On the morning of Sunday, September 9, 2001, precisely 48 hours before American Airlines Flight 77 would fly this same airspace, I was on an Alaska Airlines flight making its final approach to Washington D.C.’s National Airport. There I would catch a shuttle bus to attend a week’s training at a federal facility 50 miles west of the city. It had been an uneventful but tiring twelve-hour journey, begun on a Saturday night redeye out of Anchorage. In my job as spokesperson for a federal agency in Alaska, I had dealt with public spats between state and federal agencies plus oil spills, wildfires, endangered species controversies, and the crash and search for a small plane. So, my expectations of this weeklong course in crisis communications were to learn skills to better handle similar future emergencies. How ironic, I mused, as the landing announcement blared, that I can speak for a federal agency, but not so much for myself.
As the 737’s glide path descended smoothly over rolling green countryside in clear bright weather, terror suddenly washed over me in sickening waves. Something’s wrong, we’re going to crash. People are smiling and listening to announcements, yet we’re all going to die! As we flew past the Pentagon shining in morning light, I clutched the armrests until my knuckles went white. What’s wrong? Get a grip! The plane landed, ordinary as ever, with me silently self-scolding over way too much stress lately, or maybe too damn much coffee on the long overnight flight—I hadn’t slept. My marriage was on the rocks.
Precisely 48 hours later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, fifty employees including me were listening to a famous crisis management guru deliver his lecture. A door slam announced the training center’s director rushing in, muttering; he whispered something to the guru, flicked a knob on a giant video screen, and turned to face us. “I’ve been told to turn on the news,” he said. “This is happening live.” He offered no further explanation, and the onscreen images made no sense. An airliner hit the World Trade Center? In such clear weather? Why? How? Flashing in quick sequence through my mind was: wait, is this real? Are we being plunged into a crisis management exercise? Are we supposed to note later all the shock and denial we felt, the amount of time we wasted before going into action? And why this subject for an exercise? It’s way above our grade level, we don’t handle… wait—what government agency has the budget for a simulation like this? The class went on murmuring in disbelief.
The training center director barked, “THIS IS REAL!”
But reality dawns faster in the eyes and ears than it does in the deeply embedded limbic systems of brain, body, and circulating blood. The sight of that airliner crashed into that smoking tower on such a bluebird day when no pilot would ever make that mistake met resistance in my mind. I couldn’t believe someone would deliberately do it. Acutely traumatic events are hard to accept while they’re happening.
We fifty were feeling all of it: shock, denial, fear, confusion. Why does the belief persist that violence like that doesn’t happen here? Why was it such an impediment to accepting that it did, on every scale, across personal and national boundaries? Did some collective sense of invincibility make us more vulnerable? Did mine, when my husband had attacked me? Or does denial protect us from emotional impacts we can’t absorb? Is it useful, and if so, for how long? Does learned hyper-vigilance help in situations like this? I thought maybe it did, and felt my mind rapidly going from no, this can’t be happening, to: be observant and make a plan.
Within a minute or two, the second plane hit the other tower and everyone screamed. The on-camera screams of the TV anchor shook me out of my shock. I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said, “This is Pearl Harbor and we’re at war.” Still stunned, she just stared back. The incoherent gabble in the classroom indicated shock still ruled.
I ran outside to call my husband, four time zones away. “Turn on your TV,” I said, “New York’s been attacked. I’ll get home as soon as I can.”
It was 5:30 am there, and he was sleepy. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m okay, but an airliner hit the World Trade Center and reports are saying there could be more attacks. The phone lines are going to be jammed soon. Turn on the TV and call people at work to start the emergency phone tree.”
“What are you talking about? What happened?”
“JUST TURN ON THE TV AND CALL EVERYONE, NEW YORK HAS BEEN ATTACKED.” The line went dead soon after, network overload.
Back in the classroom it was chaos. A report had come in that a car bomb went off in front of the State Department. Another said a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. A third said a hijacked plane was in the air, headed for the Capitol. A fourth said all inbound traffic lanes into D.C. were being turned into outbound lanes, and all airports in the country were shutting down. Someone said the Capitol Police were searching for a dirty bomb. I don’t remember who it was making these reports, only that it was a woman who worked in Washington D.C. shouting her intel to the rest of us as she was on the phone with someone in a government building where Secret Service agents were grabbing cabinet members to take them elsewhere. The crisis guru had disappeared and I never saw him again.
And so, while it was impossible to know what was true and what was not, I filed these apparent facts in the part of my mind that handled emergencies. I was scared because it sounded like multiple simultaneous attacks, but the rational mind was still functioning, so I felt I could still handle the fear.
People were tripping over chairs and shouting to one another: “I’m driving my rental car to Denver!” “I’m going to Albuquerque!” “Sacramento!” “I have two seats left!” “One seat left!” The training center director had left briefly but returned to say, “Everyone must evacuate immediately! You need to leave NOW!”
