Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11, 2001; We Remember (Repost)

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial Logo

Designed & Donated
By Anonymous
The Navy Annex
September, 2001

It’s been fifteen years. Our daughter Blake was a baby, only ten months old. Teresa was pregnant with Blythe. Bella was not born for four more years. My kids ask questions, trying to understand – wondering about the underlying causes and what it was like to live through that day. When we still lived in Arlington we visited the Pentagon Memorial. It is a solemn and surprisingly solitary place despite being hemmed in by major thoroughfares and lying adjacent to a structure, which gauged by size of its footprint, is the world's largest office building. 

This is my story, one among millions -- a personal recollection of that day's experience, or more specifically that morning, in Washington, DC and Arlington, Virginia (where the Pentagon is located). I worked in an office building at L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, DC, across the Potomac River about a mile and a half northeast of the Pentagon. We lived in Arlington Virginia, between Arlington Boulevard and Columbia Pike, about a mile and one-half west of the Pentagon. Our world as we knew it was shattered that day, but the tragedy was inflicted on others -- innocents to a person.

Dana Falkenberg's Bench
Youngest Victim
Pentagon Memorial
It came to be that 184 souls lost their earthly lives when American Airlines Flight 77 sliced through the west wall of the Pentagon. Their Boeing 757 transport took off at 8:20 am from Washington Dulles International Airport bound for Los Angeles. But the plane was commandeered as it climbed over West Virginia and turned back by the hijackers towards DC. The Falkenberg family was aboard, on the first leg of their trip to Australia for a two month adventure, owing to dad’s good fortune in securing an academic fellowship. Daughters Zoe, 8, and Dana, 3, were excited by the prospect of the unique geography and exotic wildlife they were sure to encounter down under. Also flying to Los Angeles that day were two staff members of the National Geographic Society, accompanying three Washington, DC teachers and three elementary school students selected for an educational Pacific Coast excursion, along with varied business and pleasure travelers like you would find aboard most any flight over the United States on any given day. But their flight would not terminate at a gate at LAX; it would end tragically against a limestone wall by the helipad along the west wall of the Pentagon at 9:37 am.

My location on September 11th was 8th floor 
of the ten story sandy brown building to the far left, 
pictured between the Pentagon and US Capitol. 
The Pentagon lays at the eastern terminus of Columbia Pike, which is the major thoroughfare cutting through south Arlington. We lived four blocks off of Columbia Pike.

Looking down the slope at the end of Columbia Pike towards the Potomac River is the Pentagon, bordered by Arlington National Cemetery, the Navy Annex (now the Air Force Memorial) and Shirley Highway (I-395). On the other side of the Pentagon, and across the river, is the office building where I worked, and further, is the United States Capitol. These landmarks lay along a corridor where news is made daily, typically by talking heads on TV, by witnesses in hearing rooms, by elected or appointed officials, or by lawyers and legislators plying their trade in judicial or legislative chambers. When news moves outdoors along this axis, it normally is in the form of civil protest or peaceful assembly, a ceremony of great moment such as the transfer of power to a newly elected president, or a festival celebrating country, heritage or history. But on September 11th a different kind of news reverberated back up the Pike and into our neighborhood. According to neighbors who were home at the time, houses shook and windows rattled within moments of impact.

With our second child on the way Teresa had decided to transition to stay-at-home mom. Effective week’s end she was leaving her US Army job. We were excited but nervous. The change would be best for the kids, but how would we manage the adjustment to a single salary? After working hard all summer, we planned to drive down to Texas that Saturday for an extended vacation, to visit with Teresa’s parents and siblings.

View of Pentagon burning, from USDA, DC side.
September 11th dawned a gorgeous day. The sky was crystal clear. Late summer wafted through the air mixed with a hint of fall. No haze. No smog. No humidity to speak of. I commuted to work across the 14th Street Bridge as I had thousands of times previous. I worked a late schedule so I could drop baby Blake at day care (downstairs in L’Enfant Plaza) around 9:00 am while Teresa worked an early schedule so she could pick up Blake by 4:00 pm. I returned to day care lunchtime to play with Blake; we wanted to minimize her institutional isolation. After dropping Blake off, as usual I retraced my steps along the plaza corridor and took the elevator up to my 8th floor office. Behind my desk the windows looked west, offering a view of the Washington Monument, the Custis Lee Mansion high up in Arlington National Cemetery and, though I had not previously given it much note, the roof of the Pentagon jutting above the office building immediately next door.

