On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, my husband left our home at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, DC, well before dawn for his Air Force intelligence job at the Pentagon. Still sleeping, I’m not sure I even said, “Good-bye,” much less, “I love you.”
I had a busy day planned. I’d made arrangements to stop by a friend’s home on the base around 8:40 to pick up a few things and chat for a minute or two before running just off the base for a quick follow-up dentist appointment at 9:30. My oldest daughter, Morgan, was 11 and had recently completed the babysitter training which allowed her to care for her siblings in our home for up to two hours. I would be easily be home in two hours. Sean was 8, Samantha 3, Allen had just turned 2. They were supposed to have breakfast and watch cartoons on PBS until I was back to begin our homeschool lessons for the day.
I was ready to walk out the door at 8:30. Did I hug all my kids and tell them how much they meant to me before I left? I really can’t remember.
It was an absolutely beautiful day. Not a single cloud in the sky. Fall was in air.
I arrived at my friends home and visited for about 20 minutes. We never turned on the TV or the radio. We had no idea what was happening outside of our quiet fellowship.
At around 9:05, I drove off the base. I remember noticing that my gas tank was close to empty, and I had forgotten the car charger for the cell phone which was nearly dead.
At about 9:15, I arrived at my dentist’s office. I thought it was odd that the front desk clerk was trying to tune something in on the big TV which usually played kids’ movies on video in the waiting area. I remember her words almost exactly when I asked what she was doing, “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center tower in New York. I heard there might be a terrorist attack on DC later this week.” I remember, too, that I instantly began considering packing up the kids and visiting my in-laws for the weekend in West Virginia.
I was taken back to the dentist’s chair a minute or two later still having no idea of the magnitude of what was taking place. I just thought–small commuter plane side-swiped the Trade Center tower, surely an accident. I was barely seated when I heard screaming from the waiting area and what seemed like a hundred feet running behind my chair towards the window at the end of the hallway. I jumped up to see what was happening. From that sixth story window view I could clearly see smoke pouring into to the sky from the direction of downtown DC.
Things are a bit of a blur from here. A plane has just crashed into the Pentagon! My kids are at home alone! I’ve got to get home! Stop! Wait! Call first and send them to a neighbor’s house. My cell phone is almost dead. Can I use the office phone? Time and time again I hear, “All circuits are busy. Please try your call again.” Finally, the phone rings on the other end, and Morgan answers, and I can barely control my hysteria, “Grab the babies and go Ms. Kim’s house right now! Just go!”
My cell phone rings, and my husband’s number is displayed on the screen. With only a few seconds of of battery life, I hear him say, “I’m fine,” and a female voice booming, “Evacuate the building! Evacuate the building!”
At that point, of course, I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible. As I was heading out the door, I heard someone in the office mention that military installations were on lock-down. My babies are home alone! My panicked call to base security went something like this: “Yes, Ma’am the base is locked down. You can not return here.” “But you don’t understand! My children are home alone!” “I’m sorry Ma’am, but I have way more important things to worry about right now.” Click.
I had no idea then where to go or what to do. The dentist office received a phone call from their building management advising everyone to evacuate the building. Then news came of at least one more highjacked plane. No one knew where it was or where it was heading. I called my friend, Kim, to check on the kids, and she suggested going to her church which was just a few miles from the dentist office.
At the church, they were warm and welcoming, but a huge TV in the office broadcasted the images of the attacks live, and I had to turn away from the horrible images of people jumping from the top floors of the World Trade Center. I asked for a quiet place to make some phone calls, and a Bible. At some point in our conversation Kim had told me to read Psalm 91. (Years later, I heard someone call Psalm 91:1, the 911 verse.)
I knew I had a calling card number, but I had no idea what the number was. I called AT&T and explained everything. The incredibly kind and understanding operator gave me my calling card number so that I could start contacting loved ones. I had no phone numbers with me, so I spent the next hour or so calling information and tracking down my mom, Ray’s mom and old friends whose calm reassurance I really needed.
Then there was just waiting and calling occasionally to the base to ask when I’d be allowed to go home. Finally, at around 2:00, I was told that people who lived on the base would be allowed to return, but that I must be able to not only show proof that I lived there, I would be asked a series of questions before being allowed access. I jumped in the car and set off toward the city. It was one of the eeriest experiences of my life, driving back into Washington, DC that day. I was the only car on my side of the road, but traffic going the opposite direction was bumper to bumper. I remember giggling a little to myself because I felt like the crazy person in a disaster movie driving back into the danger zone.
Finally back at home, it felt like we’d gone to war. There were barricades set up everywhere. Marine helicopters circled close to the ground with sharp-shooters hanging out, guns pointed at the ground. Smoke filled the air. The atmosphere was so completely different than the peaceful morning that I’d awakened to just a few hours before.
Ray arrived home very late that night. He’d never left the Pentagon in spite of the booming “Evacuate” voice. Like so many of our incredible service men and women do everyday, he had an important job to do, regardless of the danger, and he kept doing it until someone arrived to take over.
It seems odd to stop the story here. This is where the day ended, but the story of how my life was affected continued and to some effect still does today. What is your 9/11 story? Someone told me a few years ago that I needed to “get over it”. I disagree. It’s important that we remember.