Voices of 9/11
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.
McNally was hardly alone in thinking first of her mother. O'Brien called his mom. So did the president of the United States, and his wife. Just about everyone, it seems, called Mom that day. And oh, did the mothers spring into action! Angela J. Williams, a security officer at the Pentagon, got a call from her mother after the twin towers were hit.
"Angela, are you heightening security?" her worried mother wanted to know.
"Yeah, Mom, we're heightening security."
When the plane hit the Pentagon minutes later, Angela found herself steering an injured woman, probably a visitor, to an ambulance. Cut, bleeding, in shock, the injured woman -- "April" is the only name she gave -- expressed no concern for herself, only for her 2-month-old son, Elijah, who appeared to be unhurt, but quiet.
Paula E. Kougeas, who once worked in the Pentagon, was halfway to New York on Amtrak with her 12-year-old son. They were going to meet the boy's father, who had recently taken a job in New York, for lunch. Before even knowing that her husband had survived -- his office is blocks from the World Trade Center -- Kougeas got off the train in Wilmington, flagged a cab, and paid the unruffled driver $300 to drive her and her son back to Alexandria. All she could think about was that her 16-year-old daughter should not come home to an empty house, not knowing whether her family was safe. "It's like this motherly thing that kicks in," Kougeas explains in a voice that catches. "You have to get to your children."
All over the city, it was like that, especially for mothers who had kids in harm's way, either here or, even worse, in New York City. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, thwarted as were millions of others by their cell phones' maddening failure to work, had one insistent thought: Where exactly is Chelsea? The Clinton daughter was in Midtown Manhattan that day. Women, whether stay-at-home moms or law partners, were dashing to their kids' schools, hugging them, taking them home, doing what another mother, first lady Laura Bush, instinctively counseled the nation's parents to do: "Reassure [them] that they're safe."
This is just what parents did, even if they couldn't be sure that safety was a truth. For some, the shivers and emotional fatigue were merely delayed. But on that day, when it counted, so many people kept their heads. What did White House usher Walters do when he saw his staff running about madly on the South Lawn? He yelled, "Stop!" and had them dismantle the furnishings for the picnic for 1,500 people that was supposed to take place that evening on the South Lawn. Walters realized, correctly, that the president's lawn would be needed as a landing pad when George W. Bush flew back to the White House on Marine One.
People with a White House connection believe that the fourth hijacked plane was headed toward their building, just as those who work in Congress assume that the majestic dome was the intended target. Bush himself told religious leaders in a private September 20 meeting that the old residence built of plaster and brick would have been easily destroyed, with great loss of life -- "including my wife." But because Mrs. Bush was en route from the White House to the Capitol while the attacks were under way, she's really a symbol of Washingtonians' collective vulnerability: Depending on the precise timing of an attack, Mrs. Bush -- or anyone -- could have been a casualty in either location.
A recurring theme -- and it's a theologically complicated one -- is that luck somehow played a part in what could have happened, or did. Sen. Phil Gramm quipped that he'd saved a general's life by summoning him to Capitol Hill for a meeting that morning. But the mysterious question of fate seemed real to anyone who ever sat at a desk in the Pentagon, or flew out of Dulles International Airport, or happened to be at a business meeting in New York -- or for those of us who have walked the marble halls of the Capitol or been inside the iron gates of the White House. Suddenly, everyone, everywhere in Washington believed they were in a bull's-eye.
Indeed, the very randomness to the events that transformed some, so swiftly, into casualties, was profoundly unsettling for those spared. Reflecting on the fact that none of the children in her care were hurt, Shirley Allen, the director of a day care center next to the Pentagon, says, "I think we had some angels watching over us that day." But what about George and Diane Simmons? On their way to a funeral in Hawaii, they were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 only because a United Airlines official had erroneously accused George of trying to book a vacation to Hawaii under a bereavement fare; George had switched their tickets as a result. "It was bad luck," says George's daughter, Deanna J. Simmons. "Horrible luck."
Her nightmare underscores another phenomenon that day: Human beings describe an invisible, intuitive connection with those they love. A sixth sense, "a feeling," is what "told" Paula Kougeas -- correctly -- that her husband, P.J. Crowley, was all right, even though he walked across the World Trade Center plaza every morning. And Deanna Simmons somehow realized the awful truth about her dad before she actually knew which flight he was on. "I knew something was wrong," she recalls, even though others in her family urged her not to worry.
