Posted by: Eric A. Johnson, Counselor for Public Affairs
Every American who is old enough to have finished school today remembers where he or she was on 9/11. This terrorist attack on the United States was such a shock to our system that the day became seared into everyone’s memory in much the same way that everyone from my parents’ generation remembers what they were doing when they learned that John F. Kennedy had been shot or everyone of my grandparents’ generation remembers where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked. In this way, I’m no different than every other American as I remember where I was and what I was doing on that day. It is something that we all share in common and it has made us into the Americans that we are today.
On the morning of 9/11, I was at Washington, D.C.’s National Airport waiting to catch my Delta flight to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City in order to make my onward connection to Russia. After spending a week at the State Department for training, I was headed back to my job at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. As I waited for my flight to be announced, someone sitting next to me got a call from a friend of theirs in New York telling them that the World Trade Center had just been hit by a plane. Within minutes, Delta announced that our flight to New York City had been delayed. Along with several fellow passengers, I went in search of a TV to see if there was any more information on what seemed to be a freak accident. And I started wondering if we would be flying up to New York that morning.
As we puzzled at the live TV feed from New York City showing a burning World Trade Center tower, everyone gasped as we watched a second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower. At that moment I realized that the two crashes were not accidents – I’ve always been skeptical of coincidences – but attacks. As I tried to figure out what to do, I looked out of the huge plate glass windows at National Airport and saw a plane flying over Washington, D.C. – something planes are not allowed to do as they are required to follow a flight path going either up or down the nearby Potomac River. With more and more flights being cancelled every moment and a sense of horror growing inside me, I decided to grab my bag and hurry away from the airport.
Because I made it out of National Airport before it was closed down, I was able to grab a taxi and tell the Middle Eastern driver to take me to my parent’s house across the river. The driver barely heard me as he was busy listening to the CB radio channel used by the city’s Arabic speaking cab drivers. As we headed north, the shocked driver announced: “they’re saying that the Pentagon has just been hit!” Moments later, we drove by the Pentagon to see clouds of black smoke billowing from one of its five sides.
When I finally made it home, I found my parents glued to the television set as they talked to my sister on the phone. On 9/11, my sister was working at New York University Law School and could see the burning towers of the World Trade Center from her office window. She described the horror as she watched people jump off the towers, preferring a quick fall to their deaths rather than being burned alive. When first one tower collapsed and then the second one, everything went silent.
With all flights cancelled, I spent the next few days at the State Department working with official foreign visitors who had been stranded in Washington, D.C. while I tried to get on a flight to Moscow as soon as Delta started flying again. Eventually, I was able to get a seat on a Delta flight out of New York City. As Washington’s National Airport was still closed (it stayed closed for over a month), I decided to take the Amtrak train up to New York and then take a taxi out to John F. Kennedy Airport. It was this fateful taxi ride which produced my most haunting memory of 9/11.
Because so many downtown New York streets were still closed, my cab driver had to take a long and roundabout road out to the airport. Along the way, we passed by three different fire stations. The doors to all three fire stations were open. All the fire engines from all three fire stations were gone. The sidewalks in front of all three fire stations were covered with flowers and candles. And the lights in all three fire stations were on waiting for their firemen to come home. But their firemen would never come home.
While everyone who could was busy running away from the twin towers of the World Trade Center, New York City’s firemen were busy running into the buildings to see if they could find anyone else who needed to be rescued. All told, 343 of New York City’s finest firemen died on 9/11 – more than ten percent of the total number of victims of the terrorist attacks. New York City was left almost without firemen. My cab driver explained: “all of the city’s fire stations are the same – empty.” As a result, anyone calling 9-1-1 (the basic emergency number) in order to report a fire would no longer be able to reach a New York City firefighter. Instead, their call was answered by one of the hundreds of volunteer firefighters from around the United States who drove their fire trucks to New York City to fill the huge void left behind by their fallen colleagues.
When I finally made it back to Moscow, I was touched to see how average Russian citizens shared in America’s grief: the sidewalk around the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was also covered with flowers and candles just like those around New York City’s fire stations.