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.
Kevin T. Gilbert, 43
On September 11, I was teaching my photojournalism class at the Corcoran. The photojournalism program was brand-new, and it was only our second class. Six students were there that day. The students were all sophomore art majors, and while they all had experience as art photographers, the class on September 11 was only their second class as photojournalists.
One thing we always do in class is that we have an Internet connection on a big screen, so that we can log on to MSNBC and CNN to see what photographs they're running that day. That morning, the Internet connection was very slow, but we chalked that up to networking problems. We didn't know anything yet. At 9:45, a couple of kids went outside on break. One came back and said, "There are guys running down the street with machine guns!" I said, "Yeah, right." They said, "No, seriously."
Within moments, a guard came into our room and said everyone had to leave. We walked outside, and as we congregated on the sidewalk, we saw police cars turning and officers running. Something serious was obviously going on. We're 70 yards away from the Oval Office, on a direct line of sight.
I'm a five-time president of the White House News Photographers' Association and have been covering news in Washington for the last 15 to 18 years, most recently for The Washington Times. The students all had their cameras in their hands, and they asked me, "What should we do?" I said that we should walk to the White House and see if we could at least get some pictures of cops with guns with the White House in the background. But when we tried to do that, we were stopped. It was tense. So we moved to the Ellipse
to get a better angle. That's when we saw smoke billowing from the Pentagon. One of the kids said, "Why don't we all just walk there? It's a beautiful day."
I kicked into news mode. The ironic thing was that I had tried to go back to my car, where I always keep my camera, but they wouldn't let me back in, even though it was only 50 feet away. I had nothing but a cell phone. So instead of playing photographer, I played teacher.
As a group, we walked to the Pentagon. We thought at least we could get pictures of people standing on the banks looking at the smoke. On the way, I gave them pointers about how to capture a breaking news story. As we got to the Memorial Bridge, a fighter jet flew overhead. Then someone said that there was a bomb on the bridge-someone had left a briefcase in the middle of the span. A few of the kids said, "Forget it-we're going on anyway." The others started getting worried. It hit me that I had to make a snap decision about whether to take 18-year-olds into a war zone. And we had never even told anyone that we'd left the Corcoran.
Ultimately, four of my kids snaked their way to the Pentagon, where they were among the first photographers. Three of the photographs they took are now in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress. I stayed with the others, who were frantically calling home. We hung around the Lincoln Memorial, doing a field lesson, until about noon when we decided to head back. The kids really did a great job. But I also thought to myself that this was only their second day of journalism. What are they ever going to experience that could top it?
Jack Ludd, 56
My father went Muslim when I was 2 years old: Nation of Islam. I guess Farrakhan and Muhammad Ali were the two famous ones, but my father went about it before they came around. I had never heard of the Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden until September 11 happened.
I dropped my son off at school around 8:30. He goes to Gonzaga, a Catholic high school, and he's the first Muslim student president. He's 16. I guess he considers himself a Muslim.
So I drop my son off at school, then I go to work from there. I went to Union Station and I got a fare, and we went to Crystal City. My passenger informed me that the World Trade Center was hit. I dropped him off at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Then as I left the hotel, I heard this boom, loud noise, saw this mushroom of smoke go up.
When I got clear, on Route 110, I saw people running from the Pentagon. Then I knew it was hit. People were running frantic, flagging me down. I took somebody out to Virginia, then downtown to USDA. When I got to USDA, people were running out panicked, trying to catch a cab, and they wanted to go everywhere. Some wanted to go to Union Station; some to Maryland.
It took me three hours to go from USDA, 14th and C, to Union Station, because everybody was trying to leave town. I was creeping along, worried about running out of gas. Saw people out in the park crying, confused.
I ended up taking some people to Maryland, to the Greenbelt station. The subway was closed down, the MARC train wasn't running, and people asked me, could I take them to Baltimore? Twenty-five people wanted to go. I got five, and a guy in a pickup truck got about 20. They were riding with the three-piece suits and pretty dresses in the back of a pickup truck!
So I took them to different places in Baltimore, and I ended up dropping someone off at the airport, BWI, then I got someone who wanted to go back to D.C.
