A brilliant blue sky and clear morning greeted us on September 11. It was VERY hard for me not to play hooky — I called in late, but decided not to run all my errands. Instead, I took the bus to the Pentagon bus terminal and from there, the train to my job in Washington DC. Had I stayed in Virginia to run a few more errands before going to work, I would have been at the Pentagon bus terminal some time around 9:30 am.
As I was walking to my cubicle I was greeted by a co-worker who said “My husband called to say a plane just hit the World Trade Center!” I’m a native New Yorker — I savored the memories of a High Wire walker walking between those two lofty towers, and a mountain climber scaling Tower One with everyone cheering him on. But on the other hand, I sadly remembered the garage bombing several years ago, that rattled the Twin Towers and caused fatalities. When my co-worker gave me the initial news, I envisioned a private plane — maybe a one-engine 2-seater, getting into a scrape with the building, and hopefully not hurting anyone inside — but this was not to be. A few minutes later she came rushing over to me to say “A SECOND plane has just hit the World Trade Center!” “Terrorists..” I said with a sinking heart.
Radios were turned on. Personal TV’s showed small, grim black and white images of death and destruction going on at that very moment. More planes were supposedly circling overhead, looking for targets here in DC and other places in the country — looking for innocent victims and vulnerable buildings. We milled around in the office wondering who, how, when, and especially..why??? This beautiful day had become a tragic mask — a façade worn over the leering grin of death. Shortly thereafter a solemn-faced supervisor told us the Pentagon had been hit by a plane and was burning; our building, with its tower, was vulnerable — everyone was to leave and go home at once.
We all knew what kind of gridlock awaited us outside. I even thought that sleeping under my heavy desk was preferable to exposing myself to attack on the street, along with thousands of others who were right now evacuating the area. This was the stuff of disaster movies. Now we were the unwilling actors.
As I left the building, I heard that our Metro Subway was closed. With all this happening, who would have wanted to get into that tunnel anyway??! I envisioned a long walk home.
The scene that greeted me as I walked out of the building and onto Pennsylvania Avenue was of wide streets and utter silence. Silent police stood everywhere. People were walking along in stunned silence. My cell phone was silent — dead, as, I am sure, were many other cell phones in that area. I waited at a bus stop, trying to catch a bus to Georgetown, reasoning that all streets leading to the Pentagon would be closed. Once in Georgetown I planned to walk the rest of the way home. I waited at the stop, along with 5 other people. One woman was shaking like a leaf. We held her hands and prayed with her. We told her to go home to her babies and give them a big hug. None of us were really sure if we would ever make it home. What else was waiting for us on this horrific day??!
The bus to Georgetown never came. I aimlessly walked toward Constitution Avenue, which was packed with traffic. I walked, toward Virginia, for about 15 more minutes and then something made me turn to look behind me. My bus!!!!! I ran toward it, and even though it was in the middle of the street, far from a bus stop, the driver let me on. I was greeted by the passengers, one of whom told me — “Look there — you can see the Pentagon on fire.” Huge clouds of black and grey smoke billowed up in the distance — we were about 4 miles from the Pentagon. The bus slowly made its way up the street in silence. Everything seemed to be going in timeless slow motion. I looked at the gridlock, at the people dressed in business clothes lugging briefcases, walking up the on-ramps to Route 66 with no sidewalks to protect them — going home to who knows how far away, and I said to myself –“We are ALL sitting ducks here!!!” I am normally pretty cool in emergencies, so I was not scared — but boy was I angry, and stunned. Would I die before I got home? What would happen to my kitties? Who could ever care for them the way I care for them??
After more than an hour, the bus driver entered Route 66 to Rosslyn (definitely not our usual route), and as we approached the Rosslyn bus terminal, a spontaneous collective cheer rose up from the passengers!! At the Rosslyn bus terminal, you could see the fear and despair on people’s faces. “Here’s a seat — we saved it just for you!”, I said to a lady whose furrowed face broke into a relieved smile. Then I saw, at the front of the bus, Dee — my former coworker from the Pentagon (I had worked there for seven years). “Dee!” I yelled “Come back here!” “”Oh!” She exclaimed “Someone I know!” I gave her my seat and we talked as the bus closed its doors and pressed onward through the crowded traffic to a destination unknown.
Dee and I talked. She had been evacuated from the Pentagon and walked all the way to Rosslyn. She was not near the point of impact, and heard practically nothing — so she was shocked by the news when they were told to evacuate. I was very worried about another friend of mine who worked at the Pentagon — I had not seen her for 8 years — and happened to run into her on the previous Saturday, September 8.. Was that the last time I’d ever see her again? I still have not been able to contact her, but I have not seen her name on the list of victims. I hope that all is well with her.
