I wrote a little bit about my 9-11 experience in my post “Leaving the Casbah” this spring when I quit my job, but I felt I should post about it again at greater length today.
My perspective on 9-11 is different than most, by virtue of where I worked until my daughter was born. Over the past 8 months I’ve been deprogramming, so to speak, allowing myself to put down my former responsibilities to pick up my new role at home. Reading other people’s reflections on 9-11 and seeing the television retrospectives of the past few days, however, has reminded me how deeply impacted I was by that day.
September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday, and it was a crisp and lovely morning in DC. I was wearing a new black suit that I had just purchased on a Labor Day weekend visit to see a friend in Manhattan. I got to work a little before 8 that morning – earlier than usual because it was my friend and colleague Karen’s birthday and we were decorating her cubicle. We were all settling down to work when someone came in to say that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. “How bizarre,” I remember thinking, “it must be bad weather, what a weird mistake.” A little while later someone else came in and told us another plane had hit the second tower. I went into a neighboring office to watch CNN. Someone said, “I guess the counterterrorism unit will be working the weekend.” And the Understatement of the Year award goes to…
At that point, things got a little strange. There were a lot of conflicting reports about what was going on, and when they decided to evacuate HQ there was some question about whether we were to leave with the non-essential personnel or stay. Should we meet at our pre-established unit rallying point or go home? Our UC determined we should go – we were all reachable by phone or pager if a need arose. I wasn’t sure where to go. Obviously taking public transportation was out (I’m not sure if other people knew that, or if that was something they told us at work – in hindsight it seems obvious but I know more now). I wound up walking with a few colleagues headed toward Pam’s apartment. As we left the building and walked up Pennsylvania Ave., I remember feeling very surreal. People were running around yelling, fighter jets were screaming overhead – it seemed like a movie, not like real life. I remember thinking, “This is America; this isn’t supposed to happen here.”
It was nearly impossible to get a cell phone call out to check on my parents and let them know I was ok – I guess the system is not designed to function when everyone wants to make a call at the same time. I wonder if that has been rectified? I hope it will never be an issue again.
Eventually we made it to Pam’s apartment, and I stayed there pretty much in shock until late afternoon, when Pam drove me to my apartment.
For most people, the story ends when they went to sleep and woke up to 9-12. For me it doesn’t. Although I felt relieved to be doing something about 9-11 at work, it also prolonged and changed the impact it had on me. When I talk about 9-11, I tell about what happened to me that day, or I highlight stories about working in SIOC. For example, there was the day the President came to the room where I was working to give us a pep talk, or the end of a long shift when I leaned against the wall waiting for an elevator only to be tapped on the shoulder by John Ashcroft asking if I was ok, or the time I nearly spilled a scalding hot cup of tea on the Director. I think I tell those stories because it’s what people can understand. It’s harder to explain the tension and stress and emotional wind-up of the environment at work those first days and weeks when people felt so keenly that to make a mistake was to risk thousands of lives in another attack. During that stressful time, I can’t tell you how much comfort I took from Psalm 31:15 and how I clung to the fact that God is sovereign over my circumstances.
In the months and years following 9-11, I will admit that I got jaded to a lot of things in the course of my work, but I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I cared about “the cause” because of 9-11. I still care, but I’m learning to disengage a little bit from it because my calling is different now.
The thing that strikes me as I read memories of those who weren’t there, or weren’t involved in the same way as I was, is that for most of you, 9-11 was 5 years ago. You remember and were impacted in a way that can’t be minimized, but years have passed. I guess for me, it’s still a pretty fresh topic. Maybe in a few years I’ll be ready to see the movies and read the books, but I just can’t bring myself to do that now. I know that probably sounds maudlin, but there it is.
9-11. I will not forget.