"There's another plane lost from radar. They scrambled jets from Andrews. Get out. Get out. Get out".
Those were the words of a Capitol Hill policeman who opened our office door in one of the U.S. House of Representatives office buildings next to the iconic dome of the Capitol building. Our staff had been glued to the TV for the morning watching footage from NY and catching word about the Pentagon. Some of the Capitol Hill offices were closing and leaving, but until those words were spoken, we were still in a "wait and see" mindset. I picked up the phone to call Shelly, my roommate at the time and my carpool, as she worked on the Senate side. I wanted to let her know we were leaving, and I was riding with Geoff, my coworker, who lived close to us in south Arlington. But, the phone lines were already down. I couldn't reach her.
Luckily, I had already called my family, still living in New Mexico. I was able to get through to them to let them know I was ok and we were evacuating, and that I would call again when I could. The next few minutes were a hushed and adrenaline-filled blur as Geoff and I went down the marbled stairs to the parking garage. I remember looking out of the window of Geoff's Pontiac at the Capitol Policemen directing traffic and onlookers as we drove out and down the street away from the Capitol. I think it was the first time in my life I felt the real gravity of someone staying behind in a dangerous situation in order to help me get to safety. For the next two hours or so, we tried to drive the 3 miles to get home, unable to reach Geoff's wife on my cell phone because the lines were all still jammed.
What continues to impress me most about that day 11 years ago is how transparent a person's true character is in a time of crisis. Stories of heroism and generosity abound surrounding 9/11. There are two closest to my heart....
1.) As stated above, I couldn't reach Shelly by phone. We had driven in to work together that morning. We both had a parking spot on our respective sides of Capitol Hill and we alternated weeks of who drove. 9/11/01 fell on Shelly's week to drive. Her car was on the Senate side. I evacuated from the House side. I didn't find out the remainder of the story until later in the day, back at the townhouse the four of us rented. Even through the horrendous traffic, I made it home before Shelly did. Shelly was the last of the four of us to get home. I will never forget the look on her face when she walked through the front door and saw me on the couch or the collective emotional breakdown I felt in our living room.
You see... in those moments of crisis, Shelly's thoughts turned to me. She left her Senate office building and ran across Capitol Hill (not a small distance) to my building in an attempt to get me so we could leave together. She could have just gotten in her car and left, and hoped I figured out a way to get home. But, that's not who she is. She postponed her own exodus to try to find me and take me with her. When she got to my building, she was told it was closed. She couldn't go in. I can only imagine the feelings she must have had at that moment. She turned back towards the Senate side, and eventually got to her car, endured the traffic, and arrived at home: all the while, feeling a deep anxiety and uncertainty over my safety.
Shelly is now married and approaching her 5th anniversary. She has four precious little girls. It's been a long long time since we've really talked about that day, it is hard to do. But in our own ways, we let each other know that we still remember. I hope someday, when her girls are older, they understand what a hero their Mom was on 9/11. She wasn't on CNN. She's not engraved in stone on a memorial. But, she was the perfect example of sacrifice, duty and concern for others. That's who she is. There may not be occasion to exemplify it every day. But, on the day it most mattered, it was the core of her character that was exposed.
2.) I still can't even think, type or talk about United Flight 93 without my throat tightening and my eyes filling with tears. National heroism to take a stand? Sure. But, I've never viewed it like that. It was their heroism that saved ME that day. It was the hardest part about going back to work the next day with a brave face. It changed my world view. I still grapple sometimes with the feeling of indebtedness and a need to live worthy of their sacrifice. A year ago today, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, my sweet husband, who was then just a boyfriend, flew out to attend the ceremony in Shanksville, PA with me. It meant so much for me to be on that ground, to feel my respects were more fully paid, and to shake the hand of a family member to tell them that there aren't words to match my feelings. I just hope they know how completely and wholly grateful I am to the sacrifice of their loved ones and that they will never, ever, be forgotten.
I do hope you find a couple quiet moments today to remember those who were lost on that day, those who were heroes on that day, and all of the goodness you have inside of you, no matter how often you have the chance to let it be seen by others.
At Shanksville, 9/11/11