We convened an intra-office meeting to discuss a topic or topics of the day and plan strategy. We were asking the Postal Service Board to authorize filing a postal rate case. The year had been one of considerable economic turmoil, with the economy falling into recession as the bubble burst. But it looked like the US economy was on the verge of recovery. No doubt our discussion touched on those matters, when suddenly, Norm from budget stuck his head in the door, yelling, “You gotta find a TV – a plane flew into the World Trade Center!” Like many who first heard the news, we thought a single engine Cessna or some other small general aviation aircraft had flown into the building. With the unlimited visibility of the day, I thought it had to be a suicide or someone performing a stunt that went horribly awry.

We had a monitor set up for playing video tapes and displaying computer presentations; after rooting around we found a coaxial cable, figured out which outlet to hook into to get a cable feed and tune in the television news, only to learn another plane had hit the second tower at the World Trade Center. It was a large passenger jet, no Piper Cub. This was an intentional attack -- terrorism, a declaration of war. Tens of thousands of people worked in those buildings. 

In our geekiness, we calculated how many people might have been above the points of impact and how many below. Someone remarked that New York is a late city -- offices didn't fill up until 9:30 or 10:00. We talked about the horror of the event, geopolitical and economic impacts, and recounted personal experiences in, at or near the twin towers. A colleague had breakfasted that summer at Windows on the World, atop the north tower. From a downtown New York City visit, I remembered a small church which stood dwarfed by the nearby modern towers. One among us noted the National Association of Business Economists (NABE) was having its annual conference at the World Trade Center Marriott – we knew folks who were at ground zero at that very moment.

Later, the wife of a NABE member in who accompanied her husband at the Marriott conference, recounted her harrowing experience:

South Tower falling on the Mariott Hotel
Bob, who is a principal for DRI-WEFA, an economics consulting firm, was giving a presentation at the National Association for Business Economics on the first floor of the Marriott Hotel located between the WTC Twin Towers. At 8:46 a.m., the building shook. Debris began falling from the ceiling and people started running out of the conference room—it was sheer pandemonium. Bob helped pick up six people who had been trampled by the crowd. No one knew that the first hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 11, had just struck the North Tower. At the same time, I heard a loud crashing noise and then something hitting the window of our hotel room on the 15th floor. When I looked out, I saw smoldering papers falling from the sky and fire and smoke billowing out of the North Tower. On the ground, people were racing out of the hotel onto the plaza between the two towers while fire darted all around.
She continued,
... we were directed by the firefighters to exit via Liberty Street. Once we were on the street, the firefighters began yelling, “Run! Don’t look up! Run”. Just then, I tripped over a large piece of twisted metal that had fallen from one of the Towers and badly bruised my face and left foot and cut both knees. Bob quickly helped me up as one of the firefighters rushed over. We continued down the Joe DiMaggio Highway. Along the route were signs of the devastation. We saw a wheel from one of the planes, an abandoned car slammed into a storefront, and several body parts including someone’s arm along the sidewalk. As we made our escape, shopkeepers, firefighters, and police remained behind…while scores of ambulances raced towards the burning Towers.
Another NABE conference attendee reported,
The Marriott Hotel at World Trade Center is often forgotten in 9/11 discussions. It connected the North and South towers, and was also destroyed in the Twin Towers’ collapse. 
About 1,000 guests stayed at the hotel that day. Approximately 50 people, mostly firefighters, died in the hotel. 
That “elephant landing on the roof” sound [NABE attendee] Witt heard was the landing gear from American Airlines Flight 11 crashing atop the hotel.
Then 9/11 came to us. An accountant from a neighboring office ran into our suite. She screamed and pointed out the window. Turning heads, we saw a cone of dark, oily smoke rising from the Pentagon. I walked over to Greg M’s desk – he had been an Air Force pilot. I asked, “Greg, what’s burning?” He said “That's jet fuel.” 

