But on 9/11 my wife and I lived in Alexandria, Virginia and worked in Washington. It was like a movie set - panic, confusion, rumors abounded and we saw things that earlier that morning would have been unimaginable. F-16s flying over 500 knots just a couple of hundred feet above the ground - searching for the next suicide attacker. Unmarked government vehicles screamed down the sidewalks behind the museums along the National Mall trying to avoid the gridlock on the streets. More than a few took shortcuts across the pastoral grass of the mall where tourists usually stroll - dirt and gravel flying in the air as they did over 80 miles an hour. Watching FEMA people loading up buses that seemingly appeared from nowhere with all kinds of gear and with a look of serious purpose and resolve.
Once we were released from work, my first inclination was walk across the street and get on the Metro at Federal Center SW. Normally I'd transfer at L'Enfant and take the Yellow Line home to the Braddock Road station. One problem was that it passed under the Pentagon. Another was that a rumor said the Metro was shut down.
As I started shaking off the illusion of habit and normalcy, I started to rely on my training as a soldier. First I did a threat assessment. Avoiding possible danger areas was at the top of the list, and being stuck in a confined area that was an attractive target - such as a crowded subway station - didn't seem very smart. Since home was about 7 miles away, I quickly decided that walking was the safest way to go. Thousands of other people made the same decision.
As I made my way, somewhere out of the deep recesses of my mind the habits I'd acquired in the Army took over. A soldier in a combat environment focuses on four basic tasks: shoot, move, communicate and survive. The first was not an option so I devoted extra attention on moving and communicating. I communicated frequently with Sheila - both to let her know I was OK and to have an idea of my progress in case something happened. She wasn't going to be heading home anytime soon, so I also tried to give her information on how to get home safely when the opportunity presented itself. She was a Senior Editor at Congressional Quarterly and with the biggest story of the new century unfolding she was stuck at work. I also let her know what I was seeing and hearing so that she would have an idea of what was happening on the ground.
During my journey I continually scanned left and right looking for places that offered cover and concealment. I scanned the skies for threats. I chose my route to avoid choke points, any potential targets and a route that afforded both speed and safety. As I came up to 14th Street behind the US Mint, I was able to see the Pentagon for the first time. I had to cross the Potomac over the 14th Street Bridge, and pass to the east of the Pentagon. The smoke was still boiling out of the building, helicopters in White House livery as well as regular US-1s and UH-60s along with Park Police and civilian helos were flying in an out from an impromptu landing zone on the north side of the building. At first I could smell the smoke that reminded me of Korea where burning trash on the side of country roads was common. As I got closer the smell increased and my eyes burned. There wasn't any traffic at all on the bridge - something that never happens at 11:00 in the morning. Ash was wafting through the air like fall leaves were being burned. What was more troubling was seeing military folks obviously in shock. Granted many were administrative type folks, but some of the Soldiers and Marines who were obviously combat arms types were also visibly shaken. Many were in Class Bs - disheveled and struggling to adapt to the situation.
In 1982, I'd been an extra in a TV movie called "The Day After." It was about how Lawrence, Kansas reacted to a nuclear war. Now it felt like that all over again, except this wasn't play acting.
At home, the smoke from the still burning Pentagon fires created a thick, sorrowful haze that covered my neighborhood. Like the day before, if I didn't know better I'd have thought that my next door neighbor was burning their trash. We were glued to our TV sets like everybody else in the country. One difference was that Sheila and I wondered about how we'd get to work. She worked strange hours - in the office around 11:00 and leaving around 8:00. That meant she missed DC's horrid traffic, but road and bridge closures attracted our notice as we planned the day ahead, not knowing what this new and uncertain day would bring.
As I made my way to work, my fellow commuters and I exchanged stories about our experiences on That Day. Like commuters everywhere, we were usually absorbed in our own thoughts on normal days, but there was nothing normal on The Day After. The Metro line going through the Pentagon was closed, so we took an alternate route. Later when service was restored, the Pentagon Station remained closed while the fires above smoldered. As the train approached, the subway car was even quieter than usual. It slowed down around 20 miles an hour but didn't stop. We all looked out the windows as we passed the platform. There weren't any workers milling around. They were replaced by soldiers and civilian security personnel - all carrying automatic rifles and on heightened alert. I was praying for those above us - the dead and those who might still be trapped under the rubble and the responders who were seeing and experiencing awful things that would challenge even the stoutest heart.
My wife and I, along with our neighbors and co-workers, were like the rest of America. We were a confused stew of fury, sorrow, bafflement, pride and resolve. We hugged more. The daily question of "how are you?" actually meant something. We really cared about the answer and that question was asked not out habitual politeness but out of genuine concern. Suddenly neighbors became friends and we looked out for each other. We looked to the President for leadership and his simple words which had been ridiculed before became a source of inspiration. Many rediscovered faith and prayer.