Posted by: James Wolfe, Press Attaché
I could barely make out what the announcer was saying on a quiet radio in a noisy coffee shop when I heard the first reports of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center and there being a fire. Those first reports on radio were not delivered with much urgency, as many assumed as I did that one of the many small tourist planes and helicopters that flew around Manhattan had been involved in an accident. I left the shop on Connecticut Avenue near the Van Ness-UDC Metro station and walked on toward Howard University Law School, more curious than alarmed. As Trade Policy Officer in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, I was one of the Department’s main liaisons to the Free Trade Agreement negotiations between the United States of America and the Republic of Chile, which were beginning their second day of a week of talks hosted at the university.
When I arrived in the front lobby of the building where the negotiating groups were meeting, my colleague, Chris, asked me if I’d heard the news – a second plane had just hit the other tower. We immediately looked at each other and simultaneously uttered the same two words: “Al Qaeda.” One plane could be an accident; two was an attack. We had served together a few years earlier in Bosnia, while the war’s devastation was still fresh and violence still reared its head; and we were still there during the NATO action against Serbia in defense of the Kosovar Albanians. As we stared at the small black and white screen of the TV in the security guard’s booth and saw the Twin Towers burn, it felt like we were suddenly back in that element. And the news started to report a plane striking the Pentagon in DC, with at least one other plane in the sky still unaccounted for, possibly headed our way. There were even rumors of a car bomb at the State Department, although these soon proved to be false. As we prepared to head over to the lead negotiator’s room to decide whether to send everyone home, the guard announced that the South Tower had just fallen. Two months earlier, I’d stood there with my wife, her parents, and her nephew. Now it was gone.
The talks were cancelled for the day, with everyone fearful of what might come next. Another plane aimed at DC? Bombs or other attacks planned for the Metro? As government buildings in DC were ordered to evacuate and people told to go home, businesses and schools did likewise, and Howard U went along with this, so that talks could not have continued even if we’d wanted; and no one did. We soon learned that the day was already considered a dark one for Chileans, being the anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup against President Salvador Allende. Many on the delegation were among those whose families had been in exile or suppressed during Pinochet’s 15-year dictatorship. Their sense of isolation from the families thousands of miles away in Santiago was acute. Our first concern as their hosts became to help them return to their hotel in a city where the Metro was considered a possible target for more attacks, taxis were not available, and most workers were evacuating. We rounded up enough cars among the US negotiators with some difficulty (many, like me, had ridden Metro that day) and managed to return them to their hotel before heading home ourselves. Chris gave me a ride most of the way to my apartment in Foggy Bottom, ten blocks from the White House. Virtually all traffic was going the other way.
My wife was home when I arrived and we spent much of the next couple hours glued to the TV and trying to call friends in New York City to make sure they were all right (it would be three days before I heard that my friend who worked in the World Trade Center had left her job a couple weeks earlier). We also fielded countless calls from friends and family around the United States and from Europe, all wanting assurances that we were OK. Mobile phone service was down most of the day, with the circuits overwhelmed by callers seeking news of loved ones. We finally decided we needed a break and went for a walk through Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, and over to Memorial Bridge, where we could see the smoke rising from the nearby Pentagon. The streets were mostly deserted, almost like on a snow day. Almost. It struck us immediately that there were armored military vehicles and soldiers with weapons on most intersections. Once again I had this feeling of displacement, as though I’d been transported back to the streets of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. It was clear that the world had just changed for the United States of America.
We resumed trade negotiations with the Chileans at Howard the next day. What else could we do? Life had to go on and their delegation was stuck there, as all airports remained closed for the next few days. I had planned to host the Chilean delegation on behalf of the State Department as a Baltimore Orioles baseball game during the week, but all cultural and sporting events were canceled during those early days, so they were deprived of that distraction. In the end, I got a refund from the Orioles and we provided them with a tour bus and tickets for the National Aquarium in Baltimore so they were not stuck mired in their anxiety in the hotel. That weekend, the Chilean delegation was among the first to fly out of Washington Dulles International Airport. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (much closer to the city) remained closed for weeks; I was among those to land there in the first days it reopened, coincidentally returning from Chile, and the place was like a ghost town, mostly deserted.
Washington remains a changed place since September 11, with greater security in most government and other public buildings, but we have fortunately moved past the uncertainty and fear that gripped so many those first days and in the weeks and months that followed. Gone are the frequent announcements of heightened security alerts, reports of anthrax mailed to government offices, and fears of riding the Metro. Bin Laden is dead. But people don’t forget that the United States cannot consider itself untouchable. And as we complain about how unpleasant airport security has become, thanks to September 11 and those terrorists who have attempted to add to its legacy, we know there is no return to the easier times of September 10, 2001, and before. I feel fortunate that my family and friends were not among the thousands of victims that day, but each year at this time I remember my sorrow for all those who were lost and my gratitude to the Chileans for being there, our duties as their hosts giving us no choice but to go on.