I quit after that.
It didn't weaken my faith at all. It just made me aware of the problems in the Islamic world. Some of my relatives, they look at me funny. We were already isolated from them anyway, so the isolation just got a little bit more.
Jack Valenti, 80
President, Motion Picture Association of America
I was at home and had the television on, and I saw the first plane hit. I said, "My God, what a terrible pilot error that must have been." Then I saw the second one hit, and I knew that this was something terrible.
I immediately raced down to my office. The plumes of smoke were going up on the Pentagon, and I came out of my office to look. I went back inside and everybody was frantic; I said to all of my people, "Anybody who wants to go home to be with their family, leave now. But I am staying here. That doesn't mean you have to stay. But I am not letting these sons of bitches run me out of my office and send me underground." I walked over to Lafayette Park, looked across at the White House, and saw the smoke over the Pentagon.
I was in the sixth car of the motorcade in Dallas. I don't think we can compare this to the Kennedy assassination, although there are some lingering remnants or DNA attached to both. Johnson was being urged by damn near everybody to get in the air as quickly as possible. But Johnson said two things: First, "I am not leaving Dallas until the coffin of President Kennedy is aboard." The second was, he was going to be sworn in on the airplane so that picture of him being sworn in-once we landed at Andrews-could be sent around the world.
This time, the Secret Service did not know what was going on. Their first obligation is to protect the president. They wanted to get him out of harm's way as quickly as possible and then find out what was going on. If Air Force One is shot down-and the vice president is killed-there would be no leadership, there would be total chaos. I am absolutely convinced that, in the absence of full information, the Secret Service did exactly what they should have done.
Matt Trant, 37
Senior vice president, Cassidy & Associates
I arrived at work in our office at 13th and G at about 8:50 a.m. I walked past the office of my friend Dale Leibach, Cassidy's managing director. Dale was standing in front of the TV, and he said, "Hello, Matt. An airplane just hit the World Trade Center." I said, "Chief, that's not funny. My brother works in the World Trade Center." He said, "No, I'm serious. I'm not sure which of the buildings it is."
I shot down to my office and flipped on the TV. The images kept getting closer, and it began looking more dramatic. Then I saw the antenna on top of the tower and realized that was my brother's building. Dan worked as a municipal bond broker with Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 104th floor. I tried to establish where he was, so I called his wife-my sister-in-law, Kathy-but I couldn't get through. At the time, we were hoping that maybe he was off that day with his kids, or had car trouble.
Moments later, I got a call from my brother Tim-I'm one of nine siblings-and he said that Danny was definitely in the building and had managed to call Kathy through a friend's cell phone. He had just enough time to tell her that the office was filling with smoke, that he loved her and the kids, and that he would try to find a way out. I kept the line open, expecting to hear from him any minute.
In our building, the alarms went off at some point-I guess because they thought that an attack was coming to Washington. The rumors were flying. We'd heard that a plane had hit the Mall, that there was something out in front of the Old Executive Office Building, that there was a car explosion in front of the State Department. So my boss, Jim Fabiani, told me that we'd all have to go. I told him about my brother and said that I wasn't leaving until I got confirmation that he was OK. I told him that it was the only phone number my sister-in-law had.
After the second building came down, I finally managed to reach my sister-in-law. Kathy was with Dan's friend, Lance, who had come down from Massachusetts the day before to see the Red Sox-Yankees game with Dan and the kids-a belated 40th-birthday present. I said to Lance, "This is not looking good. I don't even know if he could have gotten to a stairwell." They didn't have the TV on, and Kathy kept insisting that he would be fine. I had lost hope by that point. I said, "Kathy, the building just came down! The whole thing is gone. There's nothing left within blocks of that place."
Then Tim called back. He works for the Defense Department, in an annex right across from the Pentagon. He said, "Our building is being evacuated. The Pentagon has just been hit." He said he was going to head home to Manassas. Then it occurred to me that my sister, Sheila Inserra, was a flight attendant with American Airlines, which was one of the carriers that had been hijacked. I called her but couldn't reach her.
