This time each year, I'm reminded of when I first moved to this city. I've been in D.C. 14 years now and I'm still so in love with it - which is surprising, given how my time here began: with 9/11.
Below is my personal story of being at the White House when the 9/11 attacks occurred in 2001.
I did a semester in D.C. during college. The semester included classes and an internship. By some miracle, my internship ended up being at the White House, where I later got hired full-time as a Political Appointee.
(Me and the other interns in my first office)
But my internship started on 9/10/01....
So the next day - aka my second day on the job - I came in early to open the office. We quickly heard reports of the first plane hitting the tower in NYC and everyone thought it must have been an unfortunate accident.
When the second plane hit - we all knew something bigger was happening and we felt like we were likely going to be a target.
Everyone wore worried expressions but kept working and kept an eye on the news. After the third plane hit, I distinctly remember standing on the balcony of our office, watching the smoke rise from the Pentagon.
But we continued to stay.
After a little while, the news headline on our television read "White House Evacuated." To which we understandably were like -
Because we were still there and hadn't heard anything outside of our office either. I stepped out into the hallway just to see if anyone looked like they might be scurrying away and further down the hall was a Secret Service agent in bomb-squad gear. He saw me and yelled:
"What are you doing! This is real!"
Which caused me to slink sheepishly back in my office with a timid "Um, guys? I think we're supposed to leave...."
Being the Type A go-getters that us interns were we, of course, were not going to be the first ones to freak out. We were going to keep working! So even after I convinced most of the office to leave, the press intern kept typing away before someone finally forced her to get out.
This is how crazy people in D.C. are. Our lives are at risk, sure, but let's try to go ahead and finish that press release anyway...
It was weird because we didn't run when we left. The day felt so unreal that it was hard to get all that frantic. I remember exiting the building and walking out into sunshine. September 11, 2001 was gorgeous in D.C. I remember one of my semester professors recalling later what a sick juxtaposition it was to have had such a horrible act take place on such a beautiful day.
After we left our building we found that the streets were gridlocked. I remember people incessantly honking as if that would make anyone move faster. There was no place to move. Cars had already swarmed the streets, there were erroneous reports of fires on the National Mall, fires in the Metro trains, car bombs at the White House, etc. No one know what was going to be hit next.
Thankfully, a staffer in our office lived not too far away in Georgetown so a few of us walked a couple miles with her. As we passed by The World Bank, I looked up warily and thought, "are you going to be hit next?"
Somehow I was able to call my mom on my cell - which was a miracle in itself because the phone lines were jammed by that point. I remember her tearfully imploring me to "just come home" to Tennessee. I stayed in Georgetown for several hours until I could figure out how to get back to my school's building on Capitol Hill and find out whether or not the school would send us home, involuntarily.
The group I was walking with finally reached the staff member's house in Georgetown. There, we tried to learn anything we could about what was happening in both New York and where we were. I remember watching the news in horror for hours, and I remember the excessively graphic images that were still being shown on that day before the media decided to start using a little more discretion. We all kind of wandered around in a daze in the house, some of us prayed, others were on the phone with their doctors proactively getting prescriptions for Cipro (again...type A-ers don't mess around...). The owner of the house, me, and another intern (who would later become one of my best friends and the person I vomited next to during my first half marathon, as told in Confessions of an Unlikely Runner) decided to go buy supplies - just in case.
This part of my memory actually contains humor, as I remember how paranoid and illogical we were. Granted, no one knew what was happening at that point, or whether there had been biological or chemical agents released, or how long the attacks were going to continue, etc. But even still, we may have gone a bit overboard.
The three of us set out to buy food and bottled water. You know, just in case we needed to build a fallout shelter in the nicest neighborhood in D.C. Then we thought "what if there is some kind of biological something in the air?"
So we put on sunglasses.
...on our faces.
Which made us look like a trio of bandits roaming posh Georgetown. It wasn't until we stopped at an ATM to pull out emergency funds - still in makeshift face coverings, as if we were planning to rob the ATM - that we really focused on the sight of ourselves. We all burst out laughing in that moment and removed our "terrorism-prevention gear".
After getting a substantial amount of money out of the ATM (since we weren't sure if the ATMs would stop working in all the chaos), we walked to the grocery store and bought some supplies. We finally returned back to the house where we stayed the rest of the day until the roads cleared and I was able to be driven back to my school.
The next day, we all went right back to work at the White House. We still didn't know for sure what was going on or if the attacks were over, but no one let fear stop their lives, which I loved to see. The President himself came around later to personally thank people for coming back. It made me feel good to see everyone band together, and to hear the stories of how people had helped each other the day before. And everyone continued to help in whatever way we could over the next few weeks, whether it was bringing coffee for the National Guard troops and extra security personnel who moved into our city to protect us, or serving food to the responders cleaning up the Pentagon.
Two days after the attack, my office was tasked with coordinating part of the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance at the National Cathedral. The event was to be held on Friday and would include nearly every living former U.S. President, the current President, Members of Congress, and many world leaders and religious leaders. Our office started working on it on Thursday afternoon.
The event was that next morning.
We all scrambled like crazy. Me and the other young interns were thrown into tasks such as calling people "on behalf of the President of the United States" to invite them to attend the event. I overheard things like "If Pat Robertson calls, let me know." The next morning I found myself standing in the rain physically handing tickets to people like Jerry Falwell and former NFL player Darrell Green (for whom I literally walked into the street and handed his ticket to through the window of his SUV in downtown D.C. as he headed up to the event). It was madness.
We finally all boarded giant white buses at the White House that were then whisked through traffic by police escorts to make it to the National Cathedral in time for the event. I sat down in the cathedral, surrounded by more VIPs than I'll probably ever see in one room again. The Bush family sat next to the Clintons. Republicans, Democrats, people from different religions - we all wore the same expression on our faces and found comfort in being near each other. I watched in silence as famed opera singer Denyce Graves sang, then cried as the crowd all sang hymns together and Billy Graham gave a sermon. At some point, the CNN cameras that were there panned the crowd and hesitated for a few seconds on me, which projected my rain-and-tear-washed face unexpectedly across the television screens of my family members across the country. The day was surreal, to say the least.
The next several months held additional events, like anti-war protests and false alarms of more attacks at our office and across the city (it was during those that I actually remember feeling more panicked, since by then we had processed more about the world we were living in). Then came the Anthrax scares, and even the "D.C. snipers." I remember showing up to work one day and finding the office empty only to find out the staff had moved to a safer location so fast that no one had told me yet. Another day, I remember standing outside with my coworkers as we watched a tiny little robot empty our office to dispose of a suspicious package that was thought to contain Anthrax.
D.C. changed so much that day - with roads being permanently closed and security being permanently ramped-up - but of course our country and the world changed in much bigger ways as well.
On this day every year that I worked at the White House after the attacks, the staffers would head to the South Lawn to have a moment of silence with the President before he headed over to do the same at the Pentagon at the exact time it had been hit in 2001. Now, I usually hold some sort of my own moment of silence for not only the victims of that day, but in gratitude that I and my friends and family were spared, and for those who have continued to work in intelligence and military operations to make sure that hasn't happened again.
We will never forget.
Part of a candle-light vigil outside the Capitol after the attacks. (my photos from that time aren't digital so forgive the photo-of-a-photo poor quality)
Anti-war protest that formed a couple weeks later
Police cars and police in riot gear filled the streets
I met this man while I was serving food to the workers cleaning up the Pentagon. He brought signs that children had made for the makeshift memorial there. More of that memorial below: