September 11, 2001 started as a typical day in our D.C. area office. We arrived around 8:00 AM, turned on the Windows PC and went to get coffee while it booted. Along the way we stopped to chat with someone about pending legislation. Then we heard a commotion from a small conference room and joined a small crowd hovering over the TV. The side of the North Tower had a gaping hole in it. Smoke was pouring out. Staff talked in hushed tones over a palpable sense of agitation.
The Stiftung stepped out for the head. Clearly an incompetent Piper pilot had a bad morning. It was no big deal. If you’ve lived in the City, you know these things happen. Rubes from D.C. couldn’t understand. We dreaded the sensationalism to come. The cable channels would have a field day (shark month barely ended). Was it wishful thinking in hindsight? No, we really did think it was a small plane error.
When we rejoined the now larger conference room group in an instant our world turned upside down. The South Tower had been struck. Our heart broke into two. We loved those buildings. Dining with clients. And simply as part of what is. Like the moon or sun. Staff young and old were silent watching the fires. This obviously was an attack.
Suddenly our office building shook with a loud but rolling boom. People ran to the windows. We moved down the hall and stood in the undeservedly nice office of a genial Movement assassin. He was hired to amp up influence with the Bush/Cheney Movement anti-bodies. On his TV the Pentagon burned. The Pentagon was literally just down the parkway. Panic became real. To calm this Titan of Amerikuh down, I pointed out that most of its structure remained in tact.
Shortly thereafter the building was ordered evacuated. We were told another plane had turned around towards D.C.
The Stiftung was scheduled long in advance to attend an event/appear at a seminar down at U.Va. that day. The phones were not working. Was it cancelled? Only one way to find out. We got into the car and headed to Charlottesville, thus beginning a most surreal experience. The route to U.Va. is bucolic. That day the sky was a glorious blue and the sun shone with that edge of Fall crispness. With windows down we listened to AM radio describe the undescribable. Who did it? Why? What cities next? Arabs this and that. Across all the radio channels one thing remained constant – we were under attack and this meant war.
We pulled over at one gas station and bought a full tank from a Sikh attendant with head dress. We shook his hand and smiled, thanking him. Pulling away we already began thinking that he would have a hard time in this new America. The reason? At a local burger joint further on the mood was angry and confused — like leaking gas just waiting for a match. Sikhs? Arabs? No one there would take the time to learn the differences.
Naturally, when we got to U.Va. they cancelled the event. It was late afternoon; the campus beautiful as ever. Spend the night or turn around? We bought music at some college discount storefront and began the long drive back.
We’re glad for the drive. We could experience the reaction to the attacks in the car-cocoon as it rolled along, the car’s motion seemingly allowed it all to register fluidly. Certainly more helpful than some of our colleagues who went over to the Pentagon. To this day that never felt right and they still seem like gawkers tying to get history to rub off on them. (The hardest manual labor these folks did was tear the saran wrap covering stacks of legal pads. They didn’t even get past the outer perimeter barriers).
On September 12th almost everyone was talking war — if they weren’t still too stunned. Ironically, the word among the Movement was that Bush didn’t have the balls to do it.
Location seemingly did affect peoples’ emotional reaction and perceptions. That evening on the 12th, the Stiftung picked up a long-time D.C. resident at Dulles Airport. She had been stranded in Hawaii by the airplane grounding order. When we drove from Dulles back into D.C. by this time surface to air batteries and HMMVs dotted intersections around the Imperial City. She was amazed. I asked if she knew what happened. She said sure, they had Fox cable on at the resort. Some buildings were damaged. ‘War’ never occurred to her. Or the scale of shock.
Our heart always was with the City and the Towers. The Pentagon means very little to us despite the time spent dealing with it. In the following days we made the reverse drive and took the pilgrimage up 95 to the City. With our tears pouring down, then for us, it all became undeniably real. Each over pass on 95 had flags or sheets with messages of love for the victims in the Towers. Each car passing honked with a wave of support. Along all 200 plus miles. The Stiftung has never felt such bittersweet tears and love but for once.
Ultimately that was and is 9/11 for us. Tears for those lost and the selflessness. And memory, filled with sadness but also healing. The Concert for the City that October summed it up perfectly.
Watching how it all got turned into a milporn totem for Rightists seems like a second victimization.
From STSOZ 1.0 our 2006 reaction to the movie ‘Flight 93’. Still feels about right.