A Eulogy for a more Innocent Time
Having watched the national (hell, international) orgy of self-pity, doubt and sorrow that is the 5th anniversary of “The big event” or “the day” or simply “nineleven” nowadays, I can’t help but reflect on how badly we’re departing from reality and engaging in wholesale iconography. Especially with that trite old phrase, “A Hero of 9-11“.
With your kind forbearance, I’ll deliver up some cold reality, in personalized fashion. This happened to me. It’s a long story, not very funny, not laden with cheap heroics, but it is interesting. I promise you that.
Besides, as I get older, I feel the need to write some of this down. I will soon forget parts of it, and the amateur historian in me would consider that a sin.
I am what is called a Beltway Bandit by way of a profession, a techno-slave to the military industrial complex. Not the most exciting existence, but @#$#@ it, they’re educating me and paying my mortgage and feeding my children. I’m going flog that donkey until it stops walking (especially in this economy).
Five years ago, I played occasional mother hen to a couple of servers, breaking up my week into two days at the Pentagon in the Dungeon, my term for the little-seen lower level of the Pentagram. It’s truly hideous, decorated in Cold War 1950s fashion… Mustard yellow wallpaper (highly textured) that is peeling off in places, like that hotel in the movie Barton Fink. Most of the bigger servers are there) and the rest of my time spent in Crystal City, a cluster of office buildings around National Airport. Nowadays, I go over to the Pentagon about once in a blue moon. And that’s the way I like it.
Flash to 9/11/2001. I’ll try to maintain real-time tense here, because many things are happening at the same time in the following paragraphs, and I’m starting to fuzz up slightly about how it all fits together. So I will report what I saw, what I know happened, or what people I know and trust have seen.
I’m on a VRE (Virginia railway Express) train pulling into the station. I fold my paper and toss my coffee cup. I am very late. Harry, the gentleman friend my mother-in-law had taken up with as her beau after my father in law passed away, usually is as punctual as Big Ben. My son, Garrett, is too young for school and Harry and my mother-in-law picked him up to take care of him four days a week. Today of all days possible, Harry has slept in beyond his standard 6AM in the morning, and they don’t get to my house until I am at the point where I could only catch the next to last train from my home station. Since they do this service out of the kindness of their hearts, I say nothing and bundle Garrett into his car seat and drive off to the train station at top speed. I am mildly miffed now, but I will have reason to thank Harry later on today.
As I step off the train, the most significant terrorist action in recorded history has just transpired, and neither I, nor anyone near me, has the slightest inkling of it. The train was slow coming in to the station, but there has been no announcement about it over the Train’s PA system. I have a cell phone with me (my first) but nobody has called about it. Perhaps some of the passengers around me have been called about it, but there is no indication that something truly monumental has occurred (you couldn’t transmit news services over the phone back then like you can now– or at least not cheaply)
By now, Building 1 has been burning for almost an hour. My work colleague, Sweeney, has been annihilated when the plane he was traveling on smashed into Building 2. He was at a big jovial (and lengthy) lunch at Don Pablos South of Crystal City the month before. Ironically, I recall having a debate about the notion of “justice versus vengeance” with another colleague during the lunch, which grew rather heated (cuz I’m such a bleeding heart, you see). I don’t recall if he had anything to add to it. Also: a friend of mine in Building 1 has been killed almost instantly when Sweeney’s plane hit. All this I am ignorant of at this moment, and wouldn’t learn until days or even weeks later.
Normally I would stop at the little bakery I usually stop at when I go to the Pentagon, buy my usual bigass coffee and sticky bun, and yuck it up for a second with the “barista”. Her son will be graduating from one of those technical ‘academies’ soon and wants a job. I was going to promise to flog his resume for him.
All that is in disarray. My comfortable morning is now quite rushed.
I **should** be poking my head into my client’s offices before heading down to the Dungeon for the morning grind. No time for that now. Julian, a co-worker, is already onsite and showing the corporate flag in a different office. I hardly know Julian at all, but the clients like him. His wife is pregnant. They have been trying to have a baby for months now and she hasn’t found out yet and won’t know for certain for a couple more weeks yet.
