Posted by: Ambassador John F. Tefft
September 11, 2001 is one of those days in history that all of us remember in detail. I was the U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania at the time and had gone back to Washington to participate in a meeting at the White House between Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and President George W. Bush. I had spent a very nice weekend in suburban Virginia with my daughters, Christine and Cathleen. Monday morning at 8:00am I went in to the State Department to prepare for that afternoon’s meeting with the Presidents. At 8:46am the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Someone in the Office of Baltic Affairs turned on the TV shortly afterward and we watched live as the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03am. When the second plane hit and it was clear this was a terror attack and not an accident, my first reaction was, “Oh my God, my daughter in New York City!” My eldest daughter, Christine, lived in an apartment due west of Manhattan in Brooklyn, just one or two blocks off of the East River. She had returned to New York on the train late Sunday night. Her daily commute on the subway normally brought her right underneath the World Trade Center on her way to her law office in Midtown. Thank God, I was able to get through to her on her cell phone. I was never so happy that she kept lawyers’ hours, going into work a little bit later than most people, but of course working late every night. Had she gone just a little bit earlier she could have been on the subway when the towers crashed down. Christine told me that the smoke blowing west from Manhattan to Brooklyn was already so thick that she had to put towels underneath her doors and windows to keep the room from filling with choking smoke.
During this time, after the second plane hit in New York City, I was also able to call my younger daughter, Cathleen, who lived in Virginia and then talk to my wife, Mariella who had remained in Lithuania. I told her we were all safe in the United States. Mariella told me that she had been the first at the Embassy in Vilnius to learn of the tragedy. She had turned on the American Forces Network to watch the news and had been shocked to see what was happening. She then alerted other embassy families and the Chargé. She was very worried about all of us. Soon after calling my wife, the phones started going down. I could not reach my daughter in New York any more. Thankfully, I had been able to confirm everyone’s safety. I know many other families who were unable to communicate with their loved ones and who spent many frightening hours before they were able to get through.
Not long after making these phone calls, we heard and felt an explosion, the third plane crashing into the Pentagon at 9:37am. I immediately told everyone around me “it’s time to get out.” This was a terrorist attack in Washington. We were locking things up and preparing to leave, when the alarm sounded to evacuate the building. The word came down that we should try to get home. I was staying two blocks away in a hotel. I went back to my room and watched TV for hours mesmerized like everyone around the world by the horrible things I saw.
In the early evening, around 5:00pm, I received a call from the White House. Two foreign leaders, Lithuanian President Adamkus and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, were in Washington staying at hotels near the center of the city. Both were scheduled to meet with President Bush, on September 11 and 12 respectively. The White House had decided that it was best to get the two leaders and their entourages out of the United States. The United States airspace had been shut down immediately after the third plane hit the Pentagon. No commercial flights were allowed to take off. A special Learjet from the Pentagon was allowed to take President Adamkus to Iceland, where he would be picked up by a Lithuanian Airlines plane for the return trip to Vilnius. Prime Minister Howard was to be taken to Hawaii, then on a Qantas airplane to Australia. I was told there was room for me on the plane to accompany President Adamkus. I immediately accepted the invitation.
That night I went to search for dinner. There was no restaurant in my hotel and everything outside was closed. I ended up eating a candy bar. I walked around the empty streets of downtown Washington. The city was deserted. I remember in detail how empty, surreal, and eerie Washington looked and felt that night. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was hard to fathom what had occurred that day.
The next day I was picked up with the Lithuanian Presidential delegation and was taken to Andrews Air Force Base. We got on an airplane with seats that faced each other in the cabin and an oblong shaped window that afforded excellent views. We flew due north and passed just west of Manhattan at about 35,000 feet. It was a clear day and we could see the huge plumes of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center site. There was a Lithuanian videographer on the flight who photographed the scene. That night his extraordinary footage was featured on Lithuanian television, as a unique perspective of the terror attacks on the U.S.
After arriving in Vilnius, I went straight home and my wife, Mariella, greeted me with a kiss and a huge hug. It is at moments like these when you realize what is truly important in life. Then I went to the U.S. Embassy where hundreds of people had gathered by the wall and left flowers and candles. Many were still there standing in solidarity and praying.
Two days later, my security staff brought me a gift that had been left by a Lithuanian citizen. It was a wood carving of a figure which Lithuanians call “Rupintojelis”. It is a hand-carved statue of a seated, contemplative Jesus Christ. It is an important symbol of faith for all Lithuanians and symbolizes the tragedy of humanity weighing on Christ. On the bottom of the statue, the man who carved it and sent it to me wrote: “To His Excellency the Ambassador of the United States of America, the President, and the American people; the citizens of Lithuania are with you. With intelligence and wisdom you will save the world.” That statue has been on my desk every day since, at every post where I have served. It helps me to remember the horrible tragedy of September 11, to remember the outpouring of support and emotion by people in Lithuania and around the world, and to remember that if we do work together we can overcome evil and make this a more peaceful world.