On September 11, 2001, I was living in Washington, DC, attending grad school at George Washington University. My apartment was in Foggy Bottom, six blocks from the White House. I hate to admit it, but I slept through history that morning; due to my own screw-up, I didn’t have a part-time job my third semester at GWU, and as most of my friends know, I liked to sleep in back in the day when I didn’t have classes until the afternoon.
I was awoken by the phone ringing, which I didn’t answer, but then my father’s voice came over the answering machine (remember those?), simply saying, “You’re mom’s worried sick; give us a call as soon as you get this.”
I was totally confused; what was there to worry about on a Tuesday morning? I got up, groggily turned on the TV and was confronted with live footage of smoke and flames pouring out of the Pentagon. My first reaction was shock, obviously, and realized immediately why my parents were concerned about my safety, despite living about five miles from National Airport and two miles from the Pentagon. Honestly, I thought it was just a terrible accident, as National Airport has one of the most dangerous approaches in the US, and tragedy had struck a plane before due to the perils of the short runways that end in the Potomac River. I picked up the phone and called my father to tell him I was alright, of course. What he told me after he answered the phone left me flabbergasted and confused.
“It wasn’t an accident, Chris. They flew two planes into the World Trade Center; they’re both gone.”
“What do you mean they’re both gone?” I exclaimed, “there’s no way an airplane could do that.” I had believed, ironically just as Osama bin Laden had, that only the tops of the towers would have broken off, leaving two stumps. My father and I talked for a bit more, and then I got off the phone so he could call my mother and let her know I was alright. I ran up on the roof of my eight-story apartment building, and saw the sickening sight of smoke rising up from the Pentagon two miles away, over the roofs of the neighboring buildings. I stayed glued to the TV the rest of the day, until I met up with some friends that evening in Arlington to get some hamburgers and watch the news, which of course had co-opted every other show on the television that night. We debated whether we should go drive by the Pentagon, which was only a mile away from the restaurant. Was that morbid? Was that insensitive? We didn’t want to be voyeurs to a scene where almost two hundred people had just been murdered, but we ultimately decided that we felt we needed to say our respects, even if it was only fleeting.
As we merged into traffic on I-66, which loops around the southside of the Pentagon, we witnessed what to this day was one of the most heart-wrenching scenes I have ever seen. Framed by a red and orange sunset, black smoke billowed up from the still burning Pentagon, as large flood lights lit up the site of the impact. It was hard to believe I was really seeing what was in front of me, that a plane full of people had slammed into a building only two miles away from where I lived.
Fast forward to this year, and Osama bin Laden was gunned down in Pakistan, living a comfortable if confined life with computers chock full of Western pornography. My father walked by the TV while I was watching a clip the Special Forces had found of bin Laden watching himself on TV.
“What’s he doing, watching himself on TV?” my father asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
What I will never forget were the children killed in Arlington that day. While most of the victims that day were adults, several Washington, DC school children were on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Their names were Rodney Dickens, Asia Cottom, and Bernard Brown and they were accompanied by their teachers James Debeunere, Sarah Clark, and Hilda Taylor, as well as two National Geographic employees, Ann Judge and Joe Ferguson. The three children, who came from some of the poorest and most troubled parts of DC, had won a trip to the Channel Islands through National Geographic. I am not sure, but it probably was the first time they had ever flown on an airplane. While three thousand people died that day, I still find myself coming back to thinking about these three children and how disgusting their murder was. I mean, it’s one thing to fly an airplane into a building, which is terrible enough, but how depraved does a person have to be to do it with the knowledge that children were sitting on the plane behind him?
I hope on this day that all of my readers think about that terrible day ten years ago, and think how that day can inspire you to work on making the world a place where murder and terror no longer exist. I know in my own city, fraught with murder, pain and outright chaos at times, that goal is worth fighting for.