Where I Was That Day

by Abby on September 9, 2011

American flagI had started a new job a few months prior, and had just moved to Northern Virginia from Baltimore. I had not yet adjusted to the Washington, DC area, the traffic, or the job. It was my first position at a big company, AOL, and I sat in a sea of cubicles on the second floor of a renovated airplane hangar a few miles from Dulles International Airport.

Since I was new, I was still getting to work early, so I was at my desk by 8:30 that morning. I remember someone in the cubicles across the hall had a TV on turned up really loud. I IM’ed my coworker to make a complaining joke about it. Then someone said, “Oh my God, an airplane hit the World Trade Center!” We all shuffled over to the TV to watch the news coverage. Within minutes, the other plane hit the second tower, and the confusion began. What happened? What was going on? Was it a freak accident? Or…?

I ran back to my desk to phone my then-boyfriend who was working in a high-rise in Arlington, VA, just across the Potomac River from DC. As we were talking he looked out his window and shouted, “A fireball just exploded over the Pentagon!” What I remember most clearly about that moment is that I suddenly understood the phrase “my knees buckled.” At the same time, the floor beneath me began to shake with the pounding of feet. As strange as it sounds, the incongruity of people running through the office and shouting was scarier than anything happening outside those walls.

It’s hard to explain just how fast and furious the information – and misinformation – was flying at that point. Remember, this was a global internet company. There was speculation about the next possible targets – the White House, Dulles airport, the USA Today building, OUR building. After all, the company name was AMERICA Online and we were right near an international airport. A coworker and I quickly decided to leave together and go to her apartment a few miles away. I left my car at work. On our way there, I called my parents. They had no idea anything was going on.

When I got to my coworker’s house, we stayed glued to the TV, watching the constant coverage. She made us grilled cheese sandwiches. We called everyone we could think of. At some point, I decided to make my way back home to Arlington to meet my boyfriend. Strangely, the Metro was running, though the trains were virtually empty.

Back in Arlington, we walked over to the Iwo Jima Memorial, the highest point in town. Another thing I will never forget is how beautiful that day was – a crisp, sunny, late-summer day. The park’s lush, green lawns spread out around us, dotted with other people here and there, the deep blue sky unnaturally silent since all the planes were grounded at nearby Reagan National Airport. Eerie is the best way to describe it.

Over the next few days, it seemed everyone had a story. Everyone knew someone who was there, who was supposed to be there, who made it out, who didn’t. I heard stories of people who were scheduled to be on those flights but missed them, of meetings at the Twin Towers that had been cancelled the day before, of receiving belated faxes from people who had died. A mom and her young daughter from my hometown died on one of the planes, my husband’s college classmate was trapped in an elevator in one of the towers and broke a rib escaping. The stories go on and on.

I would like to say that I had a big epiphany after 9/11, like so many other people. That I realized I had to stop wasting my life at an unfulfilling job, go back to writing, move back to Baltimore, marry my boyfriend. I did all of those things, but it took a while, and I can’t say they were direct results of 9/11.

Pentagon after 9/11What I did do was sign up for a writing class. On Tuesday evenings after work, I would drive past the charred remains of the Pentagon crash, illuminated at night like some ancient ruin. Consciously or not, I began planning my next move, writing the next chapter of my life’s story. But this particular story I have never written down until now. It’s one I don’t think anyone who experienced it will ever forget.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lou Mello September 9, 2011 at 6:27 am

I am still unable to read anyone’s story about that day without getting emotional, I shared some thoughts on Kim’s post a couple of days ago and won’t repeat those other than to say it was a day of great sadness. Sad for those families that lost Mothers & Fathers, sisters and brothers; sad for the fact that we still can’t figure out how to get along without killing ourselves in the name of whatever. What I took from that day is a determination to do good each day, follow the Golden Rule and seek peace in my own little area of the world.

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Abby September 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Love this, Lou: “What I took from that day is a determination to do good each day, follow the Golden Rule and seek peace in my own little area of the world.” We may not be able to change the world, but we certainly can impact our little piece of it.

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Kathleen Basi September 9, 2011 at 8:56 am

The amazing thing about days like that is how the trivial details that you noticed BEFORE The Moment stick with you so closely. I remember driving to work that morning and thinking what a gorgeous day. I specifically remember a certain set of trees along the interstate that turn gorgeous colors, and how I was looking at them to see if they’d begun to turn.

I was working in the Catholic school providing music for school Masses, and that was a lower-grade Mass day, with adoration at the end. The attack was all over by the time I found out about it, because I was in church all the way through. But I remember this little second grader sitting at the edge of the pew with his legs swinging because they were too short to reach the ground, and chuckling and choking up over it. The weirdest detail to remember, so totally unconnected. I debated doing this prompt this week and eventually decided not to, because here in my midwestern town, what could I really have to offer? But that detail continues to leap to the front every time I think of 9/11.

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Abby September 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm

That sounds like a great place to be on 9/11, Kate. It is interesting how those little details stick with you.

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Kim September 9, 2011 at 9:45 am

I’ve been reading the stories shared online for some time now about people impacted by 9/11 and it is always a hard thing to do. Reading this post made tears come to my eyes and it made me realize that each person carries not only their own story around inside them, but the stories of so many other lives that were lost or impacted by 9/11. Thank you Abby for showing me this. And for sharing with us that by carrying the stories of others in our hearts we are given the strength to pursue the things in life that really matter to us.

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Malia Jacobson September 9, 2011 at 9:58 am

Great minds think alike! I just posted on this same topic last night. I was at my job as a sales manager at a hotel in Beverly Hills. The hotel’s operations were frozen, because no one could fly in or out, so people were stranded and confused. It was such a strange day. It’s very interesting how we collectively share such a powerful memory, but each person’s memory is uniquely colored by surroundings and stage in life on that day.

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Abby September 9, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, Kim & Malia. I just went & read your posts, too. It is really interesting to me how each person’s experience and memory of that day was so different.

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Angie September 9, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I think how your friend made grilled cheese sandwiches explains how it was for a lot of people that day. It was scary and surreal. After a day of covering the news, I went with friends to a local bar. I was drinking a beer while watching the video of those people jumping out of the Twin Towers. I can’t say I had an epiphany, either, and I’m full of epiphanies. As I said, it was scary and surreal. But I still can’t imagine what it would be like to be that close. But your story explains it pretty well. Thank you for sharing, Abby. I clung to every word.

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Shannon @ AnchorMommy September 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm

I love that you finally wrote all this down – what a story! How frightening to be in D.C. that day! I had just started a new job too, as a TV producer, and was ironing some pants to wear to work. My future mother-in-law called to tell me to turn on the TV and I was stunned by what I was seeing. Then work called me in early, and we produced a special extended evening newscast. We also reported on a friend of mine, who was in NYC and was supposed to be in the Twin Towers that morning, but decided to work out instead. Such an emotional day, for everyone. It took me weeks to stop feeling out-of-sorts.

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D Bianchi September 12, 2011 at 11:41 am

The whole thing just seemed to unreal. So ‘movie like’. So ‘not real’. Each year as I watch the footage or read the stories my heart breaks more. It makes you realize these were real people just like us in a virtual war zone. This year seeing the kids of 9/11 was especially tough. There are so many stories, so many people. I have avoided Ground Zero for ten years. This year while in the city I found myself downtown. It was so eerie, so sad, so unbelievable that such sadness and horror happened right there.

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