Pentagon security camera captures
the impact of Flight 77.
I walked to the end of the hall to get a better look from a window that provided an unimpeded view across the river, when my boss appeared. He had been on the top floor sitting in on the Board of Governors meeting, in a room where there are floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Potomac. He said in his peripheral vision he saw a fireball at impact (sorry conspiracy theorists I know three impact eye witnesses, plus others who saw the plane seconds before impact). The third intentional crash of the day had not yet been reported in the media, but we knew exactly what had happened.

Okay, I thought, they are coming to get us. Who knows what will happen next? I need to grab Blake and get out of town. I called Teresa’s office (at the Navy Yard) to tell her I would pick up Blake. Her boss answered the phone. These people are pros, people who address forces bent on harming our country on a daily basis I thought -- they would be calm. But her boss lived in the northernmost of the three buildings that make up the River House apartment complex, at the corner of Army Navy Drive and South Joyce Street in the Pentagon City section of Arlington, which meant none resided closer to the Pentagon than she, a fact that I neglected to consider in the moment. I said, “Hi Mickey, this is Grady. They just got the Pentagon -- another plane.” She gasped, asked a quick question or two and suddenly hung up before I had a chance to ask for Teresa. I called back, getting a busy signal again and again, the rapid beeping all circuits busy kind of signal -- too late to get through.

Pentagon pictured from River House Apartments just
after impact, with Fire Engine 101 first on scene.
I hustled down to the day care in the underground mall at L'Enfant Plaze where I retrieved Blake and strapped her into an umbrella stroller. We rushed back against the pedestrian flow (people were streaming down the plaza hall to Metrorail) and returned to the basement garage. After strapping Blake in her car seat, I turned the ignition and heard a news radio report that the WTC South Tower had collapsed, pancaked down to the ground. There was also a report (unfounded we now know) of an explosion at the State Department. The last I checked, to my surprise, it looked like the approaches to the 14th Street Bridge were still open even though that route skirted past the Pentagon. I decided on the 14th Street, I-395/Pentagon route because I expected now the alternative, cutting across the mall and down Constitution Avenue to Memorial Bridge, would be gridlocked or blocked with the State Department under attack.

Approaching the Pentagon, the Washington Boulevard exit that I customarily use was blocked off, the ramp crowded by dozens of police, fire and various other official vehicles staged for duty.
Pentagon employees streaming away from the fire
on the Washington Boulevard Ramp from I-395. The 

Washington Boulevard exit ramp is overhead.
There were many hundreds of Pentagon employees, civilian personnel and uniformed service members, on the I-395 embankment and the slope leading down from the Navy Annex. Most were sitting, a valise or purse by their side, with shocked looks on their faces, staring down into the fiery hole in the Pentagon as if looking into a bottomless abyss.

I skipped the next interchange (Glebe Rd/Shirlington) because exiting traffic was backed up more than a mile, and continued on to the King Street exit, surmising that the traffic would be lighter circling back home in any event. After exiting, the arterial streets were clogged so I veered off onto neighborhood streets and zigzagged my way homeward, stopping at the first gas station along the way to fill up, so as to be prepared for a distant evacuation if that came to be. When I got up towards Columbia Pike I saw it had been closed down to all but emergency vehicles – we were allowed to cross the Pike when the coast was intermittently clear -- no wonder traffic was a total mess. I noticed fire engines and an ambulance were parked in front of the Glebe Road, Fire Station No.1 at the end of our section of South 5th Street – not Arlington County FD issue but vehicles imported from Loudoun and Fairfax Counties.  