I looked out the window of my office, and people with machine guns and Humvees were assembling. I was almost beyond belief at the number of ways this thing just kept hitting us. It just seemed like the world was all crashing down. As it turned out, both Tim and Sheila were fine. She had been off duty that day. Dale and I sat together in the office until probably 5 p.m. I don't think we said more than three words. We just stared at the TV.
The next day, I went up to New York. By the time I got to Dan's house on Long Island, my sister-in-law and a number of family and friends had already gone into town to join a search party-holding signs, carrying fliers, and canvassing hospitals and triage centers. They went to a meeting place at a hotel for Cantor Fitzgerald families. That night-the 12th-the company's CEO stood up and addressed the crowd. He said he appreciated that everyone had come, but he said that no one who was above a certain floor had survived. "Go home to be with your families," he said. "There's no longer any point in being here."
Scott Brenner, 37
For public affairs
Federal Aviation Administration
That morning, I walked into the FAA lobby and saw a picture on TV of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Everyone thought it was a small plane. I came into my office and clicked on my TV, and as I was watching it, I saw the second plane come by. All I saw was an explosion. I was going, "What the hell?"
So I went up to Administrator Jane Garvey's office, and that's where everybody was. People were scared. I was expecting another plane to come screaming down the Mall. I really don't recall anyone other than Monte Belger, the deputy administrator. That's really one of the good stories. I think Jane really did a good job, but Monte had such a calming effect on everybody. There were people who were saying, We've got to do this, or we've got to do that. Monte said: "Wait, wait, wait a minute. Here's what we know. Let's act upon what we know. So get the airline CEOs on the phone. Find out what they know. Talk to their operations guys. Find out where their planes are." This was an unimaginable attack. We never could have pictured that this could have happened.
The decision was made to shut the air system down. And then the discussion was: How many planes do we have in the air? We had CEOs on a conference call, trying to say, "OK, where does everybody have their planes? Has everybody been able to account for all their planes?" So there was just a lot of confusion. But the one thing we were focused on was to get `em down as fast as we can. And that's where the air traffic controllers came in, and they brought down over 5,000 planes in a little bit more than two and a half hours. They were just landing them anywhere that airports could accommodate them.
It's just a confusing day. It went by really fast, and then it was somewhat quiet, because we weren't sure what to do next. We just shut everything down. I think that first day, I stayed at work till 3:30 a.m. A cab took me home, and this town was absolutely dead.
Timothy McBride, 43
Vice president for Washington Affairs, DaimlerChrysler
My wife, Anita McBride, was among those evacuated from the West Wing. At the time, she was a special assistant to the president for administration. She said to her colleagues that she was going to go to her husband's office-my office-which is two blocks away.
When she and 20 or 30 others arrived, we were in the process of sending most of our employees home. Before they left, they were quick to set up their computers, phones, televisions, and all of the resources we had to support the White House staff. We also got on the phone to order whatever food we could find. Once the White House staff arrived, it was impressive how quickly they set up their operations. They informed the White House Situation Room very quickly that they had gathered here. As the president's staff learned that their colleagues had assembled at DaimlerChrysler, others collected here. They represented many of the different areas of the White House: communications, the NEC, speechwriters, photographers, and folks from Cabinet affairs and legislative affairs.
It was humbling, at a time of such national tragedy, that I and my colleagues were able to play a small role in supporting the White House. I had previously served as assistant to the president for management and administration, a position that is responsible for many emergency procedures, in the administration of former President Bush. So I did have the benefit of being able to anticipate some of what the staff might need to carry on their functions. At some point, there were so many White House staffers here, the Secret Service set up a checkpoint at the front of our building. They were working out of here until roughly 5:30.
I think what stands out in my mind the most is being in our boardroom with the large-screen TV on and hanging on to every bit of information about what was happening. I thought about being in the same location as my wife, and what that could mean for our children if something happened to both of us. It was a disconcerting and upsetting day, particularly for some young White House staff members-I'm not sure many of them thought government service involved that level of threat.
