Monday, September 14, 2020

Will 9/11 ever be over?

 

Stolen from dcist.com

Yesterday on Facebook, I mentioned that I was grateful all of the 9/11 stuff was over for the year, meaning the social media posts and news coverage of the memorial events. Someone took issue with my phrasing. "For some people, 9/11 will never be over, " she said.

You're telling me.

I guess I've never told my 9/11 story here on the blog. Maybe I should save it for the 20th anniversary next year. But I think I'll write it now and just re-run it next year.

***

When people talk about 9/11, they tend to focus on New York. That sort of makes sense -- the collapse of the Twin Towers was a dramatic and horrible tragedy. But two other planes went down that day. One of them slammed into the Pentagon. That's the one that affected me.

We lived in the West End of Alexandria, VA, in the rental townhouse where I later set the Land Sea Sky trilogy. That September morning, the weather was beautiful. The heat and humidity of the typical DC summer was over and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The girls and I went through our usual morning routines. They went off to school -- Kitty was in ninth grade at Minnie Howard School and Amy was in seventh grade at Hammond Middle School -- and I went off to my job. I caught my usual bus, which took me to the Pentagon where I changed from the bus to the subway, and went in to work. 

Our office was at 24th and M Streets Northwest in those days. I sat next to a secretary who worked for a partner with a corner office. He had a little TV in there and a great view of the skyline south of DC, and he was traveling on business that day. So when the first plane went into the World Trade Center, about an hour after I got to work, Debbie went into his office and turned on the TV. Her boss had a bunch of clients in the World Trade Center, and she was worried about them. Then the second plane hit and the towers collapsed. 

And then we heard about the plane at the Pentagon. 

That was pretty much it for work that day. I'd left the news business just two years before, so I had some inkling of what the reporters were going through. I spent the morning going back and forth between my desk, where I kept refreshing the news coverage online, and the partner's office, where we could now see smoke rising from the Pentagon crash site. 

Then we heard about the fourth plane -- including the speculation about the hijackers' planned destination: the U.S. Capitol, maybe, or the White House. Our office was just a few blocks from the White House. Now, everybody in DC is pretty much a fatalist; I've heard the route for the Capital Beltway was chosen because it marks the outer edge of direct damage from a nuclear bomb blast on the White House. If you live or work inside the Beltway, you figure you're not going to survive an attack. But still, this made that threat a little too real. 

Our office manager sent everybody home at lunchtime. This was before cell phones were ubiquitous and people were worried about their families. My usual bus was a commuter bus that only ran during morning and afternoon rush hour, but I knew that if I could get to a different station, farther down the Blue Line, I could catch a bus that ran all day. The question was whether the trains would be running to Pentagon Station or whether they'd be turned back. I got lucky; the wedge of the Pentagon where the plane went in was far enough away from the Metro station that it wasn't affected. The station, however, was closed. My train went through it without stopping. I caught my alternate bus and got home okay.

Not long after I got home, Kitty came in the front door and cried with relief when she saw me. The teachers at her school had told the kids about the attack. Of course, she knew my transit route and was worried I'd been at the Pentagon when the crash happened.

The teachers at Hammond didn't tell the kids anything, but the school is only five miles from the Pentagon and the kids felt it when the plane went in. There was a big construction project at the school and the kids wrote it off to that. It wasn't until later that they found out what had happened. 

Going back to work the next day was surreal. The Pentagon transit station was still closed, and would continue to be for the next three months. Buses that usually stopped at the Pentagon were rerouted to Pentagon City, just across Interstate 395. The new bus stops were makeshift affairs, and when we got off the bus we could smell the smoke from the smoldering fire. In addition, the platforms at Pentagon City are too narrow for the crush of commuters that typically got off at the Pentagon. The station managers were constantly yelling over the intercom, telling people to move down the platform instead of bunching up at the bottom of the escalator. I was sure that someday, somebody would get pushed off the platform by the crowds and into the path of an oncoming train.

Once on the train, it was more or less fine. But once we got to DC, things got surreal again. Armed troops in Humvees were stationed at major intersections. Walking past them to get to work was both reassuring and frightening.

The attacks changed a lot of things in DC. Of course, air traffic was halted right after the attacks. Living in an urban area, you get used to the noise from airplanes flying overhead -- but now all we heard were helicopters flying to and from the Pentagon. Other things changed, too. For example, we had to start carrying an ID card at work to get from one floor to another. Bag checks were instituted at public buildings, including museums. 

And of course, we all know how airport security was stepped up once air travel resumed. It was worse for DC residents -- initially there was a rule for all flights out of Reagan National Airport that nobody could leave their seat for the first 30 minutes of the flight.

Three months after the attacks, as I said, the Pentagon Transit Center reopened. It was due for a redesign anyway, but I believe the plans were modified after 9/11. It used to be that you could get off the train at Pentagon Metro, cross the lobby, go through a set of glass doors, and take an escalator up to the Pentagon itself. I'd done that a few times to buy a bus pass. But when the station reopened, that entrance was sealed off. Now nobody can get into the Pentagon without an ID or an official tour ticket. 

Also as part of the redesign, the bus bays were moved farther away from the building, and the transit center entrance facing the bus bays was redesigned. It's shown in the photo above. The line below Pentagon Transit Center might be hard to read in this photo. Here's what it says: 

In Memory of Those Whose Lives Were Forever Changed by the Events of September 11, 2001

I cried the first time I saw it. All of our lives had been changed by 9/11, in ways large and small.

***

Nearly 20 years on, it's easy to forget how much has changed. Americans came together right after the attacks, sure. But prejudice against Muslims ratcheted up, and it has never gone away. 

I know my own memories of the days right after 9/11 are no longer as sharp; until I looked up the dates tonight, I thought the temporary bus transfers to Pentagon City lasted a lot longer. And it's harder to remember how much easier life was before the attacks. I'm reconciled to the fact that we have to pay the government money now for the privilege of not having to undress and unpack to get on a plane. And I've gotten used to having my backpack searched when visiting a museum.

To me, the most worrisome change is that the Department of Homeland Security, cobbled together from several other federal agencies in the wake of 9/11, has become an easy tool for a president with fascist tendencies to exploit.

I think it's time for our nation to re-examine some of the post-9/11 changes that we've begun to normalize. I think it's time to look at whether, maybe, we went too far. That may be what it will take for us to be able to put the events of 9/11 behind us at last.

***

These moments of bloggy remembrance have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. You know the drill - wash your hands, social distance, wear a mask, and make sure you're registered to vote.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

I remember that morning vividly. I was at work and on my break when the TV showed it. I worked with a woman whose sin worked at the Trade Center. She was pretty frantic and didn't hear until later in the day that he was fine. This incident hot not only Americans but folks in other countries, too. And, of course, that's when our folks took the planes that diverted to Gander in Newfoundland and took them into their homes, fed them, and made friends of them until they could fly back home. Watch Come From Away if you want to see how people come together in a crisis.It's the most heartwarming story I've ever heard.

Lynne Cantwell said...

I need to watch that. :)

So much, both good and bad, came from the attacks. We definitely saw people at their best and at their worst.

I remember US flags flying on nearly every highway overpass. We really did seem to come together as a nation. Hard to believe that now.

Thanks for your comment, Yvonne. ❤️