My window view across the Potomac on 9-11
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, started out as a routine day. I arrived around 7:30 a.m. at the U.S. Department of Transportation building in Washington. Although our work with the inspector general’s office included oversight of aviation and airport security programs, we had no idea of what was about to happen in the next four hours. From my office window, I could clearly see the Pentagon and National Airport just across the Potomac River.
At 8:46 A.M., the first aircraft hijacked by terrorists crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Soon after, our office was notified of the crash by the secretary of transportation. At that time, we did not know that this was an attack on our country. Within 20 minutes, it became clear that we were under attack when a second aircraft crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Terrorist attacks had occurred in New York before, but it was unbelievable to see our domestic aircraft being used as weapons. Yet, for us in Washington, the fear did not become real until minutes after 9:47 A.M. when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Seeing the Pentagon on fire from my office brought a chilling reality that I never thought I would experience. With multiple attacks in progress, things started happening very quickly in our Nation’s capital. The FAA closed U.S. airspace to all inbound international flights, grounded all aircraft within the continental United States, and ordered all aircraft already in flight to land immediately. However, there was still at least one hijacked aircraft heading to Washington, DC.
Because no one knew what was coming next, government leaders were evacuated to predetermined sites outside the Washington area. Within the Transportation Department, we were ordered to account for all people who were at work that day and then send them home. This was not an easy task because people were working at many locations within the building and at the FAA. The task was further complicated because phones, both cell and landlines, were overwhelmed with calls and became useless for communications. Once everyone was located, the secretary ordered the evacuation of the building.
I was the last one from my office to leave. As I prepared to evacuate, I looked outside and saw no movement of aircraft at National Airport, the Pentagon still burning and armed military fighter jets flying low-level patrols. It was difficult to believe that I was witnessing these events in our nation’s capital.
Today, everything we hear about our federal government is bad. Looking back 10 years, I believe it was quite remarkable what our government did under those unimaginable conditions. Within hours, contingency plans were implemented to continue functioning of our government from remote locations, and the Washington area was evacuated to keep our citizens out of harm’s way. I will never forget where I was and what I did on September 11, 2001.