I am drawn this morning, as many of us are, back to that strange Tuesday in 2001 when the world as our nation perceived it changed. My dear friend and former roommate Laura has also posted thoughts this morning. I had just moved to Arlington, VA from Baltimore in early summer 2001 after securing my first “real” job as a conference coordinator for an economic development non-profit. In June of that year, the organization moved its office from the lobbying hub of K Street to the backyard of the White House at 15th and Pennsylvania NW. Fortunately, our annual conference was scheduled that week in Philadelphia and our office in DC had very few people in it. However, those that did remain faced extremely long walks home to MD and VA; each one made it home safely.
Our morning keynote speaker was just finishing up and I was diligently going from room to room for our morning breakout sessions, looking for speakers and assisting those that were setting up materials and presentations. A woman, already sitting in one of the rooms took me by the arm and said, “Do you know what has happened?” ”No,” I said, “what is it?” ”A plane has flown into the World Trade Center.” ”Weird,” I said. And, in total work mode, went on about my tasks. Within minutes though, the seriousness and darkness of what was happening started sinking in.
My CEO quickly found me, “Have you called your parents?” ”No, I mean, I can’t get through.” ”Well, keep trying. But, I want you to know that it’s your job to get speakers in these sessions. We have speakers that were on their way via plane and have been grounded. Pull board members, pull anyone. But, get speakers in the breakouts.” As he walked away, I thought – that man is crazy. At the end of the day though, I believe he meant well and knew better than I did. Roughly half of our attendees were, for the remainder of the day and conference, glued to the televisions the hotel had now posted on every floor of the building. The other 500 or so wanted to continue the day as usual and attended the scheduled sessions. Everyone responds differently and it was, I now believe, the right thing to do our best to provide the attendees with either option.
Finally, the sessions started and I tried calling my Mom one more time. It was ringing. ”Hello?” I could hear some panic in her voice and as I said “Mom,” she sounded like she was relieved and started to cry. ”I’m in Philadelphia, Mom. I’m okay.” My parents, thinking I was in DC, were uncertain about the varying reports – the National Mall was burning, there was smoke coming from the White House – that they were really wanting to hear from me, just to be sure I was okay. If I remember right, my Mom got my Dad on the line and we had a moment to talk. I remember feeling scared and uncertain.
I had to pull it together though, and managed to finish that strangest of days. During a previously planned reception that evening, two of our French Canadian board members came up to me and said, “Janelle, you must let us take you to dinner.” I was relieved to get out of the hotel and so one of our organization’s researchers and I went with the board members to dinner. It was, oddly, a wonderful dinner. We had seafood and wine. We listened to President Bush speak to the nation and joined the other patrons in a collective holding of breath as sirens sped past the open-air restaurant.
In the days that followed, going to work became a new experience. Our building was part of the “extended perimeter” around the White House. The streets were closed and instead of cars there were tanks and hummers holding military men and women with large guns, looking constantly around them. We had to show an ID to get to our building and answer the skeptical questions of a tall, serious, and somewhat intimidating soldier, “Where are you going? How long will you be there?” It felt like I was in another country and even though the “extended perimeter” eventually ended and all went basically back to normal, it was really those days following 9/11 that convinced me our country had changed significantly and that it would, in some ways, be different thereafter.
Seven years later, so much has changed both in the world and for me personally. But this day will always be a day of remembering for me and no doubt for the many individuals who lost loved ones seven years ago and in the years since. Thanks for letting me remember here.