It’s **got** to be about 930ish or so.. Maybe later, because the train was slow. I wasn’t looking at my watch, and I have never attempted to synch what I remember up with the published timelines of this event– something tells me I must have delayed a bit, probably to get money out of the bank. Now I’m on a bus that I caught at the Harris building, which is down the street from where my commuter train drops me off. I daydream on the bus a bit, looking at the newspaper. I forget what the headline was for that day.
My friend Mike, in charge of legacy network operations in the dungeon, is staring with sick dread at the live feed from CNN being piped down to the TV monitors. One of the World Trade Center buildings has just been struck by a jet plane, and it is burning from the inside out. Most of the crew from the Dungeon server room are clustered around the TV monitors. Mike is sipping coffee and staring in numb shock as the events enfold over the television.
“What’s up? What’s the matter?”
“Something happen in New York! It’s on the TV!”
“A plane crash into de World Trade towers”
(that’s almost a literal translation– the folks that work in server rooms are a colorful bunch)
Julian is sitting down in a small conference room, somewhere on the 5th floor. I can’t recall exactly where. After all these years, I still can’t navigate the Pentagram easily. He has a staff meeting today, with military, civilian govvies and contractors present. No big deal. There’s no way of knowing what was said, but the topic of discussion has to be pretty obvious in retrospect.
For the first time that day, I hear about the major terrorist attacks on the WTC towers from overhearing discussion on the bus. I interrupt, probably rudely, wanting to know if it was an accident. I have many NYC friends– my cousin Danny and his wife, my friend Allan R., etc. and it dawns on me that I ** might ** know people that work in the WTC. What building?? The bus moves around the corner of Eads, passing under route 1. I’m totally shocked by the news.
Down in the server room of the Dungeon, The buzz is already growing on TV that it was a deliberate act… Mike sips his coffee and watch the headlines for a while longer.
It’s now 940ish, as the bus continues up Army-Navy drive. I talk with some of the other people on the bus, the conversational tone is loud and energized. We wonder how or why this could have happened. We’re incredulous and awe-struck. Many of them arrive early enough to have caught a lot of what had transpired on CNN, and they relay to me the sick sense of helplessness as they watched the monitors:
“What was THAT? What the Fuck was that?”
“The plane hit the building..”
“was that a rerun of earlier?”
“No, that wasn’t shown… is this new?”
They are describing how they had just seen THE OTHER plane hit THE OTHER building. It feels so distant, in this bus full of high-tech, sinecured white collar and military commuters, shuttling over to the Pentagon, Yet it easy to sense we are all now very nervous people, with this stuff that is happening far away from here. I feel like my world is crumbling. People being what they are, there is already talk about DC being “hit”.. the White House is evacuating, etc. “Horseshit” thinks I… “We’re small potatoes”
Mike leans back in his chair, with his feet up, not doing much, just watching the story unfold on CNN. The chair is broken. The server room is very quiet, contrasting to the volume on the TV, which is way high. The TV people are having a field day– rumors of attacks on Washington, a plan is hurtling towards the White House (yes, they said that. I saw it later) or the Capital. Unconfirmed statements of another hijacking, maybe two (I don’t remember the exact sequence of what happened– I wasn’t in front of a TV set at the time).
A big, deadly Something is heading our way that is going to change things around here forever, and we don’t have the slightest idea.
I’d like to say I had a grandstand seat for what happened next. In all honesty, I had a crappy seat. We emerge from the tunnel under 395 and proceed up the left hand side of the South Parking lot. At this point, all the security baffles and concrete barriers do not exist. The new bus center hasn’t been built yet. The new visitor center doesn’t exist. At this point, busses go to the bus drop off point on the South Parking side of the Pentagon.
So we were pointed in the right direction, but much of what happened next was blocked by the bulk of the Pentagon itself. I heard this: “LOOOOOK!” then “OH MY GOD!” and “Oh no!”. Since I was sitting on the far edge of the bus, I leaned over quickly to look out the left window. I saw: a big silvery shape descending at a steep angle from direction of Arlington Ridge. It went behind the edge of the Pentagon and a horribly loud BOOOOOOOOOOOOM! sound could be heard immediately afterward.
When the impact happened, it wasn’t like what you’d expect. No Star Trek stuff, nobody hurled from their seats where I was. Mike was leaning back in that broken chair and the loud noise totally startled him, causing him to fall backward, spilling hot joe on his shirtfront and to curse like a sailor… F*CK! What was that? We felt the impact in the parking lot, through the bus frame itself, but not like an earthquake.
