A Clear and Sunny Day in September
It was the last day of our Fall vacation in Washington D.C. Early that morning my wife Judy and I had driven downtown with my step-son, Jerry. Taking a shortcut, we passed through the parking lot of the Pentagon. Jerry was going to work while we would spend the day sightseeing. Later, we were going to meet for dinner, to celebrate my 47th birthday. Then Judy and I were flying back to Cleveland.
After Jerry parked his car and went to his office, Judy and I had breakfast and stopped at Starbucks. While Judy went in for coffee, I waited outside. It was about 9:20 A.M. A man from one of the offices in the building came outside for a cigarette. He told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. His company was involved with the airline industry and he had gotten calls about it. When he turned on the T.V. he saw a live broadcast of a second jet striking the other tower of the World Trade Center. He said he knew that it was a terrorist attack. When Judy came out of Starbucks I told her what had happened. We were shocked.
As we walked through the tall buildings towards the Mall area we talked about what it would be like to see a jet hit one of them. We watched the faces of the other pedestrians to see if they had heard the news but it didn’t seem like anyone had. Everyone looked calm and normal.
As we approached the Mall, we saw a huge cloud of angry, black smoke billowing across the sky behind the Washington Monument. We didn’t know what was on fire but we knew that it was big and close. The first sirens hadn’t even sounded yet. We continued to walk towards our destination, the Holocaust Museum, less than a mile from the Pentagon. We speculated that perhaps a jet had crashed at Ronald Reagan National Airport nearby. Then we started to hear the first sirens and see the first emergency vehicles. As we continued to walk closer to the museum we observed small groups of people standing on the street corners or in front of their office buildings. We thought they were waiting for busses. As we got close to the office of the National Park Service we could tell that the buildings were being evacuated. One women was angry about not being allowed to go back inside. A man inside an unmarked, white SUV parked in the street was directing pedestrians to cross. He seemed very tense.
We got to the Holocaust Museum and joined a group of tourists waiting in line. It was still before 10 A.M. and the museum wasn’t open yet. As they passed out tickets for the first 10 A.M. group to enter, we spoke to the people around us. The group in front of us had heard about the World Trade Center attack. From the group behind us we learned that the Pentagon had been bombed! We didn’t hear the explosion because the tall buildings had muffled the sound. We began to feel afraid and thought it’d be best to be inside the museum, perhaps in the basement. As we waited anxiously to go in, three workers were leaving the building. One of them said, “I wouldn’t be standing in front of a Jewish museum.” As we pondered this, we started hearing rumors that the State Department had also been bombed. The staff of the museum seemed unsure about what to do so we waited a little longer. At 10:10 A.M. we heard what sounded like a loud explosion. It was so near that I could feel the reverberations. I’m still not sure what it was. Perhaps it was a sonic boom. We later learned that a section of the Pentagon had collapsed. We looked at each other and I said, “We’re out of here!” The group of tourists all dispersed at the same time.
We still didn’t know that a jet had intentionally crashed into the Pentagon. I thought that the entire East Coast was under attack from some unknown enemy that was exploding bombs all around us. I was expecting a nuclear attack next, since we were in the nation’s capitol. Everything seemed surreal as we headed towards the open Mall area across the street from the Washington Monument. That was the only open space away from all of the government buildings. Just then we looked up and saw an F-16 jet fighter streak across the sky. Rather than feeling reassured by this sight, we both just felt a huge wave of fear. Things must be really bad when you see F-16’s flying over the air space of the capitol! Feeling like we were in a war zone, we stopped under a tree where Judy sat down and searched her purse for her cell phone. She remembered the battery had run down so she left it with our luggage in Jerry’s car trunk. She searched her address book and found his office phone number. She was determined to reach him, to find him and flee, or at least to all die together. As we got up to start walking towards a phone and his office, a police car pulled around the base of the Washington Monument and announced on a bull horn that everyone had to leave, the Mall was closed! This was the first and only official notification that we ever got that an emergency was unfolding. (We later learned that there was no disaster or air raid siren to warn those outside. No one, not even congresspersons, had an evacuation or emergency disaster plan).
Judy, who already had P.T.S.D., was triggered by the unfolding series of events. She just wanted to hide under that tree. It was the only place she felt safe. But we had to get out of there. She seemed frozen and disassociated. As we started walking she said, “O.K. Now we have to walk real slow.” I must have lost it a little then also because I was scared and I could see what was happening to her and I knew I had to take care of her and get us both out. I felt my “fight or flight” instinct kick in. I said, “We have to leave now! We have to walk fast and get out of here.” I knew we would have to go far so we couldn’t run, even though I felt like it. Judy grabbed my hand hard and off we walked, towards the White House! It was the only direction we could have gone to get away from the Pentagon and get to Jerry’s office. But in order to get out we had to pass through streets lined by big, tall, official, U.S. government buildings. Although we wanted to avoid them we couldn’t. I remember thinking, “Well, we could die now, but we have to walk through.”