That was contrasted by the professionalism and the degree to which the White House team kicked right into gear. They reacted calmly and professionally. The communications team and the speechwriters were beginning to work on remarks that the president would give later that night. This was a team that went about their business and their responsibilities despite the fact that, like all Americans, they had to be terribly concerned about the people who had been hurt and killed in the attacks, as well as what the future would hold in the next few hours.
Certainly there is great pride, among our colleagues here, in the small role we were able to play in supporting the president's team-ultimately, about 72 members of the White House staff worked from these offices. There are times when we'll be sitting in the lunchroom and we'll remember that day and how it brought our colleagues closer together, as it did the country.
Bryan Cooper, 32
Branch manager, Enterprise Rent-A-Car
There was a convention in town that day, and a lot of hotels started calling to ask if we had cars. We said, "Yeah, send the customers over." I called my area manager to say we'd need some more cars.
He called back 20 minutes later to say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
My wife called to tell me it was being televised. We didn't have a TV at the office. I was on the phone with her when the second plane hit. It was a little bit of chaos: It was all over the radio; I had an office full of people; and my assistant manager, she's from the New York area.
When you went outside, everybody was saying someone just crashed into the White House, but it wasn't the White House, it was the Pentagon. Employees were crying, people on the street were crying. It was crazy.
Right after the last plane hit, I got a call from headquarters and was asked to close down. There was another plane in the air, they said, and they didn't know where it was. I gathered the employees in the office and said, "There's another plane. We're not sure what the situation is, but if you want to go home or check into a hotel until this calms down, you can do so."
The street in front of our office, L Street, was backed up as far as you could see with traffic. My staff looked at the situation outside, everybody trying to leave, and said, There's no point. One employee tried to go to the parking garage. She couldn't get her car out of the bottom level.
We started taking customers down to the garage and checking them into cars. They didn't care if they couldn't get out: They just wanted to be in a vehicle. They waited in the cars until the traffic had eased out. It took `em a couple of hours.
We'd locked the door so we could take care of the people waiting in the office. But every time we opened it, somebody was like, "Please, please, let me get a car. Let me come in."
The phones were ringing for four hours straight, nonstop. People were calling from everywhere, and we just couldn't get to them. So we started taking their names and numbers and asking, could we help them the next day?
When I left, we'd rented every car we had-to people going to California, Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana, Massachusetts. I had, like, 10 cars dropped all over the United States. We sold the car in California to the office there-no way we were going to get it back.
At 3:30 p.m., I called my wife to tell her I'd be on my way home. I went out, locked up, and went home. There was nobody on the road. Seeing that-I hadn't taken it as seriously, I guess, until then. When I got home and I saw the footage from the planes, I thought, Wow, this is serious.
I thought then that hey, maybe I should have done something to get everyone out so I could get home. But you think-nothing like that has happened in the country before-you think it's under control.
Heather Harkins, 24
Former server, The Front Page
Right after Washington got hit, all of the restaurants closed down around us. People were walking the streets, and our general manager decided to stay open. Part of me was relieved that I had a place to be, and that everyone was together, and that I had an occupation.
People started filing in and their expressions were panicked. Every single person ordered a drink-Bloody Marys, wine, anything-at 11:00 a.m. Everyone was quiet and watching TV with disbelief on their faces. Businessmen from Akin, Gump sat next to people working at the funky little shops in the area; everyone came together.
I tried to keep busy. I just wanted to get them drinks. I felt like it was an anesthetic. As a server, you get good people, you get rude people, and your day could go in any direction depending on who's at your tables. Everyone understood when I would sit down and watch TV for a few minutes. I remember everyone having such kindness and sympathy for each other. That was the feeling that overwhelmed the crowd. I was in such a diverse but yet unified setting.
Lt. Col. Arthur Hinaman
D.C. National Guard, 42
Assistant program manager Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent, Md.
My wife called-she was home sick that day-and said a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center buildings. She called me back a few minutes later and said, "Oh, my God, I just saw another plane fly into the other building." She was just frantic.
Another guy got a call from somebody at the Pentagon: They said they heard a blast. We were skeptical. But sure enough, within a few minutes, the TV showed the Pentagon in smoke.
I tried calling up here, to the D.C. National Guard Armory, and all the phone lines were busy. I told my boss, "I've got to go, and I'm not sure when I'll be back."
