safe and sound

plenty has been written about what happened on 9/11. people especially focus on what happened in NYC, as the sheer number of lives and the immense destruction of the twin towers is just overwhelming. but on this anniversary of one of the worst days we have ever known, i thought i’d share a glimpse of what life was like for a mom and her small child directly in the flight path toward the pentagon and DC. it’s something i perpetually need to exorcise.

tuesday morning, 9/11/01, started like any other tuesday. most tuesdays, BC, then almost 3, stayed home from her preschool in BS’s office building. i had negotiated that in my last job — tuesdays were my mommy and me days, and i ended up leaving that last job when my then-boss, a seriously unhappy person who had inherited me from my previous angel-of-a-boss, just didn’t like that i didn’t sit at my desk 80 hours/week.

anyway, like all tuesdays, we were off to our co-op at a local community center. BS had a meeting way up in Maryland that day, so he wasn’t going to be able to take BC in to school, anyway, so it was just as well she was home with me. i did what i always did at about 8:50 am — i plopped her on the couch, turned on the Today Show, and started to put on her shoes and socks. only that day, i was instantly transfixed by one of the Twin Towers on fire.  my aunt told me once that she occasionally helped a friend in the office downtown. i wondered immediately if she was there. i couldn’t move, though. just couldn’t. then, as i finally started to dial the phone,  i saw, live on TV, a second plane.  my heart immediately flipped into my throat: where’s my aunt?

i looked down at BC, who was messing about with something on the couch. oh my G-d, she musn’t see this, i thought. quickly, i clicked the TV off and ran back to the phone to call my aunt. no one was answering the phone. okay, okay, okay. don’t panic. don’t panic. i decided normalcy should be the order of the day. i quickly put BC’s shoes on, packed her into the car, and went off to the community center.

once we arrived, i saw moms huddled around a small television set. BC was the oldest in the co-op group (and has always been spookily emotionally astute), so i prayed she would get busy in the dress-up corner.  but just as we seemed to be finally calming ourselves down, we heard the worst: a plane had hit the pentagon. as in, the building just down the road apiece.

and to add ridiculous insult to injury, the rumors began to fly that there was another plane in the air; that a plane had hit rosslyn, the state department, the Capitol; that the water was going to be contaminated. and there we were, right in the middle of the national airport and dulles airport flight paths. everyone began to sob. mama, BC asked, why are all the mommies sad?

sucking in all the air i could, i replied: they’re just feeling very sad today, sweetheart. how on earth do you tell a 2.5 year old girl that the world is imploding all around and nothing feels safe? you can’t. you’re a parent: your job is to maintain their world of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, happy cartoons, and teddy bears. you keep a straight face, a stiff upper lip, locked knees, and a stout heart. accepting my answer, she toddled back to the other little kids, who were pretty much oblivious in that way that only toddlers can be.

this left me free to quietly freak out. i tried to call BS’s cell phone. first, he didn’t answer. then, the lines were all beeping dementedly. decision time, and its all down to me.

i decided to take my baby girl home.

once we arrived home, i declared it an ALL BARNEY DAY! little girl could not. believe. her. luck. i stacked the videos of the VJE (Vile Jurassic Entity) in our family room and prepared to play them, one by one. and then, if we ran out, i’d play them all again. she was only under three — at that age, they love to watch things repeatedly.

i then moved out to the sun room. i set the TV up to the news and began to field the calls, first from my mother (my aunt — her sister — was later found at her significant other’s apartment, safe and sound. but at that point, neither of us could find her, and we scared each other), then from my mother in law, then from a local friend who told me that i needed to fill up my bathtub in case they attacked the water company. (i dutifully filled up the bathtub, then locked the door so that little BC didn’t toddle in and drown.) no, i had no idea where my husband was. no, i didn’t know whether the planes were continuing to fall here, but i had heard they might. as we live in the flight path, i listened for any sounds of planes overhead; all i heard was an eerie silence.

i continued to watch the TV. i watched as my town’s firefighters, police, etc, swarmed at the pentagon, the first on the scene as it happened.  i hoped that my husband would come home, and soon. (he didn’t come home for hours: he had volunteered to drive three other people home, a drive on panic-riddled roads literally to the other side of maryland, then back again to virginia.) i prayed the carnage would end.

