From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

A Day in D.C.

We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance.

Harrison Ford

“Don’t go, Mom,” my ten-year-old daughter pleads while she watches me pack my bag for Washington, D.C. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” I have to go, I try to explain, I have an important meeting on Tuesday, September 11.

At the airport, I walk into the jetway to board the American Airlines plane and glance back. My nearly teenage son waits to leave the gate. I give him a reassuring look—the kind that says everything will be all right—and take a deep breath. I, too, am having second thoughts.

As my flight approaches Reagan National Airport, I am in awe by the sight of our majestic national monuments piercing the darkness of the warm night in a bath of glorious light. This is my first trip to our nation’s capital—my first business trip for an editorial position that I have had merely five months.

Early Tuesday morning, September 11, I find myself in the House office buildings participating in my employer’s lobbying effort. As we ride the elevator, a legislative aide says that a plane has hit the World Trade Center and there is a “big hole in the side of the building.” Although I question for details, he only knows this. I make a mental note to watch the evening news.

By 9:20 that morning, a coworker and I are walking toward the Senate office buildings for my scheduled meeting with the senator. We hear a noise that makes us look at each other and ask, “What was that?” We glance around. No one seems concerned, so we walk on toward Capitol Hill.

Near the Capitol, we stop to take photographs and watch a senator give a press conference. Our diversion is interrupted by the frantic screams of a woman, desperately calling out a name. My first thought was that she had lost a child. Trouble seems to be stirring—something is wrong.

We step closer to the Capitol and listen to a man in a military uniform give a press interview. We are shocked to hear him say that the Pentagon is on fire as he gestures in the direction of a dark tongue of smoke in the near distance.

Then a woman runs by crying uncontrollably—with a cell phone to her ear and a hand over her mouth. In the chaos, I look in every direction—trying to figure out what is happening. Reporters and cameramen are sprinting out of the Capitol, and they keep running. Then we hear shouts again—this time from security guards and police officers.

“Run!” the guards command with exaggerated arm motions pointing away from the Capitol. “Run!”

People scramble, scanning the sky for an unseen danger. A stranger tells us that it was a plane that hit the Pentagon, that a low-flying aircraft was in the area and they think that the Capitol might be a potential target.

We run. We are not positive from what, but clearly know that we are in the wrong place. My heart thumps in my chest, and I wish this wasn’t happening.

The world around me is surreal. My thoughts swirl from the illogical—wondering if this means my appointment with the senator was off—to horrific visions of foreign airplanes dive-bombing our nation’s monuments. In the numbing confusion, my mind fills in its own answers—answers straight out of wartime movies. I struggle to fight back visions of the entire city being leveled.

Many blocks away, the crowds slow to a walk and people look around. I notice two uniformed guards, who seem like the right people to ask just what on earth is going on. They tell us the Twin Towers in New York City were “hit,” the Pentagon was “hit,” and they had heard that the White House Old Executive Office Building was “hit” as well. I gasp. We were just at that part of the White House! (Later that day, I would learn the information about the White House was, of course, incorrect.)

Then the guards tell us the horrific news, that those planes that crashed in New York City and D.C. were hijacked American commercial airliners, filled with passengers. Unbelievable. I pause for a moment, slowly realizing that the smoke I saw coming from the Pentagon was wreckage where many innocent people just died. I say a silent prayer.

This was beyond belief. I wonder if the entire nation is under full attack. I begin to think that I just may not make it out of this city alive and grab my cell phone to call my husband. The call doesn’t go through. I then try to call other coworkers in D.C. No use—none of the cell phones seem to be working. I ask myself: All this for a job?

I continuously hit the redial button on my cell phone and clearly understand why people in dangerous situations call home. The feeling is overwhelming to communicate one last message—to let your loved ones know you’re fine . . . or not fine. I want to tell someone what is happening and how much I hate being where I am now. I want to tell my kids that I am sorry for not heeding their warning not to go. Then I wonder if those airliner passengers tried to call home too.

We begin to walk, following the crowds, but to where we don’t know. Police officers are directing traffic. We walk by a senator who had gathered together what appeared to be his office staff. We stop for a moment to see if we can glean any more information, then walk on.

At a traffic light, my coworker recognizes a congressman who has rolled down his vehicle window and is talking with people—telling them the latest information as he knew it. My coworker urges me to take his photograph and I suddenly remember—I am a journalist. For a brief second, I wonder if I should head back into the action for “a story.” Images of my family fill my mind, and I immediately know that I am not a hard-core reporter.

The streets are crowded with honking cars, and sirens blare everywhere. I begin to cross, and my coworker yanks on my arm as a car speeds recklessly around the corner. The irony—would I survive this morning, only to be hit by a car?

Yet the people in the streets were surprisingly calm and orderly—following the police officers’ directions. My coworker and I head back to our hotel and regroup with the others.

The first thing nearly everyone does is phone home—to get word out that we are all right. I felt desperate to have my children know that their mother is alive, and I need assurance that they, too, are okay.

Crowds gather around any available television to watch the horrific events unfold before our eyes and to comfort one another.

I go to the lounge and find it full of people, their eyes glued to the television. I am asked if I’d like a glass of wine. No, I reply, I need something a little stronger today—the news report had just flashed a list of commercial aircraft unaccounted for. We feel like “sitting ducks.” We wonder what this might be the beginning of—or what might come next. Our hotel is in the same building as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal office buildings surround us. I want out of there.

As the afternoon drags on, I cannot sit idly in my hotel room. I walk, observe people playing cards in the lobby, and make my way to the rooftop pool to look around the city. Several people are swimming, as if it were a normal day. A plane flies over and people cringe. “It’s just our fighter jets,” a man loudly calls out to the group on the roof.

On the street corner, a family with packed suitcases holds a sign with their anticipated destination—desperately trying to find a way out of town. Several groups with their buses readily available are boarding and leaving town.

Back at the hotel room, my coworker arranges for our own quick departure via Amtrak. There is no way either of us will get back on an airplane any time soon—especially on the East Coast. I wonder how this day has changed the world in which we live.

I don’t sleep that night. At 1:00 the next morning, six of us pile into a taxi that takes us to Union Station to catch the 3:00 A.M. train home. The sooner we leave D.C. the better.

Many long hours later, the train pulls into the midwestern farm town where my family awaits me. I am back home. I step off the train, grab my children and hug them . . . as if I have been given a second chance. Yes, it is going to be all right.

Maria Miller Gordon

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