The Remains of the Day

11 Sep 2001
September 11, 2001

What can I say?

9:30. I was at the Renwick Gallery, which is right across from the White House, for a press preview for a new exhibit our museum is opening this week (at least was scheduled to open). Someone mentioned the WTC had been hit by two planes. I went downstairs to watch the news. Soon thereafter I decided to take the subway back to my office. I walked about 3 blocks to the Metro station but didn’t notice anything odd. Normal crowds and traffic.

10:00. By the time I got back to the office everyone was watching the TV. I called my daughter’s daycare, which is at the Smithsonian, to see if they were closing. I was told they weren’t planning on it at the moment but that many office buildings were being shut. I heard reports of fires on the National Mall. That was enough for me. By this time rumors of the crash at the Pentagon were just starting to surface. It just kept getting worse and visions of Oklahoma City became startling clear.

10:05. I called my wife and we decided to pick my daughter up. At that time we weren’t sure of the situation. It seemed bad but the magnitude of today’s events were still unfolding. While information was rising to the surface, my realization of its extent took longer to process. I was reminded of another tragedy I witnessed, decades ago.

While playing with my sister outside our house I looked up and saw a small plane literally fall from the sky. My sister started to cry and a neighbor ran out of her house yelling at me for scaring her. The plane fell into a backyard swimming pool, a few blocks away, while some children were having a birthday party. I ran there, still wearing the official looking ribbon I had been given at cub scouts the weekend before. I pretended to be in charge. I thought, by staring at it, I had made the plane crash.

I figured, despite the day’s events, that work would continue in a normal fashion so my wife decided to take the Metro downtown and meet my daughter and I at my office to take her home. I would, in the mean time, make the 20 minute walk to the school to retreive her.

10:15. After a few blocks it was clear the whole town was shutting down. There was gridlock in every direction and many were walking (walking away from the Mall). I began to regret telling my wife to come downtown. I wasn’t even sure the Metro was working. I heard snippits of fellow pedestrians’ conversations as I passed them, expressing their fears of another attack in the subway below.

10:18. I wasn’t really afraid until I heard military jets directly overhead.

10:30. When I got to the school it was shutting down. Parents were rushing in and out with their children. A group of parents from another daycare had been told their children had been brought to ours (but I don’t think that was the case). I was glad to see my daughter’s happy face. She was blissfully unaware of the tragedy.

10:50. It took another 20 minutes for us to get back to my office. She kept asking why all the people were walking down the streets. What do you say to a three year old? By the time I’d gotten back to our building it was empty. I was lucky to get back into my office to get my backpack and other personal things. We waited outside for my wife.

As soon as she arrived we were asked to move away from an abandoned truck by a secret service and security officer. We quickly moved away. When we entered the Metro, surprisingly, it was empty. We’d missed the initial exodus.

11:30. When we got home I had two frantic messages from my sister in California. Called her immediately. Just got a call from friends in San Francisco. She started crying when we finally answered the phone. We remembered when, in 1989, I was the first to get through to them after the earthquake and even fill them in on what was happening there.

What can I say?

2 replies
  1. Chris says:

    Interesting reading, it really puts me there. Some questions – why did you ask your wife to come into the city?? Where was your other daughter? Why did you have to wait for your wife outside your office?
    It’s such an important day, just wanted to know these details. Thanks.

  2. Jeff says:

    Chris, thanks.
    I asked my wife to come in to get our youngest because, at the time, I (along with most) totally miscalculated the situation. As soon as I walked outside, though, I could see the whole city was closing down.
    My other daughter was at a different school in a different place, away from the action.
    For more stories of that day from others, take a look at “Dichotomy: It Was a Matter of Time and Place:”

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