That Morning

I originally wrote this in 2009 on a now-defunct site. Reposting here.

As I parked the car near the Woodley Park metro that morning eight years ago, I remember NPR reporting that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought about how odd it was that a plane (I imagined it was a Cessna or something) could have managed to hit such a large building on such a perfect day, and I was hurrying to work at the Capitol building anyway. I boarded the metro a few minutes before 9 a.m., and was underground for the next 25 minutes, without news.

When I came out of the escalator at Capitol South, there was a larger crowd than usual standing around. They were looking across the river at a plume of smoke in Virginia, but nobody was saying much of anything. There was no shouting or crying. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. I walked to the Cannon House Office Building and the cops inside didn’t say anything unusual when I went through security. I walked downstairs to the basement to cross over the Capitol – this was about 9:35 now – and didn’t see anybody until I arrived at the last security checkpoint before the tunnel to the House side. The Capitol Police officer waved me through, and as I was picking up my stuff I heard a garbled voice from his radio. It said something about a plane being possibly headed to the Capitol.

I looked up at the officer, but I don’t remember his response. My attention was grabbed by a staffer who worked for then Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the House Republican leader. He was running, flat-out, in his suit, down the gentle slope away from the Capitol. “Hey, what’s going on?” I yelled. “I’m getting out of here!!” was his reply. And he sped past me. It was the first time I had seen any panic that morning, and this particular guy was somebody who didn’t seem to scare easily.

I turned around and walked over to the House Clerk’s office in the basement of Cannon. The television was on, and I saw the WTC burning. I grabbed a phone and called Leslye, who was at work in Columbia Heights. “Where are you?”, she asked. I told her I was in the basement of a House office building. “What are you still doing there? Get out!”. I told her I would. Then the first tower fell, and I ran outside.

I saw my colleague Bill Swindell outside of Cannon, and he told me that he had been on the Blue line at the Pentagon station just before a plane hit that building. He was nervous – we both were now – and after standing around for a few minutes we decided to head to CQ’s offices in Dupont Circle (the one time the location ever made sense, I guess). We walked past the Capitol, heading north, where we saw a police officer standing on the roof of the Supreme Court building. He was looking east – for oncoming planes. The rumors were flying now: there was a plane headed to the Capitol, or the White House.

It took us a long time to walk back to Dupont, as we took in a changed city. There was an anti-aircraft battery set up along Massachusetts Avenue. People were ushering school children out of a building behind Union Station. Nobody had cell phone reception. We were paralyzed. What I really remember, more than anything that morning, is how quiet it was on the streets. Unlike New York, unlike the Pentagon, we were rendered helpless without much of a sound.