As I said that, the phone was ringing; my wife was calling me again. She was real concerned: Our son was in school, and she wanted to know what to do. I said, "You might as well go get him; everyone else will."
I hopped in my car and drove up here-in record time. Traffic coming out of town was horrible, but traffic headed north was very light. I made it from Patuxent, Maryland, to the D.C. Armory in a little over an hour. That hour was a long time to think. I spent most of the time being angry.
Around Andrews Air Force Base, I could start seeing smoke coming up from the Pentagon.
It was a flurry of activity at the armory. It was almost like the stock exchange. There were technicians just running frantically, trying to get equipment set up, putting the computers together in our command operations center, collecting as much information as they could, getting logs started because a lot of people were starting to show up.
Major General Warren Freeman, commander of the D.C. National Guard, and his staff were huddled in the corner. He was getting briefed on all the information we knew at that point, which was very sketchy. There were a lot of rumors floating around: that a car bomb went off at the State Department, a bomb at the Capitol.
I was the odd sheep in the operations center that day. I was in khakis and a polo shirt because we were supposed to have a picnic for the office that afternoon at Patuxent.
I had moved out of the job running the operations center at the armory just a month before, so I jumped back into that role-no sense in putting the new guy through all that. He was the executive director of Montgomery County Red Cross, so he was kind of occupied.
The Air Guard had their F-16s up in the air, flying combat air patrol over the city. We were trying to get our medevac helicopters to the Pentagon-they were the first on the scene. And the other big mission was getting the MPs out on the street, helping with traffic control, trying to keep the citizens calm. There were requests coming in all the time: Somebody needs trucks, somebody needs tents, lights, food. Normally if we pull in that many people from the Guard, we have food planned and ordered; all of a sudden, we had a thousand people. You were just too busy to think.
There was a bit of a lull right after dark. I left the armory to have dinner with my wife and son. She brought me some uniforms and some clean underwear, and I had her meet me in Waldorf, Maryland, which is about halfway.
It was a little emotional. I don't think there were any tears, but there were lots of hugs and kisses and "Glad you're OK." My son was just getting ready to turn 12. It was good for us to be able to have dinner and reassure him that I wasn't in combat or anything like that. It was kind of funny: They thought I'd have all the answers. I said, "I'm watching the same news you are." I explained to them I'd be at the armory for at least the next few days.
We ate at Chili's. There weren't that many people out. The waiters were all hovering around the TV set, chattering. I just had a burger; I knew I couldn't stay long. We were probably there about 45 minutes.
I got back to the armory, checked in, made sure the night shift had everything they needed, and then I went to bed. I don't think I slept much.
Col. Robert Chance, D.C. National Guard, 56
I was conducting a seminar that day at NIH. I saw this thing unfolding on television, like everybody else. At first I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Then I began calling the Guard, and was told they needed me right away because we had started activating troops.
As soon as I could get free, I rushed back to the church, covered bases here, rushed back to the house, got some uniforms, threw some things in a bag, and told my wife I would see her when I'd see her. I'm trained, I'm prepared, I'm committed-and now I'm confronted with the reality of leaving my family behind to go serve my country, and that's scary.
It was an eerie experience driving. I thought I would have trouble getting into the city. It was the opposite: It was like a ghost town. On the route I always take, New Hampshire Avenue and the Beltway, there were hardly any cars on the road.
But people in the armory had begun to mobilize. All of the chaplains came in. The chaplain's assistants came in. And no one was called. There were a lot of families that were worried, and the individual soldiers had their own anxieties. But the most amazing thing I saw was the way the soldiers just stepped forward. The feeling was, "What can I do to help? What's my duty?"
There was no script for anyone to follow. There was no sign-in sheet. The Guard had to figure out what were they going to feed these people, where were they going to house them? It was as if a big box full of jigsaw puzzle parts was thrown onto the table-only, these puzzle pieces had life, and they started trying to move and fit together.
