After fumbling around trying to find correct change, I finally got on the bus. Unlike the rest of the passengers, for whom the Washington landscape had become commonplace, I looked around with the amazement of a kid making his first trip to a big league ballpark. As I got off at the Pentagon metro station, I remember marveling at how vast, yet accessible, our nation's nerve center seemed to be. Twenty minutes later, a hijacked plane full of innocent people crashed into that very building.
September 11, 2001 -- you've seen the TV coverage, we all felt the horror of Americans perishing in our two most significant cities. The mood here in the District was surreal. At first, we huddled around the office TV, watching in disbelief as one of the World Trade Center towers had been hit by a plane. What in God's name was going on? Was it some sort of inexcusable navigation mistake? Then a second plane hit the other tower. OK, this obviously isn't some sort of cruel coincidence.
Before we can even begin to comprehend what's happened in Lower Manhattan, a news flash streams across the bottom of the screen -- a plane has crashed into the Pentagon. The Pentagon? Wait a minute, that's just down the street. Look, you can see the smoke billowing off the building in the distance. This is unbelievable, this can't be happening.
Suddenly the phones, which have been silent for the past few minutes, are ringing off the hook. The sounds of others reassuring their loved ones that they were unharmed jolt me out of my daze. Even though we know that we're perfectly safe we scurry around, frantically trying to reach our loved ones so that they know not to worry.
Busy signal. Cell phone is dead. Busy signal. Finally, I get through. "Yes, Mom, I'm all right. You're right, it's good I don't really go anywhere near the Pentagon." (I figured if there was anytime to tell a lie it was then.)
The smoke from the Pentagon gets thicker. All domestic flights are grounded and accounted for except for one over the Pittsburgh area. The plane, a news anchor nonchalantly tells us, is likely headed for Washington. More futile attempts to contact friends and family that live and work downtown or in Manhattan. The large towers that face our building are evacuated. It doesn't seem like they'd be the next targets of the terrorists, but somehow that doesn't matter. A man in an air force uniform tells us to leave the building if the fire alarm goes off. Should we be worried?
No time to worry, got to get back to the TV. The Associated Press is reporting a car bomb went off at the State Department. Someone gets an e-mail saying the mall, the National Mall, is on fire. Now the West Wing of the White House is supposedly engulfed in flames. Is this really happening?
The World Trade Center towers collapse in front of the world on live television. The President is taken to Louisiana, then to somewhere in Nebraska. Someone comments that this is the second Pearl Harbor, no even bigger than Pearl Harbor. "This is America's darkest hour," says a fatigued talking head on television, as if on cue. Is this really happening?
Finally things start to settle down. The unaccounted for plane has crashed south of Pittsburgh. All of the rumors of doom downtown turn out to be false. The president is on his way back to Washington. Even the roads have cleared up, so much so that its eerie how a business district could be so empty on what would normally be a working day. Everything's come to a screeching halt, kind of like a snow day, except with gorgeous weather.
The day's over, and it's time to go home. As we pull away I once again look at the scenery over our nation's capital. It's all there -- the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the National Cathedral. Other than the haunting stream of steady smoke over the Pentagon, the city is exactly the same as it was this morning, yet it's completely different.
A couple hundred miles to the north, somebody is looking back at what used to be Manhattan.
Amol Naik, a 2001 UNC graduate in journalism and history, now works at the Student Press Law Center.
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