Posted by: N. Kumar Lakhavani, Information Management Specialist
On the morning of 9/11/2001, I flew from Greensboro, NC, to Washington, DC, for the day as that was the day I was supposed to meet with the Director of the Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP) at the Department of State. This was a big day for me, as the Director would be guiding my next steps to be part of the Department of State. I took a 6 AM flight and arrived at Reagan National Airport around 7:20 AM. My appointment was not until 11:00 AM so I thought I would sit in the Delta Crown Room and do some work before my appointment.
Around 9:00 AM, a friend of mine called me from Connecticut on my cell phone and said a plane crashed into the Twin Towers; you better go and have a look. I gulped my coffee down quickly and walked over to a TV monitor to see the situation first hand. Sure enough a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. I had managed projects in the metro New York area and knew that there were a lot of small private planes flying in the city all the time. The thought never occurred to me that the United States was under attack. You see, last time we had an attack on our soil was Pearl Harbor – that was 1941. Most of us were not even born then. Most Americans don’t even know how it feels to be attacked on our own soil.
So thinking that I had never seen anyone attack my country, my initial thought was ‘some new pilot does not know how to fly a plane and by mistake crashed it into one of the Twin Towers.’ It was about 9:02 AM then and I walked back, called back my friend Bob Cattel, and told him I thought this was just an accident. As I turned the corner to get some coffee, I saw the TV screen again and saw a second plane hit the Twin Towers. To my surprise, my mind still thought, ‘Oh another person who does not know how to fly a plane.’ So far from the truth that was being played out live on television right in front of millions of viewers.
About 9:25 AM, we were told that Reagan National Airport was being closed. So I picked up my laptop bag and called down to Hertz, where I had a rental car booked to go to the Department of State at Foggy Bottom, to confirm I still had a car to go. I was thinking maybe, just maybe I can go to the Department of State and wait there. No answer at Hertz Customer Service desk at Reagan National Airport, so I decided that I could just take the metro to Foggy Bottom and walk to Main State. As I walked out of the airport, I realized there were hundreds and thousands of people walking out of the airport. Walking on the platform to catch the metro, I realized it was a cool crisp September morning and the sky was blue. I jumped on the metro and it moved towards Crystal City, Pentagon City and the Pentagon. I did not know that while I was on the metro a third plane had hit the Pentagon. The metro train pulled under the Pentagon, waited a minute, and started moving backwards towards Reagan Airport.
I still could not figure out what was wrong. Like I said earlier, if you have never been attacked, you do not know how it feels to be attacked. Many of us felt that way. By nature, we Americans are trusting people and most of us could not even imagine why anyone would want to attack us. We help people, we give aid all over the world, and we share our knowledge of medicine, science, technology, agriculture, clean water, etc. etc. etc. with the world; why would anyone want to attack us?
Once we got back to the Reagan National Airport metro stop, you could smell the air filled by jet fuel from the plane that had hit the Pentagon just a few minutes before. This smell was strong and pungent. You could even see the smoke rising from the Pentagon. My mind was wondering and I was slowly coming to a realization that our country was under attack.
I walked back to the Hertz counter where hundreds of people were trying to rent a car. Most people were probably trying to get home to their loved ones in the New York area as the New York Shuttle was cancelled, just like all other planes were grounded. Luckily, I was able to walk up to the 2nd floor and get in my car to drive. Coming out of Reagan National Airport was slow, as the traffic was gridlocked. I was listening to the radio, which was even more scary as the radio was announcing that there was a bomb explosion outside of the Capitol and the Department of State (later I found out these reports were not true). While seeing hundreds of people walking aimlessly with their bags (from the airport), I found an older couple who had two bags a piece in their hands. This couple looked like they were in their 70’s. I got to thinking that these could be my mom and dad so I stopped and asked them where they were going and offered them a ride. They were just looking for a working phone to call their son to let him know where they were. We tried frantically to reach their son using my mobile phone but all lines were jammed and we could not get through. We drove for about half an hour and finally made it to the Marriott, Crystal City (less than a mile away). I took that older couple inside the lobby so they could have a place to sit and feel a little safer and perhaps could use the hotel’s landline. They said a prayer for me and I was on my way out, still thinking I could make it to my appointment at 11:00 AM.
Once I got back in the car there was no going anywhere. All the roads were blocked by cars trying to get somewhere. The District was closed by then and people were trying to get home by any means they could, even walking from the District. Right about that time my mobile phone rang. A friend of mine was calling from North Carolina and wanted to know how I was doing. She knew this was my ‘big day at the Department of State’ and was also worried if I was okay. She worked for USAirways Corporate Headquarters, which was at that time less than half a mile from where I was. She also had a corporate apartment within walking distance. She requested that I go by the corporate office, pick up her apartment key and try to sit down and watch on TV what was happening. I was able to stop by her office, pick up her keys and went to her apartment. Once I got in and turned on the TV, I had no idea what I was seeing.
The United States was under attack. The World Trade Center was destroyed and thousands of people were missing in the wreckage. The Pentagon had been hit by the terrorists and there was another plane in the air. That was the plane which later came down in Shanksville, PA, thanks to some brave passengers who had learned about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on their cell phones and took matters into their own hands. I was seeing the news and tears were coming down on my face. I could hardly believe that the World Trade Center had been destroyed and that so many innocent people may have lost their lives. Then I saw live pictures from the Pentagon, where the third plane had hit and I was praying for people in that building also.
I knew there was no way that I could go into the District now for my appointment. I could see from the windows that traffic was barely moving. Since I had a car, I was thinking about driving home to Greensboro (about 280 miles or 450 km). Right about that time, the phone rang. There were employees of USAirways calling to see how I was doing. I informed them that I was okay and was thinking of driving back home. Since air traffic had been stopped, there were several employees of USAirways who were looking for rides to the Winston-Salem area. I thought it would be a good idea if I could give them a ride. This would give us a chance to hold each other up and get home safely. So I offered them a ride. By this time it was about two in the afternoon. Four employees of USAirways arrived and then we started driving back to North Carolina.
It was a long drive home as we listened to the radio, talked about the day and what this may mean to our country. There were tears shed by all for our country, for those who perished, for those on the planes, for those in the World Trade Center, for those in the Pentagon, for the family members, and for friends. Many prayers were said for the United States and Americans who persevered this day. It was a long drive home!
We finally made it to Greensboro that night around 10 PM.
My life was changed forever that day!