Eerily, my prevalent memory of 9/11 is the color of the sky that day in Washington, DC. It was the most magnificent shade of blue, with not a single wisp of a cloud in sight. Honestly, for all these 20 years since, the color of that sky has haunted me. I swear I have never seen a sky so blue.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I left our house in Alexandria, Virginia, for my daily commute to my job at McDermott Will & Emery in Washington, DC. That morning, I employed my trick of jumping on the HOV lane on I-395 right at the stroke of 9 am, which was when vehicles with fewer than 3 passengers can lawfully get on. My daily commute was relatively short by DC standards, a mere seven miles door to door, and I drove right by the Pentagon every morning and every night.
I was able to make good time and was at my desk by about 9:30 a.m. I had a TV in my office because my job as Legislative Director required me to watch House and Senate floor proceedings and congressional committee hearings, but I would leave CNN on all day to catch any breaking news. I turned on my TV as usual and immediately could tell that something was wrong. There was weird local video of several different federal buildings and the scroll text at the bottom said “suspected fire at State Department” and some other random weird headlines that were ominous but turned out to be inaccurate. I picked up the phone and called our office manager, Bette Rae Bevan (it was a very large firm with lots of lawyers and other employees) and said “Something is wrong, Bette Rae.” She gave me the pat company line of “We are monitoring the situation and will make an announcement if necessary.”
I was not waiting on any McDermott announcement when I knew something was terribly wrong. I had been living in DC for 16 years at that point. I hung up the phone, grabbed my purse, ran to the elevator and took it to the basement parking lot, got into my car and peeled out of the building. I made it across the 14th Street Bridge and came to a screeching halt in Crystal City, which is on the edge of Virginia right before you cross into DC. It took me four hours to go two miles. The streets were full of people walking in work clothes away from the Pentagon. It turns out I had driven by the Pentagon on my way into work just minutes before the third plane flew into it.
My husband Dean was Chief of Staff to Rep. Mike McIntyre and worked in the Rayburn House Office Building. This building is right across the street from the U.S. Capitol. The fourth plane intentionally wrecked by passenger heroes that morning in Pennsylvania was likely headed for the U.S. Capitol. My three young children were in Virginia that morning as they were every morning. My oldest son Campbell (4 years old) had gone to St. Paul’s preschool in Alexandria and my twin sons Henry and Porter (1½ years old) were at home with our babysitter. It was a very long day until Dean finally made it home. We could smell the smoke from the Pentagon at our house for days.
Our lives were immediately and drastically changed.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the 9/11 memorial in New York City. This underground museum at the site of the World Trade Center is an exceptionally well-done, yet gut-wrenching tribute to the horrific events of that day. It took me many hours to get through it. At one point, I began crying, which turned into sobbing, and I had to go sit down until I could get myself together. If you are ever in NYC, I highly recommend a visit. There is an entire two-story wall devoted to the blueness of the sky that day.
Maggie Alford Mitchell lives in Dothan.