Sept. 11, 2001: personal history

Sept. 11. Even typing those words sends a chill through my spine. If I don’t look away from my monitor and try to think of something else, I’m in danger of breaking down all over again. Time has not yet lessened the pain that the attacks of that day inflicted on us.

If I can be completely truthful with all of you, the fact is that I do my best not to think of such things. But this year being the 10th anniversary of the attacks, even those of us who try to avoid dwelling on the horrors of the past will be forced to remember.

Flipping the channels this week, I counted no fewer than 10 programs dedicated to Sept. 11, and that’s not including the remembrance ceremonies planned for opening day of the NFL season. Some of them, like a special on The History Channel that will play 911 calls made by doomed people inside the World Trade Center, are not something I could even consider viewing. I’m just not strong enough to do it.

Psychologists will say that facing your fears is a good thing, that by confronting your demons you can exorcise them. Everyone has a story from that day, during that great panic when we really didn’t know what was going on and it seemed like the whole world was collapsing.

And so, if it will help, I’d like to ask each of you where you were that day and what your experiences were. Whether you were in New York or Tucson, I’m sure the attacks reached you somehow. Perhaps if we can share our stories this many years later, they will have a little bit less power over us.

Since I don’t want to ask readers to do anything that I myself wouldn’t do, I’ll start. My story is probably typical of most of us and doesn’t involve any narrow escapes or split-second decisions that would have saved or ended my life. Eventually I would learn that my best friend’s father was one of the last people out of the Pentagon after the plane hit. And another friend lost his brother, a firefighter in New York, when the first tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. But for me personally, I was simply late for work because of a terrible traffic jam on the Washington Beltway that morning.

I actually had an appointment in downtown D.C. at the Agriculture Department, but the traffic on I-270 in Maryland was so bad that it was becoming clear that I was not going to make it. Government Computer News had its headquarters in Silver Spring at the time, and my plan to drive into the office and hop on a Metro train was not going to work.

But I was not too worried. Instead of fretting about it, I was just listening to, of all things, a new Enya CD in my car. I actually let the CD play through three full times while I crept along, trapped in the worst jam-up I’d seen at that time in the morning.

I did notice a few of the other drivers looking very frightened, but assumed they were simply not taking their tardiness as well as I was. The attacks were just then being reported on the radio, but I was listening to Enya’s beautiful fusion of Celtic and New Age, so I just cruised along in blissful ignorance. Ironically, one of her most haunting songs, “Only Time” would eventually become an anthem of sorts for the Sept. 11 attacks, used in many montages of photos from that day. Enya would also release a remix of that song with all proceeds going to help the victims. Here is one of those tributes people put together featuring her song on YouTube. But I swear to God, you won’t be able to watch it without crying.

What I didn’t realize is that people at GCN didn’t know I was late, and assumed I was already downtown. My co-workers were frantically calling me, but my cell phone never got the calls because the network had already been jammed up. (Remember that this crisis led to a push to reform and improve cellular service, but the recent earthquake that hit D.C. showed us that we still have a ways to go in that respect.)

Eventually I got tired of listening to Enya and switched to the radio. I expected to hear my favorite morning team at the time, Kurt, Mark and Lopez, but instead I heard Dan Rather saying how it was a dark day for the nation that we would never forget.

Realizing that something was very wrong, all the clues I had seen on the road that morning began to suddenly make sense. It was like someone dumped a bucket of ice water over my head. The radio DJs were simply holding their microphones up to the TV and re-broadcasting that feed. This was interspersed with all kinds of reports about planes crashing into buildings, into the Pentagon, into banks and schools. There was so much misinformation that at one point I yelled up into the sky “Where in the hell are the terrorists getting all these planes!”

I was stunned now, too, like the drivers I had seen previously. In fact, when I finally crept around to my exit, I was on the far side of the highway. Something really interesting happened, though. I put on my blinker and all four lanes of the Beltway just melted away like the parting of the Red Sea. I could have crossed 80 lanes of traffic, I think. That spirit of togetherness that was so beautiful and prevalent after the attacks had already begun. I experienced it on the highway that morning. People went out of their way just to get out of my way. I sailed down the exit, taking one look back at my new friends, lost again in their highway hypnosis. I wished them all well on their journeys.

When I walked into GCN, my fellow lab partner at the time ran over and hugged me. Then he ran to tell the editor that I was OK and she came running into the lab and also hugged me.

At the office, nothing was working right. Even the land lines had trouble getting calls through, and most Internet sites like Washingtonpost.com and CNN.com were so jammed with traffic that I could not get in. Eventually we got through to a news website in Australia to find out what was going on locally, a quirky trick of the global nature of the Internet.

A few other things happened that day. Our editor-in-chief at the time was Tom Temin. He was trapped on a plane, trying to get to Los Angeles for a tradeshow, but he got grounded in Tennessee when the airspace closed. I didn’t get to talk with him that day, but remember the sigh of relief that went through the office when we learned that he was safe, if stranded.

Later in the day the GCN Lab provided shelter for some IT workers from Congress who had been evacuated. They told us how they grabbed backup tapes and made a run for it. We sat and had lunch with them as more news dribbled in. The huge backup tapes for Congress’ computer network provided perfect coasters for our soda cans. It was all very surreal.

Like most people, I did almost nothing that week other than watch TV, read the paper and try to imagine what would come next. News of the deaths of friends of friends added to the feeling of hopelessness.

But eventually things got better. People came together like nothing I had experienced before, like I imagine people probably did after Pearl Harbor was attacked back in 1941. Eventually things went back to normal, if you call perpetual warfare normal. We even killed that bastard bin Laden, though his death brought me surprisingly little comfort. Still, it’s nice to know that some semblance of justice was done eventually.

I don’t know what I’m going to be doing this year on Sept. 11, though I probably won’t be watching any of those remembrance specials or listening to Enya, which I now unfortunately associate with that day. Perhaps I’ll get brave enough to watch one. I don’t know.

What I will do is read your comments. Let us know where you were on Sept. 11, 2001, and what you experienced. I think it will be helpful to know that we all went through this together, and that we found the light at the end of that very dark tunnel. I hope my story in some way brings you comfort, too. We all push onward, never knowing what tomorrow may bring, but knowing that we can get there together.



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