The following are first-person accounts of Americans and their experiences on Sept. 11, 2001. These interviews originally appeared in the Aug. 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.
To most people, the story of September 11, 2001, is this: In New York City, 2,800 lives lost, one-seventh of the casualties from among firefighters and police officers. But in Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C., the day's dramas of life and death, duty and valor, improvisation and courage, and the unsettling fear of the unknown, were the same.
The Department of Defense became a target in broad daylight. The smoke plume was seen for miles, long into that sleepless night. When the 125 people who perished at the Pentagon are added to the 59 passengers and crew killed aboard American Airlines Flight 77, the carnage in Arlington surpasses Oklahoma City's bombing death toll of six years before. The capital emptied. The president, traveling in Florida, went north, then west, then east. Commercial air traffic ceased. Telephone circuits jammed. Battle-attired military personnel brandished weapons of war on Washington's streets.... We know the facts, perhaps, but Washington is still sorting through the feelings.
A year ago, this region's small, human stories seemed overwhelmed by everything that was bigger: Terrorists. War. A nation's security. In looking backward, National Journal sought to retrieve the individual dramas. We asked many people you've never heard of, and some you know -- all of them accidental players in a tragedy of a generation -- to share their versions of what happened. It turns out they had a lot to share.
Those who saw the doomed plane crossing the sky still can't quite process what they witnessed. It was going too fast. It seemed too close. Matt Kemp, a high school senior who was in the parking lot at Arlington Career Center near the Pentagon, had the impression he could have reached the jetliner with a thrown baseball. For lobbyist Art Roberts, although he was driving near Farragut Square, the impact of the airplane diving into the Pentagon's E Ring across the river left him thinking someone had pounded his car with a bat.
Another hijacked plane was on its way toward Washington. Some people got that heart-stopping news. They watched an F-16 streaking overhead at supersonic speed, ready to intercept it. The military jet was one of three Fighting Falcons that were dispatched from Langley Air Force Base, 130 miles away in Hampton Roads, Va., and took only 14 minutes to get to Washington. If not for the celebrated heroism of a handful of men aboard United Airlines Flight 93, that hijacked plane, downed in a Pennsylvania field, might have hit the White House or the unmistakable dome of the U.S. Capitol. In that building, Neil Volz, staff director for a congressional committee, was warned by a police officer, "Plane north of here, coming toward the Capitol or D.C. -- get the hell out of here!" At the White House, the women on Laura Bush's staff were startled by Secret Service officers urging, "Take off your shoes and run!"
If there is a common theme to September 11, the subjects of these 58 interviews suggest it might be the confusion brought on by the immensity of the horror and a desire for more and better information. Those with a specific job to do seemed to cope best. But in a surprise attack in an undeclared war, with an unseen enemy and no battle lines, almost everyone felt the need to be somewhere else. But where? Members of the White House press corps rushed to the White House, only to be met by White House aides rushing out of the compound and being hurried along by grim-faced, machine-gun-toting Secret Service agents who continually scanned a perfect blue sky. White House Chief Usher Gary Walters recalls hearing a "muffled thud" and then looking to the southwest, where a cloud of black smoke rose above the tree canopy. "The staff and anybody else who was around started to run, taking off in all directions," he remembers.
Those who witnessed on television the World Trade Center towers collapsing were shaken. "That's when my hair stood up on the back of my neck," recalls Marty O'Brien, a downtown barkeep who stayed open that day and remained riveted, along with his customers, to the TV. But so too were those deprived of New York's images. Those in trains or cars -- or those near radios -- reported the sort of fright that only human imagination is capable of providing. To former Clinton administration official Gene B. Sperling, hearing the collapse of the first tower described by a shaken radio newsman produced terror akin to that spread by Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds," a radio drama about an alien invasion, mistaken by too many 1938 listeners for fact.
With no warning and no time for introductions, people in the Washington area reached out to others who happened to be near. Heather Harkins, a part-time bartender at The Front Page, recalls high-priced lawyers from Akin, Gump sharing fellowship with the street vendors who'd come into the bar for a drink and a TV screen. "I was in such a diverse, but unified setting," she recalled. Kathleen V. McNally, the vice president of a Washington foundation, felt the love -- as far south as New Orleans. Stranded in that city when the planes were grounded, she fretted to strangers about her 91-year-old mother in Virginia. One of them promptly loaned her his car. "It was an amazing gesture," she says.
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