Navy Capt. David M. Thomas Jr. had a similar premonition about his friend Capt. Robert E. Dolan. So he plunged into the flames looking for Dolan. He couldn't find him, but he plucked another survivor, Jarrell Henson, from the building just before the Pentagon roof collapsed.
The Washington region had its share of heroic and selfless acts, to be sure. Thomas and another Navy man, Lt. Cmdr. David Tarantino, each won the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for rescuing Henson. But all Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. got for rushing obsessively back into his office to make absolutely certain no one was left behind was peace of mind. That there were conscious reactions of defiance and resilience is undeniable. At 80 years of age, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, hurried to his downtown office near the White House. "I am not letting these sons of bitches run me out of my office," said Valenti, a former White House aide who was in the motorcade when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
'We Were Not Defeated'
Very few of those approached by National Journal declined to be interviewed. Remembering and talking prove therapeutic and contribute to the shared experience. Some had the presence of mind on September 11 to begin that process, even committing their experiences of the historic day to a personal diary or just a scrap of paper. Rep. Dan Miller of Florida, who was with President Bush and his Air Force One entourage for much of the day, recognized the importance of events and began scribbling on a pad of paper he found on the plane. Others, such as Laura Bush's press secretary, Noelia Rodriguez, wished later that they had done so. But either way, they were willing to look back, sometimes painfully, to a day that changed so much. Cracking voices, even tears, were just beneath the surface for some who agreed to relate what they felt and saw. It is difficult to describe in print how Dan Miller's friendly voice trailed off into silence, and how his throat constricted as he tried to ward off emotions that his memory had dredged up.
"We think our stories represent what a lot of people were doing that day," was the way Tarantino explained it. "It was a setback but not a defeat, even that day. The next day, we were back at work, planning our response and moving on.... We were not defeated that day."
When people offer their narratives, they use a straightforward style that a writing coach might try to impart to young journalists. They begin with a simple description of what they were doing before. It is often prefaced by innocuous detail: I was riding my bike to work; I was changing the baby's diaper; it was such a beautiful summer day. The ordinary, when things seemed under control, is juxtaposed with the extraordinary, when chaos began. When Mary Matalin, a top White House aide, describes the purple Charles Jourdan high heels she "retired" to a closet shelf after September 11, she's boxing up the unthinkable -- running for her life. When Reuters photographer Larry Downing recounts how he kept slipping in his "ballet slippers," meaning his delicate dress loafers, while jumping over fences and jogging over cemetery grounds to capture the first images of the burning Pentagon, the time he takes to explain that he now wears black construction boots carries a message: He became a war correspondent just by leaving home that day.
The word "surreal" comes up a lot. So do comparisons to the movies. Then, typically, the chroniclers find an ending for their tale. For some, the ending is of profound personal loss, or of a moment when they could take it all in. For most, it was relief that they and their loved ones were in safe hands. For all, it was that the world on September 12 seemed different than on September 10.
If relating these stories is part of the healing process, so is collecting them. George Mason University has set up a Web site of such memories in an attempt to gather what one scholar called the haystack where future historians can look for the needles. In a different kind of attempt to help forge a collective memory, The Washington Post urged readers to explain, in 75 words or less, how their lives have changed because of the attacks. Remembrances will help shape the city's impressions of these events in years to come, especially for those too young to remember.
The Chicago Historical Society has in its archives some 150 first-person narratives about the great Chicago fire of 1871. Many of those stories begin, similarly, with some innocent detail from the narrator's life that day -- and also end with some sort of resilient punch line. Curator Carl Smith found that the optimism they expressed helped people change the devastating fire into an unlikely symbol of a muscular and appealing city.
"This version of what happened actually exaggerated the extent of the destruction, enormous as it was, in order to emphasize all the more the marvelous recovery," he concluded. "It overlooked a number of things, including a considerable amount of human suffering, numerous expressions of doubt, serious class differences and political conflicts, and some reasoned concerns as well as irrational fears about the social order that such a catastrophe inevitably brings to the surface. Chicago did indeed continue to expand, but the years that followed the fire were not simply ones of unbroken confidence and triumph."
In these "Voices of 9/11," Washington, too, has its share of storytellers who want to find some meaning in tragedy, some message in loss, some moral or warning for the next time, and a sense of order to overlay their freshened memories of fear and confusion. To be brave, work together, find purpose, render justice, seize life -- what these individuals describe here as the characteristics of America.