Some years back, our memoir-writing group in Madison, Wisconsin, wrote pieces about where we were during 9/11. Listening to everyone’s stories, I was surprised that each one of us had some connection to New York City, Washington DC, or Pennsylvania through our personal networks, despite living so far from the east coast. As we read our pieces, we were all a bit emotional, remembering and sharing those stories.
On this 20th anniversary, my husband and one of our children are back living in Virginia, after 13 years in Wisconsin for my husband and me, and after a decade of world traveling for our son. We live now in a rural county about three hours from northern Virginia.
In 2001, my family of four was living in Chantilly, Virginia, not far outside Washington DC. I wrote this piece a few days after the event and included it in my memoir published this year. I wanted to remember every detail of that day as I experienced it.
“Today is September 15th, my brother’s 48th birthday. After days of numbing exhaustion, visions of imploding buildings, people running, unbelievable things happening, I’m taking time to write. Bruce is brewing coffee and eating a Krispy Kreme donut while reading the newspaper. These are normal things for a Saturday morning, but in the backs of our minds, the images continue on instant replay, and we think of the thousands of angels rising to eternity simultaneously, their photographs and stories floating out in newspapers… I’m writing now for the future, to the future…” so I won’t ever forget.
It was a clear, sunny, exhilarating fall Tuesday, typical of September weather in Northern Virginia. In western Fairfax County, 30 minutes west of the White House on the Virginia side of the Potomac, I had just celebrated my 50th birthday a few days previously. Andy and Megan were 15 and 13, in high school and middle school. We had had an especially nice summer and school had just started. The dog and I were home together while I read emails. Bruce was at work at George Washington University, a mile and half west of the White House. About 9:30, the house phone rang, and I talked with my friend Sue who I’d known from our years in Kenya. Close to 10 am, her phone beeped, and she put me on hold for a call coming in from her daughter at school.
Quickly she came back on and said, “I have to get off the phone; Leslie just called and said they’d heard that planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. You’d better turn on the TV.”
On the screen, I watched the replays of planes flying into the towers. The reporters said that another hijacked plane was 20 minutes away from Washington DC. I began punching numbers into my flip phone and the hands-free house phone trying unsuccessfully to reach Bruce at GW. I knew my brother Don’s office was in lower Manhattan but did not know how close it was to the Towers; I knew his apartment was within walking distance. In those days, I rarely used a cell phone and couldn’t find his number. Looking for his phone number and catching the TV news coverage from New York and Arlington, I felt sick to my stomach and frustrated because I couldn’t reach anyone.
When the house phone finally rang, it was my next-door neighbor calling to ask if I had heard from Bruce or Don. I burst into tears when she asked me if I was OK. The next call was from my friend Kathi who had been at the hospital near our house. Afraid to go home to Arlington, she asked to come to our house with her kids. The third call came from our friend Ted who worked near the Pentagon. He said he and his wife Ann were OK but stuck in Arlington and DC, and could I pick up their kids from school.
I told him that the TV announcers kept talking about a plane heading to DC… what did he know? He said, “oh, it won’t get here; we’ll shoot it down long before it gets here.”
“What?! We would shoot down a commercial plane full of civilians??”
“Yes, without a doubt.”
Years later, I read that Air Force jets had been scrambled to protect DC but that they were not armed in their haste to launch. A female pilot flying one of those jets was under orders to intercept the hijacked plane by flying into it. She fully expected to die that day, although before her plane had time to intercept, the hijacked plane plummeted in a Pennsylvania field.
Eventually, at midday, the internet came back up, with emails from Bruce at GW and from my brother Don who was in Chicago on a business trip! Bruce said he had to stay at GW in case of mass causalities coming into the hospital. I talked to Don in Chicago where he watched the drama in his hotel room. Every week, he takes those same flights to LA and San Francisco for business.
The next day, walking outside under yet another cloudless blue-sky day, I noticed the silence of skies without planes. We lived 15 minutes south of Dulles airport, and I took for granted, the constant drone of air traffic above us. The silence was utterly peaceful, but ominously threatening at the same time. No one knew what would happen next.
By Friday of that week, Don left Chicago, flying to Dulles, rather than to New York City. We celebrated his 48th birthday on September 15th, feeling joyous because by then we knew that all the people we loved were safe. Photographs from that weekend show us sharing meals and playing board games. One photo shows Don seated at our table, reading the Washington Post with the headline, “War Won’t Be Short, Bush Says.” Another photo, taken by Megan, shows four of us sitting on the front porch holding candles one evening when everyone in the country sat outside shining lights to honor the nearly 3,000 people who died that morning.
After a few days, Don returned to New York City by train. He wrote at great length about September 11th and the days and weeks following the attack. He knew people who had escaped the towers and walked barefoot across the Brooklyn Bridge. His colleagues at work had watched the towers fall from their windows.
Months later, I searched my photos for images of the Towers taken at various visits since the 1970s, collecting them in one place in the 2001 family scrapbook album. Soon after 9/11, the anthrax attacks began in Washington DC, West Palm Beach, and New York City. In 2002, snipers terrorized our region in October, killing at random.
And in 2004, we left the Washington DC area for good, feeling enormously relieved to put more distance between our family and the bull’s-eye of downtown DC.
©Jan Hogle 2021 Risking Wreckage: a memoir of adventuring out and settling in