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A Day in My Life: September 11, 2001

September 11 was a beautiful day, weather wise, in Washington. There was hardly a cloud in the sky.

As a staff economist with the Federal Reserve Board, I normally work out the Board's Eccles building on Constitution Avenue, on the National Mall, right across from the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. As it happens, our floor of the building was being renovated and so my section was banished to our building at 17th and New York Avenue, in the heart of the city. This means we were just around the corner from the White House.

September is usually the best time of the year for cycling to work, my default method of commuting.  For reasons I do not recall, I drove to work that morning. Even before September 11, 2001, getting in and out of Washington by car was a real chore; one is obliged to either leave very early or relatively late. I was on the late shift that morning, traveling eastbound on the I-66 from my house in Vienna, Virginia to Washington. At about 9:10 a.m., an announcer on National Public Radio cut into the regular broadcast. (Yes, I listen to NPR. So sue me.) The usual smooth professional voice was a bit strained as he told us that an airplane had "crashed" into one of the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York. Details were sketchy. It was probably a small plane. An accident was the unspoken assumption, by me, if not by NPR.

I parked at the Board's garage underneath our main buildings and walked the eight blocks or so up to New York Avenue. October marks the end of the year for the purposes of performance appraisals at the Board, a fact that has the effect of concentrating the mind remarkably well in September. So I was hunkered down to do some hard work, ignoring the buzz around the office, when a colleague stuck his head in my office to say, "did you hear a plane crashed into the World Trade Center?".  Yes, I heard, I replied. "No. Another plane..."  This was clearly no accident.


Different people react differently to crises around them. Some people packed up and left immediately. Some charged around the office talking to anyone they met about what was happening. I just ignored it and kept on working. I did this, I suppose, because I was fatalistic about it. No one knew what was going on. Talking about how little we knew wasn't going to extend our base of knowledge. And I felt I would be no safer on the streets heading home than I would be in the office. It might have been 10:15 by this time, and the streets were choked with cars. There didn't seem to be any place to go even if one did want to leave, at least not with a car. As it turns out, the DC police department were out on the streets directing traffic--in circles. I could literally see the same cars passing by my window over and over again. Cell phones did not work as residents choked the system with demands for service. The atmosphere was one of chaos.

Management at the Board had told us to remain at our desks, a request that was met with something of an exodus. My boss came around and said that management would like us to continue working, but those of us in offices with windows facing the street, like mine, were requested to move to interior offices. We should work, but not get cut to ribbons by flying glass. Probably a good idea. The way I often work, however, involves using several computers simultaneously. Just getting set up in a new office would take a good half an hour to do, and it wasn't clear that it was going to be worth the effort. I had to figure out what was going on, so I went to the small gymnasium in the basement of our building, the only location of a television in the building. I was there with one or two other people, watching the coverage from New York, when the first tower collapsed. It is impossible to describe the feeling of seeing that, and so I won't even try. Sometime during this same period, the Pentagon was struck, and given that we were as close to the White House as we were, the utility of getting out of there became more tangible.

When I went back upstairs, the office was completely empty, so I decided walk to our main buildings.  Management of the Division of Research and Statistics (R&S) , my employers, was there, and so was my car, although the streets were still completely choked with traffic. I decided to walk out to the National Mall and find out what was going on. Would it be possible to drive home? The police at the corner of Constitution Avenue and Francis Bacon Drive, adjacent the Lincoln Memorial told me that they had closed Arlington Memorial Bridge, just to the west, for reasons unstated.  This went a good way towards explaining all that traffic, and because Memorial Bridge was the bridge I would normally take to get home, this was a problem.

I reasoned that I could not drive out, so I thought if I were to spend some time in the Board's library, which was deep in the bowels of the building, I could stay safe and get a bit of work done. Besides, I like libraries. But first, let's see what is going on with R&S management. They were gone. Not a soul to be found. Apparently, the word to evacuate had gone out, but I had not heard it. The library, too, was closed and locked up. So, I could not go home and if I stayed, I could not do anything.

Well, at least I could see for myself what the situation was like. The Board's cafeteria is on the top floor of the Martin Building, immediately across the street from the Eccles Building. The walls of the cafeteria are floor-to-ceiling glass windows, with an excellent view of the National Mall and off in the distance, the Potomac River and the Pentagon. So I went up there. It was 11:30.

What I witnessed there was one of the most peculiar things I have ever seen. 11:30 is the beginning of the Board cafeteria's lunch service. There, a full crew of cafeteria staff stood, with a full lunch menu ready to go, awaiting the noon-hour rush of hundreds of people. There was not going to be any customers, but no one had told them. It certainly crossed my mind that these poor people, largely Latino and working class, had been overlooked by someone--everyone--looking out for themselves. Yet they seemed neither agitated or concerned; more perplexed by a situation they did not understand than anything else. I bought a bowl of soup and a slice of bread and sat down--the only customer in the entire cafeteria--at a window table and ate, while watching smoke pour out of the Pentagon just across the river. The contrast of the strange quiet and peacefulness of the empty cafeteria, with brilliant sunlight coming through its floor-to-ceiling windows, and the calamity of the traffic, smoke and noise outside was truly bizarre.

After eating, I decided I would have to tough it out on the streets and try to drive home. Memorial Bridge was still closed and traffic was being directed instead to the 14th Street Bridge, the largest and most heavily traveled bridge in the city. Strangely enough, it is also the bridge that goes right by the Pentagon. By this time, traffic was moving fairly smoothly, but like most people, I came to a near-stop by the Pentagon to gawk at what was happening there, to the consternation of the police. There was no fire, but lots and lots of smoke pouring out of the building. A huge hole was torn out the side of the building. There was no evidence remaining of a plane, which struck me as odd at the time. Later I would learn about how burning jet fuel can be so hot that the fuselage of a plane melts, as do the girders of skyscrapers. On the hillside overlooking the Pentagon, stood a group of people, mostly middle-aged women---army wives, I presumed, awaiting word of the fate of their husbands.

I would find out later that the fourth plane, the one that was downed in Pennsylvania, was "probably" headed the White House. The pilots of the first three flights had been pretty accurate in hitting their targets, but the White House is a lot smaller and lower than the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Had the pilot of that last plane overshot his target by a significant but not implausible distance, he might have struck the Board's New York Avenue Building where I had been situated.  

It goes without saying that September 11, 2001, changed the world permanently. This is never more true than in Washington. Since then, security at the Board, for example, has increased by tremendous amounts and the city is littered with Jersey barricades (massive slabs of concrete) in an effort to keep would-be truck bombers at a distance. I cannot say that I feel a whole lot safer, although I am not sure what steps anyone could take that would help on that score. That said, I do not live in fear either. Parking is even scarcer in the District than it was before. I hardly ever drive to work any more. I still bike to work when I don't take the metro. That said, the one time that terrorism does creep into my consciousness is when the security level is raised from yellow to orange. Those days, it occurs to me what an excellent 'soft target' the metro system is for terrorists. I try to ride my bike to work those days.

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