I had no car, there were no buses running, and I hadn’t secured a seat in someone else’s rental car, because it felt like a panicky decision to be on the road with who knows how many other scared drivers heading west. And what if there were attacks out there, too, or gas shortages from so many cars jamming the roads? What would it be like driving on roads full of panicky people? Would hotels be so scarce we’d need to sleep wedged in the car with our luggage on our laps? But what about that dirty bomb rumor? Would staying put risk possible radiation exposure? How big was a dirty bomb, anyway? Wouldn’t it be safer to stay in the well-built rooms at the training center? Surely they won’t kick us out if some of us had no place to go and no way to get there?
Running away made no sense. They needed people with the skills to help. I had enough security clearance, and the Secretary of the Interior knew me. I figured, may as well be useful. What I didn’t know, because the training center director didn’t tell us, was that this place was one of two secure locations designated by the President for the federal government’s Continuity of Operations, meaning that when all hell breaks loose and Cabinet members are picked up, some bodily, by the Secret Service, they’re brought to a place like this. Though I had enough clearance and connections to help, I was not part of their plan. Ironically, none of us communications people were. When I walked up to the training center director and said, “How can I help?” he replied, “No way, you’ve got to get out of here within the hour, the Secretary of the Interior and possibly other Cabinet members are coming. This facility has to be secured.” He was waving at someone else and giving me only distracted attention.
“Wait,” I said. “I’ve worked with the Secretary, she knows me. You know me. I have enough clearance to handle sensitive information and can help with communications. I have contacts throughout the country. Let me stay and help.”
“I’m sorry, but the orders are to clear this place out so it can be secured.”
“I don’t have a place to go and I don’t have a car. It doesn’t make sense to chase off all the communications staff, you’re going to need help.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t change the orders,” he said, walking rapidly. I had to trot to keep up with him. “You’ve got to leave,” he added.
I looked outside and saw law enforcement vehicles pulling up to the building: United States Marshals, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service police, unmarked cruisers, men in uniform, some in plainclothes, getting out, gathering, talking to each other, looking nervous. That’s when I realized the President or Vice President might be coming here. I was heading out into a whirlwind.
Running back to my room, I ripped my clothes off their hangers and threw them into my suitcase. A man pounded on my door yelling, HURRY UP, YOU NEED TO VACATE THIS BUILDING. Forgetting my toilet articles in the bathroom, I rushed out and ran to the lobby, dragging my disorganized luggage. All the rental cars and their passengers had gone, as had most of the local employees. The training center called a taxi that dropped me at a sleazy motel near a strip mall in another town. The silence of my crummy room was shocking—anything that peaceful was not to be trusted. I spent a lot of time watching TV and praying for those people trapped in rubble with their dying cellphones.
On the second day of waiting, I found a ride and a room near Dulles Airport, and began waiting in long lines each morning, hours and hours hoping for a flight. At the end of each day, I would go back to the hotel, hoping there was a room available. By late afternoon on the fourth day, I made it to the boarding area, but when a delay was announced, I went in search of food. Nothing was open except for a small newsstand.
“Do you know where there might be any food concessions open?” I asked the young woman at the register.
“Oh gee, I don’t think you’re going to find anything in this terminal.”
There was no way I could get to another terminal with all the security in place. “Okay, thanks.” I turned to leave.
“Wait,” said the young woman. “When was the last time you ate?
“Um, around six this morning, I think.”
She reached under the register and pulled out a paper bag. “My son made me this lunch today, but I think you need it more than I do.” She handed me a sandwich, and as I accepted it we reached for each other and hugged, tears in our eyes. “Thank you,” I whispered. “And thank your son.”
“It’s the least we can do,” she said.
As the country went to war and I finally found a flight home after five days, my husband asked for a new start. “I hate what I did to you,” he said. “You never did anything to deserve that, you don’t have a mean bone in your body. I hate living apart, and I’m willing to do anything to make it up to you.”
It was the combination of shock and fear plus my uncertainty about the country’s agitated recoil that amplified my terror of facing it all alone, so I said yes. I worried we might be entering a world war. I worried about my sweet puppy—would the State of Alaska’s Emergency Operations Plan be activated, and, as a member of one of their teams, would I end up working for weeks on end at the National Guard Armory while my puppy sat home starving? When the world goes irrational, you reach for the familiar, even if it’s not good for you. So, I asked him, “Will you go to a marriage counselor again with me?”
“Yes. Anything you want.”
Our attempts to reconcile were a disappointment, however, and after another threat I planned my escape. One Saturday while he was out, I packed up the truck with a few belongings and the puppy, and fled. I rented a small house in a dilapidated neighborhood, got a P.O. Box, kept my new address secret, and filed for divorce. I got the sailboat and a settlement, and turned back to the ocean like the old friend and healer it was.
Twenty years after a day that went down in infamy, many of us are reflecting on where we were then. I thought this might be a good time to share my story, an excerpt from my memoir, and to invite you to share yours in the comments. Thanks for reading.