September 11 was my first disaster. I had just arrived in Washington DC by coach with my sister and her boyfriend, and we had noticed a column of thick black smoke in the distance. We didn’t know right then that the smoke was rising from a burning Pentagon. Nor did we know that the World Trade Center had been attacked. One of the interesting things about these types of situations is that sometimes the closer you are, the less you know for sure exactly what is going on. At least back then, before a smartphone was a constant companion even on overseas trips.
We walked to Washington’s Union Station to get some breakfast, but found most of the shops and cafes had closed up. We sat down while we decided where to go next. At the table next to us a woman was talking on a cellphone. ‘The World Trade Center has exploded’ she said. It seemed ridiculous, but we thought we should ask some other people what was going on, because clearly something was wrong. ‘The Mall is on fire,’ one person said. ‘They’ve attacked the Lincoln Memorial,’ said another. ‘There are four planes missing.’ ‘We’re under attack.’
Only the last claim proved correct, but unsure of who or what to believe we decided that whatever the truth, standing around Washington’s grand main train station, just a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building and Supreme Court, wasn’t the place to be. I actually knew the area around the train station very well – I had done a journalism internship just down the street only a couple of years previously. So I took us on a route that I knew led away from the city’s main buildings in the hopes that we could also find a telephone. It didn’t matter when we did, because for about the next hour all networks were overloaded and it was impossible to make a call out.
As we walked along the gridlocked streets we could catch snippets of what was going on as we passed cars with their windows rolled down. Everyone was listening to the news. I was struck by how orderly and civilized everything was. No one knew what would happen next – many wondered if more planes were heading Washington’s way. But no one seemed to panic. There was little if any frustrated beeping of horns as people sat trapped in their cars not knowing what was coming next. Maybe it was the shock.
We eventually came to a printing shop that had its door open and a TV on behind the counter. The store manager was stood transfixed on the screen as we walked in. He didn’t say anything, and nor did we. We just stood there for an hour with him watching, speechless, as ABC News screened images of Manhattan veiled in thick, black smoke.
Not wanting our family to venture too close to Washington we decided to meet them at the metro stop furthest away from the city. We were meant to be staying the night in Washington, but had no intention of doing so now. We barely said anything on the way home. We just listened to the radio. Listening as people talked about how the world had just changed around us.
Jason Miks is editor of The Diplomat
Photo: US Navy