Much to my surprise, the chaplains' place in all of that was critical: There are no atheists in a foxhole, and this was a foxhole for the whole country. We were among the earliest to be given cell phones, military vehicles. Usually we're at the end of the food chain when it comes to equipment, but this time we were at the front. We started putting troops on the street immediately, and wherever troops are, that's where chaplains are needed. Eleven o'clock at night came really quickly, and we were just getting started.
We had no idea what was next. Now, in retrospect, nothing was next-but we didn't know that. I had drawn a gas mask a hundred times, every time we trained, for years and years. But when you're drawing a gas mask for a test, that's one thing; you draw a gas mask for the real thing, you're saying, "Hmmm, do I know how to use this? I wish I'd paid more attention when they tried to train me in all that."
We didn't know who we had lost. We still didn't know whether they were injured or not, whether they were killed or not. The New York state National Guard chaplain is a friend of mine-Jacob Goldstein, a rabbi: Jake and I had been in basic training 25 years earlier. He was knee-deep as well as I-I ended up not even talking to him until a month later.
Where are your friends, and what are they doing? All you know is where you are. It's that sense of the unknown. Our fears anticipated are worse than our fears realized, sometimes. You can live with a fear realized. Once it's there, you don't have any choice.
Art Roberts, 60
Jefferson Government Relations
On the morning of September 11, I was attending a New Democrat Network breakfast address by Senator Joseph Lieberman at the Democratic Club on Capitol Hill. I was sitting at a table with other members of Congress, including Representatives Martin Frost and Cal Dooley.
While Lieberman was giving his speech, my wife, Roselee, called me on my cell phone. At about the same time, everyone else's cell phones started ringing, or their pagers started going off, or their BlackBerrys went off, and people started turning ashen.
Within minutes, two very large men came for Lieberman and took him away. He apologized but said it was an emergency and he had to leave. You've never watched a place empty so fast. Because I was sitting at a table with members of Congress, the security people initially began to herd me in with them. Then somebody pointed to me and said, "He's not a member." At that point, the security people told me, "You just get out of here."
I got in my car and headed back to Farragut Square, to make a drop-off at my bank. I turned on the car radio to hear what was going on up in New York. They had just announced that the second plane had hit the World Trade Center. As I was driving, I saw that a large plane was flying overhead, on a path that's not supposed to be an approach to the airport. Then, as I neared the White House, I heard an explosion. I thought someone had hit my car, or that maybe the president was getting a 21-gun salute. But I looked back and saw a tremendous amount of fire. That was the Pentagon.
I parked just north of Lafayette Square and looked up in time to see people running away from the White House. I went into the bank and told the tellers, "You should get your manager. The World Trade Center has been attacked and now something is happening here too." They had no idea.
Postscript: Both of Roberts's daughters had survived the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Elizabeth Roberts Holah, then a Port Authority architect, was meeting her job-hunting sister, Leigh Melton, at the twin towers on the day of the 1993 bombing. By September 11, neither daughter was working in New York City.
Dagmara Baraniewska, 37
Women's advocate, Poland
I arrived in Washington, D.C., on September 8 for the International Visitor Program organized by the Department of State. I was supposed to spend time in Washington, D.C., Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Duluth, and New York City. Everywhere, I would meet with leaders of women's organizations.
Monday, September 10, we visited the State Department, and so Tuesday was my first day of work. I met with a small organization in Adams Morgan dealing with women's employment. It was in a basement. Suddenly the woman I was talking with got a telephone call and she got pale, completely pale. She ran to the computer and she opened it. She said to me, "Twin towers are destroyed," then she showed a picture with those horrible airplanes crashing the twin towers. It was looking like a computer game.
I tried to reach my family in Poland. I have two daughters, 22 and 25 years old, and I wanted to tell them I was OK. I tried to contact my daughters, and I couldn't. I found out my hotel was evacuated, and I was in completely different part of city.
I called my wonderful, very dear friend, Mrs. Lisa Rey, wife of former American ambassador in Poland, Mr. Nicholas Rey, and I asked her what to do. She told me to go to the Poland Embassy.
It's maybe something different with Americans who go abroad, but Poland people have completely different experience. Our embassies are never places of any kind of support, but I thought maybe, in that case, I should go there.