i was grateful that BC was home with me that day. on any other day, she would have been downtown. she would have been stranded, as BS was not at the office, left with the other children, children who had no food delivered to their daycare/preschool because the federal building was shutting things down due to the emergency. (the parents in the building banded together, bought all the pizza they could from the cafeteria, and brought it to the children.) with traffic snarled all around the city, i do not actually know how i would have gotten to her. i made a mental note to call my girlfriend, who worked with BS: should this ever happen again, please, please… take my child wherever you go.

and i sat, all alone, panic-striken, frozen, terrified i would jump out of my skin. but then, i’d see this little girl, her little blondey-boop-a-doop pony tail bopping around to there are seven days in the week. i had to keep her wrapped in cotton wool. there would be time later to talk about the truth (in her case, when she was eight), but for now, i had to be the strongest, most dependable mom on planet earth.

i tried my best; i really, really did. and i don’t think i have ever been so close to a nervous breakdown in my entire life. it took hours for BS to come home, and he told me how he had driven past the pentagon mere moments before the plane hit.  later, i would learn that the wife of a colleague of mine was on that plane. later, i would volunteer my yard to house one of the 184 trees in my county planted to memorialize the Pentagon victims. later, i would drive by the burnt-out Pentagon and catch my breath; later still, i would drive by the Pentagon and have to catch my breath again when i saw the incredible rebuilding progress.

it would take me years before i stopped looking up at the sky, wondering whether the plane would stay suspended in the air or whether it would fall on my home, ending everthing in an instant. it would take me years before i would feel comfortable sending my children back to school in a federal building, especially one so close to the Capitol. it would take me years before i would get used to seeing SWAT teams occasionally atop places like the Dept of Justice or FBI (mercifully, no longer) or occasional armed army guys in the Metro.  it would take me years to get used to concrete barricades around my children’s playgrounds; it would take longer still for me to grasp the contingency plans we’d have to make in case something threatened the FBI building catty-corner to the playground –things like shrapnel, pieces of building falling into the place where kids on slides might be. it would take me years before i felt okay living so close to the Nation’s Capitol.

it would take me years before i would feel safe and sound.

and then again, only slightly.

21 thoughts on “safe and sound

  1. Wow, you’re right, BC *would* have been stranded. I remember that they blocked entry to DC from MD & VA, because “nobody needs access to Federal buildings.” It was like the administrators forgot that people LIVE in DC. AJS and I lived in DC, he worked in VA and I didn’t see him until late that night because he couldn’t get across the river. He hung out with my grandfather and came home when he could.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Wreke.

  2. Every year on Sept 11, I hope for pouring rain, because I HATE looking out at a clear blue sky. I remember calling Ed (within spitting distance of the capitol!) as soon as I heard the first tower was hit and telling him to leave, NOW!, because it did not seem possible that it was random, and I figured when sh*t hit the fan, the capitol could be in real danger. Being less panicky than me, he stayed, until finally they were all told to go home. I kept tennis shoes under my desk for years so that I had a comfortable pair of walking shoes to go home in, and if those rains don’t come on September 11 that I hope for? I ride my bike into work. Just can’t shake the day. And I didn’t even have kids then, which ups the ante a hundred fold.

  3. Thank you for sharing. I was teaching in DC and my junior high school students all wanted their parents (of course, they knew what they were watching when the tvs in all the classrooms were tuned to CNN and they saw the 2nd plane hit, as much as any of us did at that moment: chaos and fear) — I cannot imagine how protective of a young 3yo child I would have been. I kept slapping the tv off amidst announcements from the office to turn it back on… parents were unable to reach their kids bz after all cell phones were forbidden, and our school was in lockdown — no one in or out for hours. And yet, of course, we were all so very lucky — unlike the teachers we knew who were in flight that day.

  4. Wow, makes me want to write about my experiences. And maybe I will. I sit in my office right now, overlooking the site and it is quite eerie. The construction is halted for today and there are ceremonies. They read the names of everyone who died on that day. I used to be able to hear that from my window, but this year they moved to another place.

