I watched the Pentagon burn. First, on the evening of September 11, 2001, I saw the column of smoke rising in the distance as I drove west on Braddock Rd. to visit Melissa in Burke. Then, on September 12, I skipped my classes at George Mason University (which should have been canceled anyway) to drive down to Arlington. I stood, with a fairly large crowd, maybe 350 yards from the collapsed and burning hulk of the building’s western face. I just felt like I had to see it for real, not just as one of the many horrific images on my television.
I drive by the Pentagon now and then, usually on Washington Blvd. which passes right in front of the face that was hit by hijacked American Airlines flight 77. The plane passed so low over the highway that it knocked over some of its overhead street lights. Every time I pass through, I remember standing there and watching the building burn more than 24 hours after the attack. Every time, I think about everything that happened on September 11, 2001. I probably always will.
I’ve talked to people who watched the plane crash into the Pentagon from their offices in Crystal City. Thousands of people saw it from those offices, though from most of them the view of the actual final impact would have been obscured. Many in the Navy barracks and Sheraton Hotel on a hill just west of the Pentagon had a clear view all the way to impact. People driving on Washington Blvd., Interstate 395, and other nearby roads had a clear view as well. They all saw the silver-colored airliner in the standard American Airlines livery slam into the world’s largest office building, killing all 64 passengers and crew (including 5 hijackers) and 125 people in the Pentagon. No conspiracy theories about it being a missile or something, please.
Obviously, the scale of our local tragedy pales in comparison to the carnage in New York, New York, on that same day. The 184 innocent victims in Arlington compare to 2,753 in New York. Another 40 innocent victims died in the crash of United Airlines flight 93 in Shanksville, PA. But the attack on the Pentagon is the one that I saw first hand, albeit a day after. I feel, in some very, very tiny way, that’s ‘my’ part of September 11, 2001.
Another thing that sticks with me is how empty the sky looked over the D.C. metro area in the days that followed. This region has three major airports—Washington Dulles Intl. Airport, Reagan National Airport, and Baltimore-Washington Intl. Airport. There are always planes in the sky. Lots of them. With the national airspace shut down, all the planes were gone. As a long-time resident of this area, and a constant observer of the planes in its busy airspace, it was eerie. You don’t really realize how many of them are there until they’re gone.
There’s a lot more I can say about that day. The absolute, shell-shocked horror on everybody’s faces. The fact that I was supposed to be working downtown in a federal building, but found out about the tragedies unfolding before I left campus. The frustration of dealing with phones that couldn’t make a connection on the overloaded networks when I knew people were worried about me (there had been erroneous reports of car bombs going off in D.C., and my friends and family knew I worked downtown). My parents were supposed to be flying that day (national airspace had been shut down before their flight left). I had woken up late and rushed to a class without checking the morning news, so I missed the early reports about the first plane hitting the Twin Towers in New York.
The more I think about it, the more little details come flowing back almost like it was yesterday.
We have to keep our memories fresh, because the radical Islamic ideologies that led to the September 11, 2001, attacks are still out there and still have their adherents. What happened that day is what happens when these ideologies are brought to their natural conclusions—death and destruction. We have to remember, and we have to constantly dedicate ourselves to fighting radical Islam because, if we don’t, there’s no reason that September 11, 2001, can’t happen again.
God bless you, and God bless America.