First, I called. I told them I'm in the neighborhood, and I would like to get shelter and some assistance. They were very surprised, but they agreed. I started to go down 16th Street to the embassy.
I think I was the only person going down that street. All the cars and people were leaving town. I felt like in a movie: hot weather, blue sky, wonderful day, and something horrible had happened. People were escaping from town and I'm the only one going down. And people kept trying to convince me that I should get out and not go down that street. It was hot. I was thirsty.
Finally, I got to the embassy, and I rang the bell. It was closed. They did not let me in. Somebody told me, "You're not welcome here. Go to Polish Consulate." I said, "I don't know where it is. Please help me. I want to get connected to my daughters that I'm OK, nothing bad happened to me." "No," they said.
I begged them, "Please give me at least a glass of water." Finally, they gave me a glass of water. That was the only assistance I got from Polish Embassy that day.
I kept going down into the city, to the Polish Consulate. When I got there, the doors were closed. A beautiful neighborhood, old trees, old houses, and they are useless. I knocked and knocked and knocked, and nobody came; so I knocked and knocked louder and louder. I really didn't know what to do.
The thought came to my mind: Lisa Rey, I should call her.
Finally, a guy came to the door and said, "What do you want?" I didn't say, "I have to call my family." I said, "I have to call my friend, Ambassador Mrs. Lisa Rey." He dialed the phone. When she answered, he said, "Ambassador Mrs. Lisa Rey?" And he passed the phone to me. I told Lisa, "I'm here."
When Lisa came, I was very happy, you can imagine. They were so wonderful, they invited me to their home, and we took the luggage from my hotel. At that moment, I felt safe.
Julie Rochman, 40
Senior vice president, American Insurance Association
I was supposed to go to Paris that night, and I came to the office that day to clean off my desk before vacation. I arrived a couple of minutes after the first plane hit, and people were already watching television in my office. A couple of weeks earlier a parachutist had done a stunt on the Statue of Liberty, so my first thought was that it was another stupid person doing something careless. Like everyone else, we weren't sure what it was. We just sat watching the coverage, stunned.
Some insurance companies had offices in the trade center, and other insurance industry entities had offices there. As it turned out, the first plane hit at Marsh USA's floor. They are the world's largest insurance brokerage and they do a lot of business with our companies, and we know the brokers. We all had friends in New York, and we tried to call and the phone lines were jammed.
Those of us who were here decided we had to make a decision what to do. It was complex, in part, because we are in the insurance business. When there is a natural disaster, we spring into action because we know there will be questions and claims, and people are going to want information. This was different because we were right in the middle of it, and this was unlike anything we had been through before. We decided to send most people home, but a few of us stayed until the early afternoon. Obviously, I wasn't going to Paris that night.
So we here at AIA public affairs continued to clear the decks because we knew that, like every natural or man-made disaster, this one would have a news cycle. We knew that at some point very soon, all the financial questions would be asked, after the health and safety questions had been asked. We knew we had about 24 hours to prepare. I got a few phone calls from reporters later in the day, mostly from the insurance trade reporters. But when I got back to work on the 12th, the phone was definitely ringing. By then, the rhetoric by the president and others was about war.
Because September 11 was a daytime event-a workplace event-the major impact fell on workers' comp, commercial property, commercial liability, aviation-types of business that our companies write. So we knew that the calls would come here. The other problem was that the Insurance Information Institute-the consumer information and public-relations branch of the industry-has its office in Lower Manhattan and was shut down. And the World Trade Center office of many of the insurance brokers was now gone.
calls multiplied, and there were questions we just couldn't answer. One of the big questions was, which companies had which policyholders, how much were the losses? We still don't have the final numbers, and we won't know for years, but at this point, final losses are estimated between $40 billion and $50 billion for all lines of insurance. Before this, Hurricane Andrew was the largest disaster, natural or man-made, in U.S. history and it was, in today's dollars, about $19.6 billion.
We knew immediately that this was going to be the biggest insured catastrophe in the history of the world. What we didn't know was which companies it was going to hit, how hard they would be financially impacted, and if the next attack might occur a day later.