Loud sounds aren’t uncommon at the Pentagon. The renovation project, which seems like such a pain in the ass (and would, later, turn out to have saved the lives of several people I know), causes a lot of jackhammering, banging, dropping, cursing, yelling, smashing and such to be audible even down where we are. It’s part of a busy background of noise. Also, the Computer Room that I usually worked in is against the loading dock, and the Pentagon is a very busy building, with lots of loading and unloading noises… bangs, thumps, dumpster lids dropping,
This isn’t like those noises. It is a hugely loud BAAAAAANNNNG-BOOOOOOOOOOOOM, followed by a hissing sound, then lots of secondary smashing noises. The building shudders, but didn’t collapse. Section A collapses, being literally blown into molten magma by all that jet fuel igniting, but I can’t see this. I’m on the other side of the parking lot, and I heard the sound and (as I said) felt a slight impact. Immediately the noise level goes through the roof. I hear it far better outside than I ever could have inside.
The bus stops. Traffic stops. The driver leans out, we are all craning our necks to get a better look but the angle sucks. There’s a giant (and I mean giant!) fireball arcing above the Pentagon. Very quickly indeed. There’s some screaming around me but I tune it out– I felt, for an absurd second, that a nuclear missile had struck. The driver pulls over to the sidewalk. We all exit in fair reasonably orderly fashion, considering the circumstances.
Section A is at this point crashing to the ground and a giant dust and smoke cloud rises up. Julian is crushed almost instantaneously. He will never find out about the baby, not in this world.
I remember hearing a strange alarm going off, one I’ve never heard before, unlike fire drills. People are exiting the Pentagon, but the panic isn’t setting in yet. Even with a huge sound, crash, shake and fire, parts of the building are still very confused and don’t know what’s going on.
Down in the server room, they hear an alarm, then CNN shows the TV announcement that Pentagon had been hit. The folks in the server room realize,.. “hey, this is US… We’re in a burning building!”
“Time to leave, maybe…”
Still, people in the basement are reluctant. There’s a general alarm going off, and they felt the noise and vibration, but nobody knows anything yet. Worse, they don’t know who to call. At this moment, the freight door (which takes up an entire wall) opens up (which is rarely seen unless a big delivery is happening… It’s a huge breach in security). And in pour several of those fat rent-a-cops, brandishing rented authority.
“OUT! OUT! OUT! FOLLOW US! PICK UP! GO GO GO GO!”
And so Mike and the server crowd calmly walk out the freight door, onto the loading dock, and leave by a side entrance used for deliveries. In his words: This building was like a rock. We felt it shake, and we heard the noise, but the lights stayed on, and the power didn’t even go out. (all this was told to me weeks later)
Outside, I hear Fire engine sirens, dimly at first, then lots and lots and lots of them, and helicopters, and engine sounds. A quick response! Thank God. Someone who can take charge. It’s like hell out here. A giant, and I mean GIANT cloud is funneling straight up from the far side of the building, as tall as the
office buildings in Rosslyn. Helicopters are circling. And coming down Arlington Ridge on Columbia Pike and all directions, a phalanx of volunteer fire departments from all over. Response is damned good. Military Policemen are now armed, with machine guns, moving traffic to a safe zone as far from the flaming side of the building as possible.
We can still see the fireball, although it’s diminishing, it’s hard to ignore. And the smoke cloud is amazing. I was once saw footage of a Paris air show, in years gone by, when a Soviet airplane of some type crashed. There’s only one substance that makes a cloud like that– jet fuel. This cloud made the Russian plane look diminutive.
All around me people are wailing helplessly as we get herded under the tunnel under 395. People are covered with a gritty gray ash that is floating in the air like a powder. I had forgotten about all the gray floatie stuff in the air until I heard Greta Susteren’s account yesterday on CNN’s
Much MUCH later, I talked with someone who was outside when it happened. She saw the plane approach about 30 feet off the ground without wheels down. She saw it hit A wedge and ducked behind a car when the fireball went up. We were oblivious to that, and never saw any bit of the plane after the crash.
Back to me.
I’m dazed now. What do I do now? Numbly we watch the fire. My office at Crystal City is a ways away, but it seems like the thing to do is go there. I must have been looking at the fire for more than an hour, since it feels later in the day now. I trudge over to CC. I hate walking a long way in these shoes.. shit!