    Working in NYC you learn to kind of put this out of your mind, especially working across the street from the Trade Center Cite, but the police and armed forces that you see in places like Penn Station are always there to remind you.

  5. I don’t think any of us will really comprehend the amount of devistation. My brother was living just blocks from the towers. He took photos from his window. Later that day, he and his GF went to St. Vincent’s hospital to donate blood for the survivors. The hospital turned them away, too many volunteers, no survivors. He said the street was lined with every gurney and cot the hospital could find, even office chairs covered in sheets, all lined up and down and ready for survivors who would not be recovered Instead, they went to buy sandwiches to hand out to firemen, police and volunteers. Meantime, schools here in central Jersey were under a huge dilemma. They didn’t know how many latch-key kids were going to empty homes, to parents who either could have been killed, and many thousands more just “stuck” in the city unable to get home.

    In my opinion, the news reports never show enough of the story. The stacks and stacks of paper that came raining down after the plans struck. Job applications, memos, proposals, piles of documents, people’s careers, people’s livlihoods, people’s lives. People hanging from the windows waving frantically for help that couldn’t come. The dozens of people who jumped to their deaths. The families roaming the streets with the “Have you seen my husband/wife/son/daugher/mom/dad/friend?” signs. The people lining the streets holding up signs of encouragement for the resuce workers, saying “We ran out while you ran in” and “God Bless You”. The eerie silence in the sky, no air traffic for days. The marquees and sandwich boards outside stores changed to “God Bless America” or “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave”. The sudden spike in sales of American flags.

    Out of the tragedy, people came together. At least for a little while.

    PS We fly our flag every day.

  6. What a powerful recall of that day. It was scary enough here in Michigan, which was spared. I cannot imagine being in the bull’s eye target.

  7. And on September 12 we got extra carseats and officially became each other’s #1 emergency backup as I recall… I still can’t process through that day…with me in DC (felt the windows shake when the pentagon was struck), my brother 1/4 mile from WTC…he saw things that day that I can’t even talk about. I lived in a BWI flight path at the time — the sound of no planes is such an eerie silence. Planes are something you don’t even know you hear until it’s not there. Growing up in NY, so many of my friends and family work in NYC – the waiting and not knowing…UGH. My dad – poor man – had one kid in NYC and one kid in Washington — with no phone contact to either, and him knowing we both went into those buildings on occasion.

    I remember being at Disney a year or two later and there were huge delays on the monorail for some reason. This irate woman next to me said “this is worse than what it was like here on 9/11 — you can’t imagine a worse place to be that day.” My brother and I looked at her — literally speechless– and seeing our expressions she said “well, where were YOU that day?” My brother eeked out “about a quarter of a mile from Ground Zero” and I stammered “3 miles from the Pentagon.” Stupid Cow.

    The History Channel has quite a good documentary called “The 102 minutes that changed America” — it’s just tons of video footage from Joe Regular People — no annoying commentary — just a small insight into what it was like in lower Manhattan that day.

  8. It is a day I will never forget. I had to go teach and the whole time I was in front of the class, I just wanted to be in front of the TV like the rest o the country.

  9. and not dancing queen, you are that friend mentioned above:

    >>i made a mental note to call my girlfriend, who worked with BS: should this ever happen again, please, please… take my child wherever you go.

    thank you for sticking around until jools graduated 🙂 BS will have to fend for himself 😉

  10. 9/11/01. One of the very first days that I was not in the same building as my dear son. He had only been a few staircases away, from the time he was 4 months old until 9/4/01, when he went to kindergarten. Dear daughter was in the building, within reach, but my firstborn was miles away and unattainable. DH was teaching only blocks from the White House that day, and I did not hear his voice until that afternoon. Bless him, he took a pregnant coworker home that day–she lived up in Maryland somewhere.

    I will never forget looking out the window and seeing men in military gear and automatic weapons, standing guard in the street outside the building.

    I was hoping that I’d wake up from the nightmare, and I could chalk the vision up to Mommy jitters.

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