Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Against that Blue Sky

On 9/11, I was on Capitol Hill. This is a video I made on the fifth anniversary of the attacks recalling my experiences.

I was on Capitol Hill during the 9/11 attacks three years ago. Shortly afterwards, I wrote down my recollections. They were included in the 9/11 Digital Archive, by the Center for History and New Media / American Social History Project & housed now at the Library of Congress.

Here's the story as I told it and submitted it in 2002:

I lived four blocks from the Capitol in Southeast at the time. I was supposed to meet a photog for a news conference in the Rayburn Office Building at 10:00, so I was taking my time getting dressed when I heard Charlie and Diane say a small plane had hit the WTC. I remembered the attack in 1993 and expected the worst.

I was glued to the set, seeing the second plane hit live. It was only in the frame for a few seconds, but it seems a thousand thoughts went through my mind. I remember trying to rationalize what I was seeing: maybe it's the police or fire department eyeballing the fire, maybe it's a plane on approach that looks closer because of the telephoto lens. Then the fireball.

I was late getting out of the house. It was a perfect late summer day in DC. I thought how terrible that something like this had to happen on such a beautiful day. I used my cell phone to check with the desk. They wanted me to send the photog I was meeting out with a producer to get reaction from the New York delegation after the news conference.

The sidewalks were crowded with young, Congressional staffers walking in, getting off the Metro, getting to work late. They'd obviously been watching, too. The same look of disbelief was all over the place.

I remember the jet engines overhead. They were there all the time, on the approach to National. Living there, you just shut them out. Couldn't help but hear them that morning.

I took a shortcut through the southeastern entrance of Longworth and into the tunnels connecting the buildings in the Capitol complex. It was probably only a couple of minutes before Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.

The desk couldn't reach me in the tunnels. The photog was out of touch coming up from the Rayburn parking garage. They got hold of us outside the news conference. But they were still confused about where to send us. They told us to standby. Big mistake. Within minutes the cell phone network in DC collapsed under the weight of all the calls.

Military officers – lots of one- and two-stars – poured out of hearing rooms. They walked briskly down the halls. They looked like the guys to follow. My photog and I came out in the ‘horseshoe,’ a notch cut into the north side of Rayburn with a semi-circular driveway. An army captain in BDUs was standing beside a Humvee, trying to get his cell phone to work.

We walked around the corner and say the thick, black smoke rising from the Pentagon.
Unable to raise the desk, we decided the photog would head towards the Capitol and get whatever video he could. I’d try to find a landline and find out where the desk wanted us. I headed back to the apartment. The sidewalks were crowded again. I have never seen so many cell phones. I counted. Only one-in-three people were actually able to talk to someone.

I got through from the apartment. I was called back to the bureau. The photog was to back up our regular photog at the White House. All I had to do was find him. I grabbed a bottle of water and a pair of cheap Wal-Mart walkie talkies that I figured might come in handy and headed back out the door.

Back outside, I heard more jet engines. I was looking for the planes. While in the apartment, I never heard the sonic boom. F-16s from the North Dakota National Guard, flying out of Langley AFB in Virginia, had dropped out of war speed and taken up station over the city. At the moment, I was walking toward one of the biggest, and most recognizable targets in town. I relaxed a lot when I caught a glimpse of the familiar Falcon shape loitering up there.

Capitol Police were well into evacuating the grounds when I got half way up the hill. I arrived behind the House Office Buildings just as they decided to move the perimeter across the street. Most of the cops were busy moving the barricades. People were trying to cross the street. One Capitol Police officer, directing the crowd looked over and we made eye contact for a second. I’d never seen him before, but he glanced down at my hill credentials. He looked around, as if making sure no one was watching, then motioned me with a slight head gesture toward the Capitol – completely forbidden. I stepped off the curb, and he turned his back. Plausible deniability – everyone in this town is hip to the act.

I walked past a few people, staffers mostly, at least one Capitol cop, straight up the hill. No one stopped me, yelled at me, or asked me where I was going. I made it across Constitution, and onto the Capitol grounds.

It was amazing. Except for the jets overhead, absolutely quiet – no voices, no other man made sounds. There was no one else around that I could see. Even before 9/11, some one was always there. You were never out of eyesight or earshot of security, even on a holiday weekend at midnight.

I stood there for what seemed like a good half-minute trying to figure out what to do next. No camera, all I’d have is an eyewitness account if anything happened. But it was an incredible, unrepeatable experience.

A Capitol Police officer called out to me from behind, I crossed the street, headed down the hill. I found my photog at the barricades, told him our assignments, and we went to work.

[For more stories from the 9/11 Digital Archive, click the image below.]

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