Sociologists say that there is at least one event in every generation that will remain forever burned in the memory of almost everyone. Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy Assassination are two obvious examples.
The horrific events of September 11, 2001 are burned into the memory of all Americans. Everyone I know remembers the day in meticulous detail.
I was attending a meeting of the Postal Service’s Board of Governors, which had begun at 8:30 a.m. They were meeting in the large 11th floor reception rooms of the Postal Service’s headquarters building at L’Enfant Plaza in downtown Washington. The rooms have a beautiful panoramic view of the Potomac River from the Pentagon south to Alexandria and Mount Vernon and beyond.
A little after 9 a.m., Chief Postal Inspector Ken Weaver broke into the meeting to announce that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, the site of a major postal facility. He, however, had no more detail than that, and if he knew at that point that it was a terrorist attack, he did not alarm us with the news.
Then, a little before 10 a.m., someone who was looking out the window said loudly “Oh my God.” Those of us sitting near the window saw great clouds of smoke and some flame rising from the far side of the Pentagon. We thought at first that there had been a crash on the helicopter pad.
Just a few seconds later, Ken Weaver once again broke into the governor’s meeting. He very quietly announced that a large airplane had crashed into the Pentagon under very suspicious circumstances. He ordered immediate evacuation of the building and urged us to follow the postal inspectors in an orderly fashion to elevators that would whisk us down to the building’s exits.
Many of us went to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station where I jammed myself into the first Blue Line train heading toward Roslyn. I was going to transfer to the Orange Line toward Ballston, but the station was so mobbed that I decided to walk up Wilson Boulevard to Virginia Square where my car was parked., about two miles uphill. A lot of others had the same idea.
I managed to reach Jean on my cell phone as I was leaving the L’Enfant Plaza building and she told me the sketchy news about the attacks. That was the last I could use the cell that morning, so I was walking in considerable ignorance.
The roads leading out of Washington through Arlington were jammed. The apparent seriousness of the Pentagon attack was underscored when I finally got up to Clarendon and saw that Washington Boulevard was completely blocked – more than a mile from the Pentagon. I could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon. That was serious!
I finally got to my car and drove home. The television was on and they were showing a panoramic view of Manhattan – and there was no World Trade Center! That was stunning – I had no idea that it had collapsed.
The rest of the day was spent glued to the television set, much the same as the day of the Kennedy assassination twenty-eight years earlier.
I learned later that day that Arlington County fire and police were the first responders at the Pentagon and acquitted themselves in exemplary fashion. I was very proud of them. It was a grueling day.