Posted by: Chris Smith, Economic Officer
The morning of September 11, 2001, began like many. I was a bit late to work at the Commerce Department in Washington, DC, so I hurried to my desk a bit after 9:00. After I started to check my e-mail and get ready for the day, the office windows rattled with the sound of a distant explosion. Of course, I didn’t think it was anything to worry about – maybe falling cement at a nearby construction site, or cannons from a White House ceremony. In those days, there was nothing to prepare us for the thought that this could be the sound of nearly two hundred lives being snuffed out in one part of the largest ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil. It was simply not imaginable.
I kept working until one of my colleagues came in, visibly shaken. She said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York, and that there was an attack on Washington. Then my phone rang. It was my wife, calling from her office in a building on the other side of the White House. She said that her organization was being evacuated, and that we should all get out. We agreed to find each other on the street outside of her building by Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House. By then, thousands of people were streaming out of the Commerce Department building onto the street. The rumors among those leaving were incredible, but no one knew what to believe. I heard that there was a car bomb at the State Department, then someone said that the New Executive Office Building had been bombed. The last rumor hit me particularly hard, as I knew that my wife was working in the building next door.
I tried to force my way through Lafayette Park, which was being closed off by security officials. By the time I made it to the place my wife and I had agreed to meet, the streets were crowded with so many thousands of people that finding any one person would have been impossible. The look on faces in the crowd showed me that the situation was serious, and that no one was convinced that the attacks were over. I wandered on the street for the next few hours, scanning the anxious faces hoping to catch a glimpse of my wife. With cell phone service down and no working pay phones, I went back to my office and reached my wife, who had made it home with a colleague. I then got on a city bus to get home – a twenty minute trip that took about four hours in the traffic, confusion, and chaos of that day.
When I arrived at home, the elation of seeing my wife turned into a depressed fascination with the news, still unable to process the enormity of what had just happened to our nation. Like so many Americans, we were glued to the television. Now my generation had its own Pearl Harbor, its own day of infamy. And as we went to bed, we knew that we now lived in a more dangerous world than we had woken up in that morning.