Twelve years ago this morning, I was sitting at my desk in Crystal City, Virginia, about a half-mile south of the Pentagon. I was a month into my first job out of college, working in a government office, in a block of buildings filled to the brim with government and government contractor offices. I’d joked to my friends that I’d never frequented a more polite place in my life: Everywhere you turned, there were military personnel and former military personnel who held doors for you, offered you their seats, and called you “Miss” or “Ma’am.” To a nervous, small-town girl alone in a big city for the first time, it was reassuring.
The weather that day was absolutely gorgeous. I had noticed it on my metro ride into work. I’d blinked at the bright sunlight as my train emerged from its Washington, D.C. tunnel and climbed across the bridge over the Potomac, into Virginia. I’d searched the brilliant blue sky for a cloud and couldn’t find even one before we descended again, the Pentagon looming on our right.
I had watched people get off the train that morning at the Pentagon station. I’d recognized a few of them; you start to do that when you commute on public transportation at the same time every day.
Sitting at my desk, happy and proud that I was settling into a real, grown-up job, I was unprepared for the horror and fear that the day would bring. Who wasn’t?
Along with the rest of the country, I soon began to learn, bit-by-bit, what was happening. First in New York. Then again in New York. Then horror turned to fear: There was an attack in my own backyard. Then – was another one coming? Would it hit the White House? The Capitol? If it aimed for the Pentagon, could it overshoot and get us instead? No, that one went down in Pennsylvania. Guilty relief. Are there more?
My boss made his way back from a meeting at our main office, near the White House. Roads were blocked and no public or private transportation was moving anyway, so he walked. He walked for miles, at midday, an overweight man nearing retirement-age. He looked so red-faced, exhausted, and stricken when he arrived that we were sincerely afraid he would have a heart-attack. But I suppose that’s what you do when structure breaks down, when you fear that the place you’re standing in at the moment might soon be under attack: You walk. Even if it’s from downtown Washington, D.C., across a bridge, to Northern Virginia. You walk a route that is normally only driven at high speed, in much traffic.
And then there was the heartache of the World Trade Center collapsing. The slow realization of the enormity of the event that was unfolding around us. The tears and the near-hyperventilation. The world turning upside down as I watched the streets outside my building fill with people, the highway clogged with cars that wouldn’t move for hours, police with big guns emerging from what felt like nowhere. And worst of all: the acrid smoke that hung in the air. In it, I felt the horror physically – stinging the back of my throat.
And there were the questions. Not just “Who did this?” but “Is it over?” And “Will our highways or our bridges or our metros be attacked next?” “Will we be able to get home?” “Should we scrounge for food and prepare to stay in the office overnight?” “Should we evacuate?” And the loneliest question: “Where will we be safe?”
Much later, when it had been hours since the last attack, a touch of the normal came back. The metro reopened, allowing me to return home, albeit via a detour. We were rushed, without stopping, through a Pentagon station that smelled strongly of smoke. All were numb, quiet. It was beyond strange to know that every single person I saw was thinking about the same thing. It was awful to know that our glances at each other were both sympathetic and suspicious. We didn’t know who was at fault, or if they were done. The weight of it all was oppressive.
But still, that sky was blue. It was blue and horrible and sickening. It shouldn’t have been so pretty. It should have cried.
That night I stood outside in the dark next to my uncle, looking at the big sky from the vantage of his small farm, where I was living at the time. He’d brought me out there to make me look at that awful, clear expanse. “Look; there are no planes in the sky. You’ll never see this again,” he told me.
I went back to work the next day, because We’re not going to let those terrorists get to us! I crossed that bridge over the Potomac once again. The sky was still blue, but this time I saw large white clouds of smoke or dust or steam billowing up from the Pentagon. We sped through the station again, smelling the smoke. We would do so — speed through without stopping — for days, perhaps weeks. Every time we did, I thought of the faces I’d seen getting off at that station that morning. I wondered where those people were, whether they were safe. I never saw them again.
The following day, I stayed home. I was exhausted and I needed to process what had happened.
I think I’m still working on it.
I know that my experience is nothing compared to that of those who escaped the Twin Towers, or who were injured in the Pentagon, or who searched frantically for information about their loved ones on that awful day and the ones that followed it. I don’t forget that thousands of people were lost and that thousands more continue to feel those losses acutely. I know that countless people feel like their lives were ripped apart that day.
Mine was not. I lost nothing more than some peace of mind.
And yet, to this day the sight of a clear, cloudless sky just about sends me into a panic attack. I don’t dwell on the yearly memorials, because I can hardly handle them. Re-reading my journal entry from that day, hearing a mention on the radio, seeing a “never forget” bumper sticker or Facebook meme – even just thinking about September 11th – it causes the anxiety to mount. I have to switch gears before it overwhelms me.
Why do I write all this? Because oddly enough, it’s countering the anxiety that always rises to the surface this time of the year. And because it’s my way of saying “never forget” without relying on the memes that sucker-punch me. Never forget: that day was real; its impact lives on; those lives were valuable.
I suppose it’s some long-overdue processing.
God bless those who were lost that day. God bless those they left behind. God have mercy on those responsible.
And please? Don’t forget the Pentagon.