I pull into the office… and check in with my boss. They are actually almost overjoyed to see me– one of the nicest compliments I’ve received in a while. I didn’t know, yet, that another friend wouldn’t be walking back from the Pentagon that day, Julian remains unaccounted for. We wouldn’t find out for a day. I call several people I know in New York city, and (thankfully) most of them answer and reassure me they are alive. The phones are not working very well.
Crystal City, which is right next to the airport (National, now Ronald Reagan) is becoming a police zone. Arlington Cops are crowding the bottom of the off ramp to the airport, turning cars away. One of them brandishes an Uzi theatrically.
And the little grey floaties are in the air…
My boss having no objections, I call it a day. The metro line is impossible. The train is not running, so I walk south to Kings Street station in Old Town. My feet hurt now. I take the Yellow line to my mother in laws, and she meets me at Huntington Station to give me a ride home. I finally get through to my wife,
the Lady Hotspur. She’s hysterical with worry and grief, not having heard from me in a while. I apologize. I had been caught up in the moment.
My Mom in Law drops me off with Garrett (my son) and we finally end up home.. Lady Hotspur grabs me and holds me for a long while. Silently, I cry in her shoulder a bit, for the first time that day. It’s good to be home. I find that I’m now very, very, very tired… like I can’t keep my eyes open. It’s probably the after effect of no food, lots of adrenaline, and shock. I go to bed, still smelling vaguely of smoke and aviation fuel. I sleep until the next day, never catching the fall of the twin towers on TV, the aftermath, the commentary, the speeches, the demonstrations. It had been a long day.
The next day I wake up to a call from Captain Aland (now retired) my boss in the Navy. We have a brief conversation.
“(Nizz’s real name), the word is for non-essential employees to stay home.”
“Consider yourself non-essential today. We’ll pick up the pieces tomorrow.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I take the spawn of MrNizz to the park after breakfast. They, too, have the day off. We go to a giant playground area where they laugh and whoop it up. If they wonder about why dad is wearing dark shades on a day like today, or why his hands are shaking so much, they don’t say anything. They have that kind of wisdom.
Meanwhile, Dad is muttering to himself, again and again.. “Alive. Yessir, Daddy’s alive today…”
So that’s my 9/11 story. It’s still a painful anniversary for me, I don’t talk about it much, not because I personally witnessed horror (not much, anyway), but because of absent friends– in one of the towers, in the Pentagon, and on one of the planes. In the aftermath, I’ve shaken off a resulting depression that manifested itself as migraines and a feeling of lasitude. I couldn’t watch footage for a long while without getting queasy. It’s better now. One thing that doesn’t go away is my contempt for the way we treat this episode.
People who died in the Towers, the Pentagon, and elsewhere weren’t heroes. They were victims. Victims of terrorism, plain and simple. Heroism implies choice. The decision to put yourself, your physical safety, on the line. The firefighters who went in when they knew it could be a death sentence, they were heroes. The Cops, the MPs, even those Rent-a-cops at the Pentagon are heroes. Folks like my brother in law, who has to run a burial unit as a collateral duty in the National Guard, and therefore worked body recovery (bagging and tagging) at the Pentagon (while it was still burning in spots) are heroes. Don’t tell him I said that. The SEAL teams and Rangers and SF guys who went to Afghanistan are heroes. The Grunts who fight terrorists EVERY DAMNED DAY are heroes.
I’m no hero. Nor was Julian, or Mike, or Moose or anybody I knew that died. Given a choice, they’d rather be here drinking a beer and eating Nachos with me at Don Pablos and anybody who complains can shove the heroism bit up their ass. Honor the dead, succor the living. And every one of them would agree with me.
I might add, I didn’t feel any compunction to leap into the flames and save old ladies or infants or anything. There were professionals doing that. I wanted to do something useful, but there wasn’t much to do. So I went home. And that’s the way it was for about 90% of everyone that was there, and that’s the truth.
I’ll never forget that day, of course– I remain on the little hill on the far side of the Pentagon South parking lot, watching hordes of office workers, miltary personnel and service workers streaming across the parking lot at top speed with the smoke and grey floaties behind them. Someday, somehow, 9-12 will come again. Thanks for reading.