As we walked up 14th street I kept seeing things that were clearly amiss. I knew Judy was upset and scared. So was I. There were more sirens and emergency vehicles and ambulances. At first there were few people on the street, but soon there were more and more as the buildings were evacuated. Some were upset, and some looked grim. A few were even walking towards the Mall!
We reached a hotel a block away from the White House. It seemed like a good place to find a phone so we stopped. We didn’t realize how close we were to the White House and hadn’t considered that the White House was a possible target! We waited in line for the phone. Many other people were trying to phone out. One woman was taking messages from people in line and relaying them on, through her family. Judy got to a phone and called Jerry’s office and his cell phone. His office had been evacuated and the cell phone traffic was disrupted. Judy was having a lot of difficulty finding the focus and concentration she needed to dial the long string of numbers and to follow the many phone prompts needed to use our calling card. Finally, she called Jerry’s father in Cleveland who was able to reach Jerry on his cell phone. He had been driving around north of the city hoping to hear from us.
When he learned of our location he said, “Tell them to get the hell out of there!” He had heard rumors of the Mall being on fire and that the State Department was bombed. He had been worried that that’s where we were going. We agreed to move on and set a time to try to reach Jerry again as we had lost the connection. Judy was relieved to have had contact with Jerry. While Judy was on the phone I had to use the restroom. I considered the irony of dying while on the toilet and worried about being separated from Judy. As I walked back to the phones I felt a huge wave of anger at the people who had done this to us. I felt that they would have to pay. I guess that was the “fight” part of the fight or flight response. As Judy finished her calls I studied the map to see how we could find our way out of the city. I saw a woman sobbing out of control in the lobby.
We left the hotel and walked north. The street was filled with people. It was almost impossible to judge their thoughts or feelings. Many seemed quite calm and relaxed. Some talked and joked with their friends and walked slowly and casually. Others looked upset, tense and grim. We had heard talk of another jet missing out there. Only later did we learn of the heroic efforts of the passengers on Flight 93. That jet had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, rather than somewhere in D.C. I feel those passengers may have saved our lives that day.
We continued our journey on foot out of the city. The traffic was totally jammed with cars trying to get out. We saw many long black limo’s with tinted windows leaving. There were white vans with men in black uniforms. At one point I saw a solder in full camo running down the middle of the street clearing traffic for a gray, emergency bus from the Walter Reed Medical Center, going to the Pentagon. We had little information about what was happening. I heard some from a car that had the news blaring out of its open window. It wasn’t good. There were small crowds gathered in front of buildings. A woman tripped and fell to the ground. She was helped up and continued on. Most stores were closed. The Metro was shut down. We found another hotel and Judy again called Cleveland and relayed messages to Jerry. We set up a possible place to meet. We also learned a plane suspected in the attacks was grounded in Cleveland. I was shocked by the enormity of the morning’s events.
As we walked in the clear, warm, sunshine, away from the destruction downtown, the crowd looked as if they might have been on a holiday, freed unexpectedly from work. Inside, I felt like a war refugee escaping from a battlefield. We tried to avoid the rough parts of town as we walked north and then west. I stopped at a small electronics store that was open and bought a radio. I had to know what was going on. While Judy waited outside she was part of a small crowd watching the breaking news on a T. V. in the store window. Our hearts sank with shock and horror and fear as we saw the devastation in New York.
We walked for about 3 hours that day, until we reached a bridge that I recognized and got close to the area where we hoped to meet Jerry. As we walked up the street we saw Jerry walking casually towards us, sipping on a McDonalds coke! We all hugged each other, we were so glad to find each other again. We had to eat, and we called back to Cleveland on a payphone to let everyone know we were safe. Jerry offered to drive us back to Cleveland as all airlines were grounded. We spent the entire ride back listening to the news on N.P.R.
When we got home I watched the news on T.V. for days on end. It was a part of my survival mechanism, I had to stay informed. Thankfully, I had a few days of vacation left. Judy tried to work but couldn’t. We were both traumatized by what we had experienced. We tried to comfort one another as best we could. Jerry went back to D.C. the next evening and was back to work the following day. We couldn’t believe his office was open. We were worried about him being back in D.C. so soon. He is a brave young man.
It has been several months since the attacks of September 11th. For the first few months I suffered with a stress and grief reaction. Judy struggled with P.T.S.D. We took lots of long walks together in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and worked through our feelings. We forged an even closer bond, because we survived that day together. More than any single day or event in my life, September 11th has changed me, for the good, I think. I have become more grateful to be alive, more compassionate to others, more in touch with my feelings. I will never forget those who died that day, or were injured, either in body or in spirit. My cousin’s husband, father to three young children, died that day. Who could have known that on such a clear and sunny day in September, we would be swept up in a tragedy that would change our lives forever?
Chris Wimmer, Cleveland, Ohio, May, 2002