Reflecting on September 2001

This week 18 years ago, I was buying duct tape and Raytheon stock.

My husband and I lived in Arlington, Virginia, in 2001, one stoplight from the Pentagon. That September, my sister Lynn and her husband, both Army officers, moved to Arlington for Pentagon assignments, living even closer to the Pentagon, just across the street from the parking lot.

On the morning of the 11th, I went to work as usual in Crystal City, about a mile down the hill from our house, just north of Washington National Airport. I had some coffee, checked email, and left the office about 8 a.m. to head to the Washington Navy Yard for meetings. Stopped in traffic on the 14thStreet Bridge, my ears perked up as my favorite news radio station announced a commuter plane had crashed into a building in New York City. At the time, I was picturing a small shuttle plane having a tragic episode of misnavigation. 

I pulled into the Navy Yard, parked, and headed into my meeting. I asked the engineer hosting the meeting in his office if he had heard about it. He checked a couple news sites on his computer, and we slowly started to figure out it was an attack and not an accident. Then the second plane hit. I decided to visit the public affairs office, where there might be a TV, to get more information. On the way, I tried calling my sister on my cell. I couldn’t get through—“all circuits busy.”

I arrived at the PAO shop to find those staff members adjusting rabbit ears on a portable tube TV. The building was new and hadn’t been outfitted with cable yet. I immediately thought of how close the White House was, and of the Pentagon, a five-sided standalone sitting duck. The Navy captain running the office saw me and decided it was a great time to have a meeting about upcoming symposia exhibits. Disbelieving, I followed him into his office. We talked, no kidding, about displays and graphics and then we learned the Pentagon was hit. The captain tilted his head and continued the meeting. Finally, I stood up and asked to use his landline. 

I made three calls: first to my sister—her Pentagon meeting was canceled and she was in Alexandria, and her husband had decided to take another day of leave (we would find out later that day that his office was destroyed and most of the personnel there killed); to my husband, who hadn’t left for the office yet; then to my father in Silver City. We verified everyone was okay. 

Eventually, even the captain realized our meeting was going nowhere, the base was on lockdown, and the Pentagon was on fire. We sat around, stuck, for about two hours. The Metro closed, Washington National Airport was closed, the roads were closed. No one could get a cell call through.

Once the all-clear was sounded, I waited another hour to avoid traffic. I also rounded up some folks who were stranded without transportation and needed to get to a hotel. Driving back across the bridge, it was a picture perfect day until you noticed the flames shooting up from the Pentagon. Across the river in Virginia, it was a madhouse—with the airport shut down, roads were jammed with cars. It took me 45 minutes to drive 15 blocks. I couldn’t even get to my passengers’ hotel; I dropped them off about six blocks away and crawled the remaining 10 blocks home.

Then we watched the news unfold. Things moved quickly. Suddenly we had a department of Homeland Security. We were advised to seal our doors with duct tape in the event of a chemical attack. We put together a box with five days of food, water and medicine. We even planned an escape route. Assuming the roads would be jammed, we planned to walk the couple of miles to the marina with our computers, our liquor and our pets, and either bribe our way onto a boat with booze, or steal one to row.

Everything changed that day, yet in 2019, we still seem stuck in 2001. We’re still in Afghanistan. We’re still sort of in Iraq. We still take off our shoes at airports. And terrorists continue to slaughter the innocent. 

My sister’s Army ROTC classmate, Lt. Col. Neil Hyland, was killed in the Pentagon. My brother-in-law’s boss, Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, was killed in the Pentagon. My Navy friends and mentors, Capt. Jack Punches (Ret.) and Jim Lynch were killed, with 180 other victims.

I was struck by a Navy Times story this week—the first new soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines born after9/11 are now joining the military. Let’s hope in 18 years they see some change in our world.

Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She lives north of I-40 and is ready to hand out duct tape to her neighbors in case of emergency. Raytheon, the manufacturer of Tomahawk missiles and a bunch of other cool military stuff, has seen its stock triple since 9/11/2001.