By JONATHAN TILOVE
September 11, 2001
c.2001 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ The announcement that came over the public address system at the Pentagon City Metro station was direct and chilling, “Attention station managers and customers, at this time the Pentagon station is closed due to a terrorist attack.”
For workaday Washingtonians, it was a day that will live in infamy, but it was also a day alive with the stunned, terrible realization that they were now characters in the world of overwrought books and movies, and that the world of minutes ago was a safer, more innocent place than the one they had just been plunged into.
To the extent that people panicked it was, by and large, a purposeful, well-disciplined, low-key, first-things-first panic. Call the family. Fetch the kids. Figure out how to get home. Try to find out what else might have been blown up, which direction to look for smoke.
People described it as bad Tom Clancy, a bad movie, a bad dream, another Pearl Harbor, worse than Oklahoma City, the ominous opening of a new chapter in American life, at once utterly unbelievable and yet, to many, the unspoken fear they had long held.
“People are crazy. How could they do this?” asked Felicia Lasley, a Justice Department worker. “This shows we aren’t as secure as most Americans hope we would be.”
But Meeta Sehgal, a native of India who moved to Washington 10 years ago and works at the World Bank, admitted, “This has always been in the back of my mind, I knew it was possible but I didn’t want to think about.”
“They can do anything, anywhere, anytime,” said Sehgal, huddled with friends at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street. “I saw the World Trade Center tower collapse and I was shaking. And where we work, the World Bank, is another prime target.”
“I don’t think anyone, anywhere can feel safe on this particular day,” said Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., who was elected to Congress after her husband was one of several people killed on the Long Island Railroad by a crazed gunman.
Almost as soon as people arrived at work Tuesday, the question was how to get home.
Pennsylvania Avenue, the nation’s Main Street, stretching from the Capitol past the White House to Georgetown, was a mess of gridlock, frayed nerves, honking horns, ambulance sirens and a population of pedestrians purposefully moving along, at least a third with cell phones to their ears, a few with radios.
There were lines at parking garages. Service on cell phones and automatic teller machines was balky. On some streets without police, businessmen directed traffic.
“I’m just doing what I can,” said Donald Osborne, using his strong baritone to direct traffic, dressed in his three-piece suit at Connecticut Avenue and K Street. A lady in an SUV handed him a box of Dunkin’ Donuts as thanks.
On the streets around the Capitol, the scene grew eerily quiet. What people there were stood in solemn silence. Police, Senate staffers, reporters and passersby listened for news to a car radio turned loud on the street next to the Russell Senate Office Building across from the Capitol.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., was doing a interview with ABC news, cautioning calm, expressing the hope that this wouldn’t mean the kind of security response that would compromise the fundamental openness of American government.
“I wouldn’t want to be a United States senator if the public couldn’t come up and talk to me,” he said, gesturing toward the Capitol building a couple of blocks away.
Park police began lowering flags on the Capitol grounds to half staff. Church bells pealed Anchors Aweigh at noon, the Marine Corps Hymn at 1 p.m.
“It’s 911,” said Kevin Simon, referring to today’s date, Sept. 11, or 9/11. Simon is chairman of the history department at the Sayre School in Lexington, Ky. For 17 years he has brought the entire 11th grade _ 40 students this year _ to Washington, and this year’s group, he said, “either saw less than any other class, or more.”
They had just finished breakfast at Union Station and were on their way to a morning tour at the Capitol when they learned what was happening from the panicked cell phone calls of parents back home in Kentucky. In the distance, they could see a great plume of smoke rising above the Pentagon.
A few yards away, on a park bench with three seats, Stella Riechman, 77, and two cousins, all from St. Louis, were waiting for Union Station to reopen so they could catch a train to Williamsburg, Va.
Riechman was caressing her rosary beads. She had pulled them out when they were hurried out after the 9 a.m. White House tour with words of a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Four hours later, she was still rubbing the beads. “If I’m going to go, I’m going to go saying the rosary,” she said.
It reminded Riechman of Dec. 7, 1941. She was a senior in high school, having dinner with her family in St. Louis when President Roosevelt came on the air to say Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
“We’ve never been attacked before like this,” said Sherri Reid, who works at the Department of Energy, waiting for a bus nearby.
“This may just be the beginning,” said Vontall Mills, who had left the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and was waiting for the same bus as Reid, so she could retrieve her son from school.
Chris and Christine Swol, of Pensacola, Fla., were in town for their daughter’s wedding next weekend, They were just emerging from the Smithsonian Metro stop when a woman came screaming up to them, “They’re evacuating the city! We’re under attack!”
“We could see smoke coming from the direction of the Pentagon,” said Chris Swol, before embarking on the seven-mile walk back to their hotel in Bethesda.
Shade Uhman, a financial analyst with MCI, was looking out her window less than a mile from the Pentagon. “I saw the building go up in flames,” she said. Her reaction: “I can’t believe this. This is the United States of America.”
Long Huyhn, 27, was in the Pentagon, on the third floor, in his second week as a computer systems administrator, when the plane crashed. But he saw and heard nothing.
The first he knew something was wrong came when someone yelled that everyone had to evacuate the building. As he was talking, at an outdoor table at a closed California Pizza Kitchen about a mile from the Pentagon, black smoke continued to billow out of the building that symoblizes America’s might and security.
“It’s one thing to see terrorism on TV,” said Huynh. “It’s another thing to see and smell the black smoke, realizing you’re 500 feet from the impact. Before, terrorism was so far away, something I saw on CNN. But now I’ve experienced it. It’s not just for other people.”
Most people who speculated on perpetrators thought first of the Middle East.
“This is no Timothy McVeigh,” said a deli clerk who hoped the events would inspire a renewed sense of nationalism and American identity.
Outside the World Bank, which will be targeted by protests along with the International Monetary Fund at the end of this month, a lone biker could be seen shouting out, “Revolucion. Hallelujah.”
Another bicyclist, this one a messenger in a Dale Earnhardt T-shirt, pausing at a light several blocks from the White House, had a different opinion: “You mess with the U.S., you get your ass kicked.”
Downtown, a man on the street begged for money for cab out of town. There were too many people on buses and subways, said Roni Williams. “I’m paranoid,” he explained.
The moment the news flashed on the television of the first plane crashing into the the World Trade Center, Joanne Bland, tourist director for the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Ala., who was in Washington for a National Endowment for the Humanities meeting, knew what she wanted.
“Get me back to Alabama,” she said.
(Dru Sefton, Mark O’Keefe, Michele M. Melendez and Jose Alfredo Flores contributed to this story. Jonathan Tilove can be contacted at jonathan.tilove(at)newhouse.com.)