Reporters wanted to know if insurers were going to pay claims or invoke the war exclusion and fight policyholders. The answers came quickly. Companies would not invoke their war exclusions, claims were covered under the policies and would of course be paid.
As weird as it seems, I was so glad I had not gone to Paris and that I was here, because it was the biggest thing that had ever happened. I knew it was going to be a mess, and I wanted to be here. I realized that the most important thing I could do was to make sure that people had accurate information, that the insurance industry, despite being hit very hard, was going to meet its obligations.
From the very start, our CEOs were very clear. They wanted us to convey in the strongest terms that they understood the magnitude of the event and they felt a duty to start getting policyholders back on their feet. It was really incredible. It was one of those moments in which I have never been prouder to work for the insurance industry. It was really nice to hear these guys individually say, "We are going to do it."
Obviously, we are not the firefighters, and we are not the police officers. But it was nice to know that I am part of a system that will help victims recover financially. That's what we're here for.
Marty O'Brien, 36
Co-owner, Fran O'Brien's Steak House
My bartender, Rose Dove, called me a little before 9 a.m.: "Did you see what's happening at the World Trade Center?" I turned on the TV and saw the first tower burning and told her I'd be at work in a little while. I caught a taxi on Wisconsin Avenue, and the driver, who was listening to the radio, told me about the second plane. "The World Trade Center is getting bombed!" he said. Then he really started freaking out. I think he was Pakistani. "This is very bad," he said. He stopped the cab and told me, "Get out!" He was talking really fast, saying, "I've got to get out of here. I hope I won't have to leave this country."
I got in a second cab. The driver was listening to the radio too, and we started hearing about "a car bomb" at the State Department. But as we got to the crest of the hill on Wisconsin, we could see the smoke across the river. "Jesus Christ!" he said. "It's the Pentagon!"
We open at 11:30 in the morning, but people were here by 11:15. They knew we'd have TVs on. Some said, because we're in the basement of the hotel, they felt safer.
People kept saying, "D.C. is going to get hit again." Usually, it's a fun, upbeat atmosphere, especially in the bar area. Not this day. The AFL-CIO guys, the postal workers union guys, our other regulars-all sat here in a daze. They couldn't reach people on their phones, so they left word: "I'm in Fran O'Brien's at the Hilton in Washington, D.C. Call me here." The calls started trickling in, from Europe, California, Hawaii, wherever. It was like, "Yeah, honey. I'm safe. It's OK. How are you?" I called my own mom, who lives in Tampa, Florida, and my girlfriend at the time, who was in Orlando.
About 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, it died down, as it always does; then it picked up again. It was a day you wanted to be with your partners, your employees, your customers. Fran? He would have stayed open, oh yes. My dad died three years ago, but there are pictures of him all over the walls; customers still ask for him, and you say his name every time you answer the phone. We're in D.C., a city that's a target, so our friends kept calling here. So we stayed open.
That night, President Bush spoke from the White House. People huddled around the televisions. Then they drifted on out, and we closed up. When I headed home, the city was a ghost town. My cab took me through Georgetown. Usually, I stop at J. Paul's or someplace and have a beer, but they were closed. The only sound you could hear was the jets and the helicopters overhead. You couldn't see them, but you knew they were there. It was strange-reassuring in one way, but kind of threatening in another. I got home and lay down in bed and thought, "What the hell happened today?"
About This Issue: This special report features the accounts of more than 50 Washingtonians who talked with National Journal reporters about their experiences on September 11, 2001. The accounts are in the words of the members of Congress, White House aides, Pentagon personnel, waitresses, cabdrivers, and other area residents who agreed to be interviewed. Conducting the interviews were National Journal staff members James A. Barnes, David Baumann, Carl M. Cannon, Richard E. Cohen, Courtney Crimmins, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., Robert Gettlin, Siobhan Gorman, Erin Heath, Corine Hegland, Louis Jacobson, James Kitfield, Margaret Kriz, Neil Munro, Mark Murray, Molly C. Norton, Patrick B. Pexton, Marilyn Werber Serafini, Alexis Simendinger, Bruce Stokes, Peter H. Stone, Stuart Taylor Jr., Kirk Victor, and Shawn Zeller.