9-11-01: Sitting in my downtown Washington, D.C. office, just blocks from the White House, I hear the HR director crying her way down the hall; a plane had hit the World Trade Center. My secretary immediately pulled out her little 2-inch-screen TV – the one she watches soap operas on – and the three of us squinted at the burning north tower; then the second plane hit the south tower. Staring in disbelief, we eventually moved to a conference room and a full size TV to watch the coverage.
Almost immediately I started making calls to people I knew, including a woman from New York whose mother worked in Manhattan, and my parents to tell them of the NYC attack. It was a bit later before I found out about the Pentagon. The rest of the day was a frustrating, anxious time where cell phones didn’t work and uncertainty was the predominant emotion. Because the Pentagon was hit and rumors flew about the White House, Capitol, and other potential targets in DC, the city quickly became a ghost town as people raced to collect their children and account for their spouses. I was lucky. Even though I grew up outside of Boston, lived for years near NYC and DC, and have flown many times from all three airports involved (Dulles, Logan, Newark), people I directly interact with were all spared. However, there were some connections:
1) Barbara Olsen, the writer and political activist who died on Flight 77 when it hit the Pentagon, was the wife of Ted Olsen, the lawyer who won Bush the 2000 election in the Supreme Court. My girlfriend at the time worked in the same law firm as Ted, so I knew about Barbara being on the plane before I found out the plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I was on the phone with my girlfriend talking about the WTC and she told me that Barbara had called Ted twice saying “you’re not going to believe this, but we’ve been hijacked.” Ted told her about the WTC and they spent her last few minutes together on the phone until the line disconnected.
2) My coworker’s husband worked at the Pentagon. Upon hearing the news there was nearly an hour of terror as she tried desperately to contact him. With the overloaded cell phone lines, communication was impossible until eventually he was able to call her from a fixed phone line. His office was right in the center of the crash site until two weeks before the attack – he had just moved to a section not far outside the area of destruction because of ongoing renovations. Renovations that in the end helped save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
3) Back home, a family friend and neighbor of my uncle was on Flight 11, the first to hit the WTC. Each year on this date the entire town mourns his loss.
4) Ironically, two of my cousins, sons of that same uncle, were near the WTC when the planes hit. One worked in a building so close it was damaged and later had to be demolished. The other worked further uptown but was out making a delivery; he was a block from the towers when the first plane hit. Like everyone, he stared in shock at the unbelievable scene, only to see the second plane hit. Both managed to get away from the area and were unhurt.
5) A friend was working in a building not far from the area of destruction at the WTC. Other friends (and my friends mother) had been far enough away or had not gone in to work that day. All were okay.
For the next half-decade I experienced periodic nightmares in which burning planes fly along a line into the distance, where a tall building burns. One plane after another…all on fire…all heading into the flames ahead. I sit watching them pass over the water, knowing that there is nothing I can do to stop them.
The nightmares are now gone. The memories will never be forgotten.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.