Meanwhile, the bus drove on, and we found ourselves a mile from my home. The bus was trying to continue on to Pentagon City, which I thought would be cordoned off, given its proximity to the area of impact at the Pentagon. “Dee”, I said –” would you like to walk with me to my place, freshen up, try to call your kids and let them know you’re ok?” Dee said yes. We got off the bus, thanked the driver profusely, and as we left, we said to our fellow-passengers “Good luck, everybody!”, and we walked the rest of the way to my place. The sun was warm, the breeze was caressingly cool, the skies were a brilliant blue, there was a ponderous silence in the air, like waiting for the next shoe to drop — and two fighter jets screamed by overhead. We passed a young man waiting for his wife to come and pick him up — we told him the traffic was pretty bad – it might be a long wait. We talked with him for a while and then Dee and I continued to my place. Once inside the door, both of my kitties greeted me, and mewed a sweet hello to Dee. How happy I was to see my little ones — and how tragic it was to look out my balcony window and see the masses of smoke and destruction at the Pentagon — how many people were dying right there, right now?????
On my answering machine there was a message from my aunt, wondering why I hadn’t called her. I had given up trying to call my aunt in New York — “The lines are being used for a national emergency” was the message I kept getting. I would wait until later in the evening to call Auntie. I prayed for her and my friends in New York — many of whom work in Manhattan. Also on the answering machine was a tearful message from my very best friend from the Bronx, who now lives in Florida — hoping against all hope that I was OK. I called her at once, and did get thru to her. Dee called her family — and got thru to everyone. I gave her a bottle of water for her walk home, invited her to rest awhile before setting out, and we watched the news on TV for a while.
When Dee was ready to walk home, she insisted on taking me out to dinner to repay me for being so kind to her! I was flabbergasted – but hungry, and so we walked down normally-busy Columbia Pike, which was totally emptied of any traffic except for firetrucks and ambulances screaming down the streets. The few people we saw were walking around as if in a daze. I heard later that our newly opened, neighborhood coffeehouse was packed. Dee and I ate at Boston Market, mostly in silence, along with other people, who, in our dazed state (and probably theirs too) were just shadowy forms of human beings. The last I saw of Dee, as we parted ways, was a cheerful little sprite with long flowing hair holding her water bottle, walking the 4 miles home — I saw some buses going down Columbia Pike later on, and I hope she was able to catch one.
The rest of the evening and night was spent hugging my cats, looking out the window at the Pentagon and praying, watching TV and finally getting thru to Auntie who could not understand why I couldn’t call her earlier..I couldn’t get much sleep that night. I kept getting up and looking out the balcony window at the smoldering burning Pentagon…
The next morning, the government offices WERE open, and I went to work. It was another beautiful day — with a great deal of silence and very little traffic on the streets. Going back to work after what happened yesterday seemed strange. But we needed to press on regardless, and the best way we could keep our spirits from plunging into despair. I wanted to bring an American Flag to work — and for some reason, I walked into the Safeway near my bus stop, actually found an American flag and bought it. I carried it to work and placed it on my desk next to the flag of New York, which I downloaded from the Internet. They are still there as I write this, and will stay there for a long long time.
At the end of this long day, filled with doubts and worries and fears, we all headed home. The Pentagon bus terminal was, of course, closed indefinitely, until a new bus terminal could be erected, away from the danger. The very day after the tragedy, the buses which normally use that terminal were re-routed. Our temporary bus terminal was at Pentagon City – a sprawling shopping mall with a Macy’s and Nordstrom’s. As I waited for my bus with the others (there were very few commuters out today), I could see Nordstrom’s large display windows — they had been stripped bare and nothing but red lights shone in each of the four windows fronting the bus stop. There were very few shoppers out that evening, and those that were seemed out of place. It felt very strange to see people walking into Best Buy and coming out with boxes of purchases — almost as if this hallowed time of suffering was being desecrated by commercialism.
Unfortunately, on my way home on September 12th, my bus passed less than a quarter mile from the huge, still-smoldering scar in the Pentagon. Passengers crossed themselves and prayed, and we all knew that there were many (hundreds?) of bodies still in there. For several days afterwards, as we passed the huge mis-shapen scar, we all were visibly shaken. Cubicles had been laid bare — we could see computer terminals still sitting on desks inside of offices that had been torn to pieces. One night, about a week after the terrible tragedy, the smoldering embers deep within the Pentagon were fanned to life again, as flames. Fire equipment quickly rushed to the scene to put out the fires. Then, during one afternoon commute home, we looked at the Pentagon again, in time to see a small crowd of workers on the roof, anchoring a huge American Flag in place. What a comforting sight.
