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Thursday, September 11, 2014

It Was Surreal ~ Part One

Today marks the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. Many are sharing the story of this day, how they heard the news, how they remember the tragedy, and how it affected their lives. I remember as well. It was one of the two most surreal moments of my life.

Surrealism as a term refers to an artistic movement of the 1900's - and is defined as a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. When you say something is surreal - it's like that form of art - irrational and bizarre.

On September 11, 2001, I was living in Alexandria, VA and working in Washington, DC in the infamous Watergate building. My cubical was in the second row from the windows, but I still had a nice view of the Potomac to my right, just past the heads of my more senior colleagues lucky enough to have a "window cube."

I drove in that morning on 395, past the Pentagon and across the Memorial Bridge. I parked my car under the Kennedy Center, and went to work as a healthcare consultant working with hospitals across the country. My first task of the day, finish up preparations for a meeting taking place the next day in Long Island, NY.

Our department's office space occupied a floor once utilized by a media entity, and there were televisions hanging from the support beams throughout, and one of them was located right above my cube. They came in handy when you were working late during Monday Night Football or if you wanted to catch a few minutes of the Today Show with your morning coffee when you arrived early. That morning, they became so much more.

I was working when I happened to glance up and notice that one of my colleagues had turned on one of the TV's a few rows of cubicles away from mine. I saw the twin towers, one with smoke billowing out of it. I thought he was watching a movie at first, which seemed very odd for that hour of the morning. I tried to catch his attention, as did others and heard him explain "One of the Twin Towers is on fire." And then I watched as a plane went straight into the second tower, live on TV.

Did I just see that? Did a plane fly into a building? Was it the smoke that blocked it's view? How could such an accident happen? We continued to watch the scene unfold on TV. Colleagues with friends in Manhattan and in the World Trade Center began to make phone calls. We began to wonder about the planes - we all traveled regularly. Did we know anyone on that plane?

As we watched with thoughts of the people of New York, the image on the screen changed. Suddenly, it was a split screen view. On one side, the World Trade Center, on the other The Pentagon.

And that was the moment - the moment it all became surreal. I turned my head from the television where it all seemed so far away, to look behind me at the Potomac and see the smoke billowing down the water from The Pentagon. This wasn't just happening somewhere else. It was happening here… now.

At this point more phone calls started. I immediately tried to reach a friend who was working on an assignment at the Pentagon that week. The phone lines were overloaded. It was hard to reach anyone.

We continued to watch, unsure of what to do. Rumors circulated that another plane was bound for the White House. Was it safer to stay or to drive home? We waited for any information the reporters could share.

And then it happened, as I watched, that first tower crumbled. A former colleague has told me that one of his memories of that day was me because I was the first to realize what happened and I just kept repeating, "Oh my God… oh my God…" I had just witnessed a building, filled with people, crumbling to the ground. It's an image that will stick in my head forever.

At that point, many of us made the decision to leave and get home, but how? My morning commute took me past the exact place where the plane had hit the Pentagon. If I had been running late that morning, I would have witnessed it as it happened. That thought was irrational and bizarre - surreal.

I have no idea how I found my way out of the city that day. This was before GPS, and even though I had been in the DC area for over a year, I still didn't really know my way around. I somehow ended up in Maryland, driving back towards Virginia on I-495, again crossing the Potomac and seeing the smoke billowing.

In the days that followed, many things happened. We took in our friend who had been at the Pentagon. She was safe, but scared. We witnessed many acts of kindness. We heard of friends who had lost loved ones. We waited for friends and colleagues who were grounded in other cities to make their way home, many renting cars and driving cross-country with strangers. We went to Church. We had moments of panic, like when someone drove a car into the Saudi Arabian embassy across the street from our office. We cried. We hugged. We remembered.

Thirteen years later, it still seems so fresh in my mind. I don't keep in touch with many of the people who stood by me and witnessed the events in my office that day. Some, but not all. But they are forever in my memory. As I said, it was one of the two most surreal moments of my life with a bizarre series of details I'll never forget.

What was the other? The day The Boy was born.

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