 16th and I streets, I listened and watched as historian and author David McCullough gave an impromptu sidewalk media interview about how Presidents handled themselves during times of national crises. As always, McCullough had fascinating insights. In our nation’s capital, being in the right place at the right time has its unexpected benefits.
It was early evening when I decided to head home. I did not live far from the Pentagon so I drove by it that evening while it was still burning. I’ll always remember the sight and smell of the smoldering Pentagon. We all have our stories about what we were doing and how we were feeling on 9/11.
For me, what started as shock and outrage turned to sadness and then uneasy calm when it appeared the attacks that day were over.
It is important to relive and reflect on what happened on September 11. We as a nation came together on and after that tragic day, albeit for too short a period or time.
We must come together again to address the many changes our nation faces. And, equally important, that we as a nation make sure that what happened on 9/11 never happens again.