A few days after the tragedy, I talked with the people who work in the pharmacy near my home. They had heard the jetliner flying very low overhead, just before it hit the Pentagon. Later that same day I ran into a friend of mine who lives down the street from me and heard some hair-raising news her. She had been in her house when the plane went overhead — telling me that the plane was “so low, it almost sucked the windows out of my house!!” She then told me that when she heard that it had hit the Pentagon, she ran through her house crying and screaming.
My friends who work in Manhattan emailed me a few days later. One of them, a sweet sensitive lady, works in a building that overlooked the WTC area — she said “You cannot imagine the horror. I will never get that image out of my mind.” Another friend had to walk home, and she too, like me, had worried if she would ever see her kitties again(6 of them).
A nation-wide candle-light 7 pm street corner vigil (announced on the Internet) was held about a week after the national tragedies. The night was cool. Many of us stood on street corners with our candles held in our hands or surrounding us on the grass. People spilled out of restaurants, bars and stores with their lit candles, sang, talked and then went back inside. People waiting for the bus pulled candles out of bags, lit them, sang and stood there in silent tribute to the fallen and to our future. I stood with a group of neighbors on the lawn of our high rise complex. We sang “God Bless America”, and passing cars, flags flying from antennae or windows, would blow horns, police cars patrolling the streets would flash their lights and blip their sirens to salute U.S. as they passed by.
A temporary memorial went up spontaneously at the base of the Navy Annex, a hilly area overlooking the Pentagon. Pictures, flags, stuffed teddy bears, ribbons, poems, candles, and in December, a lone Christmas tree with a votive light at its base. Silent, mute reminders of unceasing tears, and of voices and laughter tragically stilled forever.
For months afterwards, any time I would run into an acquaintance, here or in New York, the words were always the same “How are you? Are you OK? Is everyone OK?” Not everyone I knew could say yes
I made a special trip to visit my aunt in New York, on September 29. The sadness that pervaded my trip was almost unbearable. Walking through Penn Station and the Port Authority, I could see the tributes on the walls, the books of remembrance, the photographs, the pleas – “Have you seen my daughter”, “Have you seen my son”, “Have you seen this person?”. On the Manhattan Bus, I passed a group of people picketing for a cause, a sight not uncommon in the City. The police cars in that area had their sirens going. As the bus turned the corner, two very beautifully dressed people, a woman and a man, quintessential Manhattanites, waiting for the light to turn, had not seen the picketers, and had no idea what the sirens were for. These two people had looks of horror and frozen fear on their faces — my beloved City was in mourning and on edge. On the way home in the train, I slept for almost all of the 4 hour trip, most unusual for me. The clouds that haunted the skies from NY to Delaware were black, red, yellow — almost as if the fires that had not yet gone out were following us saying “Do not EVER forget.”.
Time heals wounds very slowly. This one will NEVER heal totally. For the next several weeks (and even now) I would run into people, former co-workers, who had been working in the Pentagon when the plane hit. One man, I heard, had momentarily walked away from his office to run an errand. He was lucky. His office was blown to smithereens before he returned from his errand. Another friend who works there told me that when the plane hit “It sounded like a sonic boom — only TEN times louder…There were red flames….People were walking around like zombies….We left the building in utter silence…. I will NEVER ever get over this…..” I see her once in a while and always am very kind to her. She is slowly feeling better.
For weeks afterwards, Reagan National Airport remained closed. I’d pass by it, on the overhead metro line and I’d see the same wheelchairs and luggage carts askew on the sidewalk in front of the terminals, in the hastily abandoned positions, as if frozen in time. During those same weeks I would hear, around 4:30 am, a recon plane droning by above in the sky – its hum a reassuring sign that we were being watched over. The pilot, if I am not mistaken, was a woman.
For about a week (or maybe longer) NO-ONE was allowed to get off at the Pentagon station stop. After that period of time, ONLY people with valid DoD passes were allowed to get off at the Pentagon Metro Station. Although fellow travelers on the bus and (sometimes very crowded) trains were for the most part quiet, tempers DID flare up, over things that normally would have not been met with such anger—everyone was stressed out.
God bless and preserve us all. May the souls of those who died so tragically rest in peace, We will never forget them. May the walking wounded (in body, in spirit) find peace and comfort in God and their fellow-humans. May Peace finally reign supreme in the hearts of ManKIND.
Azar “Ace” Attura