Seeing the Unimaginable

I was heading to a 10 a.m. meeting. It was a beautiful day and I had the car windows down. My radio was on and they broke in to report the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. I felt "behind the curve" because I hadn't known about the first plane. I hadn't watched TV that morning and had no idea about the level of destruction. Then the President came on the air, saying that we had been the subject of an apparent terrorist attack.

Firefighters and military personnel lower a U.S. flag from the roof of the Pentagon the day after it was attacked. Department of Defense photo by R.D. Ward.

Firefighters and military personnel lower a U.S. flag from the roof of the Pentagon the day after it was attacked. Department of Defense photo by R.D. Ward.

Traffic is normally slow right around the Pentagon as the road winds and we line up to cross the 14th Street Bridge, heading into the District of Columbia. I don't know what made me look up, but I did and I saw a very low-flying American Airlines plane that seemed to be accelerating. My first thought was just "no, no, no, no," because it was obvious the plane was not heading to nearby Reagan National Airport. It was going to crash.

At that point time just sort of stopped. In retrospect, I'm amazed there were no car crashes, as those on the road with me just stopped and helplessly watched the plane crash. I pulled out my cell phone to call 911. I heard sirens and, not sure what to do, I called my mom who works at a newspaper in Illinois. She told me to calm down and keep driving. Fire trucks started to appear, so I and others on the road tried to move out of the way.

Operating mostly on autopilot, I drove to the office, keeping an eye and ear on the sky. I was positive another plane was coming any minute. Once you've seen the unimaginable, you believe anything can happen. They were already evacuating my building when I got there but I came up to the office and turned on the TV. The phone was ringing when I walked in and continued ringing. I was glad I was there so I could let people know we were all right.

As I thought about it, aside from the incomprehensible feeling of the attack itself, the most shocking thing to me was that I could see the plane was a regular-sized, American Airlines flight. I was not aware from the early reports that hijacked domestic airliners were involved. As I kept replaying the scene in my mind, all I could think was, "This is all very wrong. It can't be real."

I stayed in the office until 1 p.m. The building was closed, but the city was in gridlock and I had to pass the Pentagon to get home, so it seemed better to stay. On my way home, I saw an Army attack helicopter in the air over a nearly deserted Capitol Beltway. It seemed surreal yet reassuring.

I deal with defense issues, among other things, for the University and I'm currently co-chair of the Coalition for National Security Research, so I know a lot of people who work in the Pentagon or meet there for business. I spent the next 24 hours, as so many people did, trying to track down all the people I knew who may have been in the area.

I, like most of the country, found comfort in the national day of remembrance and mourning Sept. 14. I have to say that Americans' reaction to this attack has been as positive and strong as the attack was terrifying. Still, as I passed the Pentagon at exactly the same time a week later, I was struck by an eerie and very sad feeling.—Elaine McCusker, associate director, UW Office of Federal Relations, helps represent the University of Washington to the federal government.

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