My boss, Andy, was coming in from a fundraising trip in CA (his plane was permitted to land in DC, probably the last before the total shut down). I had dropped Aaron, then just 3 years old, off at the DC JCC day care. The week previous, his first week at the DC JCC, he had broken his arm falling off the monkey bars. Despite the clear instructions to call me first in case of emergency (as my office was five minutes away) they called Becky, who worked in Rockville (a good 45 minutes away) because, well, she is the Mom. Becky told them that, as it said on the form, I work five minutes away and in an emergency, call me. I mention this because it becomes relevant later on.
At the time, our office was at 18th and K St., two blocks from the White House. This never seemed like much of a security issue.
At about 9 a.m., I heard from a coworker that a plane had hit one of the twin towers. A bit later, I heard a second plane was hit and that they were now suspecting terrorists. My first reaction was rather flip "Someone's been reading too much Tom Clancy," I said.
Then our intern called, he wasn't coming in. He was at class (he was a law student at Catholic) and everything was shutting down. He told me a plane had also been slammed into the Pentagon.
I went online. I tried to call family. I knew my parents would panic. I couldn't get through by phone, but email worked. I reassured my folks we were o.k.
What stay s with me most is how things just gradually dissolved into chaos with no clear order. Rumors and false reports mixed with reality. It was reported that a bomb had gone off outside the State Department (this was false). It was reported that a fourth plane had gone down, possibly aiming for Camp David (this turned out to be Flight 93, which we later discovered was heading for DC). FAA was ordering a grounding of all planes, all landmark sky scrapers (such as the Sears Tower in Chicago) were being evacuated.
We closed the office. It just seemed the thing to do. Everyone else left. At about 10:30 or so, I got a call from Becky. She was spitting angry. The DC JCC had called her, AGAIN to tel her they were shutting down and she needed to pick up her child.
Becky was, at that time, the only pharmacist at a local mental hospital. She had just been informed she was critical personnel and on duty until folks knew what was happening and whether the spare beds in her hospital would be converted for other needs. At the time, we had no idea who was attacking us or how. There were non-stop rumors of potential gas attacks (such as the nerve gas attack on the Japanese subway some years ago) or other follow-up to plane hijackings. On that morning, anything seemed possible. Local small airports were being shut down. Traffic helicopters were ordered out of the sky. Crop dusters were locked down. On top of that, all roads into the District were being blocked. Traffic was flowing out, but not in.
And, as noted above, Aaron's emergency form (which the folks at DC JCC were using to call, since that was where they had Becky's number) says very clearly to call me first, since I am only a few minutes away. And we had just gone through this drill last week. But, since SHE is the MOMMY and I am just the DADDY they called her first. Again. Needless to say, Becky explained to them in very forceful language that (a) she could not leave her job; (b) even if she could, she could not get to downtown DC, and (c) DO YOU MORONS KNOW HOW TO READ! HIS FATHER WORKS FIVE MINUTES FROM YOU!
Nevertheless, it still took the DC JCC a few minutes to get around to calling me (I guess they called all the other mommies first or something) to inform me that the children were at a local playground. They had evacuated the DC JCC for fear that, it being a Jewish Community Center, would be a target for a follow up attack. (All Jewish facilities went on imediate paranoia response. 2000 years of cultural conditioning tells us that in any crisis, someone is likely to get the bright idea to attack the Jews for some reason.)
I decided to walk to get Aaron. It was surreal. DC was full of milling people, with little traffic. I picked up Aaron. The woman asked me if my wife and I were divorced, because she seemed really hostile when they called toask her to pick up Aaron. In the spirit of unity sweeping the country, I refrained from strangling her.
Aaron and I made our way back to the office so I could retrieve my car and get us home. Aaron was responding to stress the way he usually did then and does still. Pretending nothing is wrong until some little thing totally freaks him out. As we headed back toward the center of town, against a steady stream of milling, disordered folks streaming out, I saw something I had never expected to see in real life. The Washington Post printed an "Extra" addition. You could see them left randomly at street corners.
We got to the car and slowly drove out of the city. Having nothing else to do, I took Aaron to the local kosher pizza place for lunch. Again, it was entirely surreal. Everything looking peaceful and normal, with this disorganized vague panic feeling all around me as people talked to each other and asked each other "what's going on? What now? Is everyone safe? Have you heard from so and so?"
Sometime we got home. I plugged Aaron in front of the computer for educational games and dvds. I plugged myself into the TV. The rest is something of a blur. Sometime in the evening, they decided Becky could come home. We watched together for awhile.
The next day, DC remained closed down. I watched Aaron while Becky went to work. While I hadn't smoked since 1997, I decided I really wanted a cigarette (took about 6 months to stop again).
My overall impression from the day is just milling confusion. Not panic. We didn't have anything to inspire panic. Just milling around with no sense of order or direction. No clear idea of what was happening, or what to do, other than move from task to task and see what happened next. I didn't even stop to wonder why no one used the emergency broadcast system to provide information or evacuation instructions. It just felt surreal. Like some bizzare dream. Not even a nightmare, because there was no obvious destruction or carnage around me. Just the disassociation and mechanical motion one sometimes has in dreams that make no sense, but where you can't seem to wake up.
I wish I had a good punchline to this narrative, but I don't. Over the following months, we gradually got back to normal. I remember my feeling of sudden fear the first time I heard a jet overhead after weeks of clear skies. Little things that just reminded me that the universe had shifted in ways I couldn't quantify.
Showing my geek roots, perhaps, I kept thinking of the last episode of Season 1 of Babylon Five. Sinclair and his crew are unsuccesful in preventing the destruction of Earth Alliance President Santiago's space ship (Keep in mind, this episode was made in 1994). At the end of the episode, Sinclair says "Nothings the same anymore." He doesn't go on to say how it chanegd or what will happen next. He doesn't know. All he knows is "nothings the same anymore."
That's what it felt like September 12. Nothing was the same anymore. No doubt future generations will spill oceans of ink explaining it, just as we have explained, without understanding, what it felt like for folks in the U.S. on December 8, 1941.
And five years later, it's still all I can say.
"Nothing's the same anymore."