ACFD Station 1 units were otherwise engaged.
Teresa and Blythe inspecting 
ACFD Engine 101 at Station No. 1
 down the street from our home, October, 2010
In Arlington County, Captain Steve McCoy and the crew of Engine 101 were en route to a session in Crystal City, traveling north on Interstate 395. Their conversation about the World Trade Center attack was interrupted by the sight of a commercial airliner in steep descent, banking sharply to its right before disappearing beyond the horizon. At 9:38 a.m., shortly after American Airlines Flight #77 disappeared from sight, a tremendous explosion preceded a massive plume of smoke and fire. Unable to pinpoint the precise location, Captain McCoy immediately radioed the Arlington County Emergency Communications Center (ECC), reporting an airplane crash in the vicinity of the 14th Street Bridge or in Crystal City. Aware of the World Trade Center attack, Captain McCoy also advised that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should be notified, since this was a possible terrorist attack.
The unit continued on and was first on scene. Engine 101 operates out of Fire Station No. 1. In accordance with long-standing regional mutual aid agreements, by 10:00 am that morning the units parked at street's end had migrated in from outlying jurisdictions, while Arlington squads were fighting the fire at the Pentagon.

As I pulled into our driveway I looked up and down the street – by the absence of other vehicles it appeared I was among the first home. The street scene was eerily peaceful, almost bucolic, if it were not for the incessant wailing of sirens in the background punctuated periodically by roars of low flying F-16 aircraft. I learned later those DC National Guard jets had no opportunity to arm – they scrambled that morning unarmed understanding that if a threatening aircraft were ordered to be taken down theirs would become a Kamikaze mission. The only option was to ram.

At home I turned on the TV news and logged onto AOL, sending emails to family and friends, letting them know we were OK. Periodically I would stick my head out the front door, to check for Teresa and returning neighbors. I knew some worked at the Pentagon. Thankfully, there were no neighborhood victims. Jeremiah, an Air Force officer who lived across the street, worked on a corridor of the Pentagon that burned, but he had attended a meeting that morning at Andrews AFB. When time came for his next rotation Jeremiah transferred to Central Command, McDill Air Force Base Tampa, where he looked forward to the opportunity to avenge the deaths of buddies. 

A neighbor known to us as “Fireman Bob” was a first responder; he later described victims literally fried to a crisp as they sat at their desks hands extended over keyboards. Teresa had a colleague who worked at the point of impact, one of the few people who can credit their survival to ignoring the Surgeon General’s anit-tobacco warning – when the plane struck she was in the Pentagon courtyard on a smoke break.

Teresa arrived home an hour after I. A thought that popped into my head when I saw the Pentagon burning was Teresa would not leave her job – she would be assigned to work the response. But she left her job and we went down to Texas as planned, on interstate highways that were virtually deserted. It turns out that her agency's Afghanistan task force was not formed until the following week. Now, fifteen years later, some of her former colleagues still work Afghanistan, the war of doubling down and tripling down, the war without end.

The Afghanistan invasion was initiated on the last day of our return trip from Texas. Fort Bragg was active. We stopped by and heard training exercises -- artillery shells exploding in the distance. We were told to tune in to news radio as we continued our drive up I-95. Something was going down. And it did.

So it was. 

So what do we do now?  We remember. How?

I raced in Fire and Sheriff 9/11 Memorial 5Ks, where a portion of the course snaked around the Pentagon. Afterwards, we talked to families and friends of fallen NYFD firefighters who came down to run wearing matching tee-shirts emblazoned with name and rank, and the NYFD emblem, to honor their loved departed. We commiserated over pizza and beer.

Memorial 5K route map.
Note that now for security reasons the outline of the Pentagon is blotted out on many on-line maps.

Not that it matters, but in the First Annual Memorial 5K, on September 7, 2002, I finished 618th among the males and 136th in my age group.

Finish Times, Inaugural Pentagon Memorial 5K, 2002
When I last raced in 2008 I finished 1016th among the males and 57th in a more advanced age group.

Finish times, Pentagon Memorial 5K, 2008.
We remember by our dress.

We remember by looking up to the flags.

Jefferson Middle School girls basketball game, December 2011
184 Flags draped from rafters.
Back in our old Arlington neighborhood, 184 flags hang from the rafters in the Thomas Jefferson Community Center and Middle School in memory of each of the victims. Whether in the gym for a workout, to shoot some baskets, to tour exhibits during the county fair or to watch Blake cheer on the basketball team to victory, we looked up and remembered.

We remembered by visiting the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial.

And yes, we remember by writing and posting on this blog.

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