Outside Looking In
At a Future that Might have Been
Pentagon Account from September 11th 2001 and Afterwards
(This is what I was thinking at the time, before I had the chance to reflect on the day)
It is September 11, 2001. I am at the Bally's Health Club in Loehmans Plaza, just inside the Washington D.C. beltway along Route 50. My watch reads 8:50 a.m. I walk out of the locker room and toward the front door of the health club. I plan to step outside for a three mile run. From a set of televisions that hang in front of a line of treadmills, I see a news report that says a small plane has hit Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. I watch the story develop for a minute or so, and then go outside for the run. It takes me about twenty minutes to complete all three miles, a full minute slower than usual. When I return, I cool down for a few minutes, and then step back inside. I look at the television just in time to see footage of a second plane as it hits Tower 2. I quickly learn that this happened five minutes earlier. Charles Gibson of ABC provides the commentary as the story develops.
I watch the story for a few minutes. People continue to work out. I do a set of leg presses and a set of curls while commentary continues. Then I walk into the locker room, put on my sweat pants, and leave the club. My car, an all black BMW 328, waits on the far side of the parking lot.
I drive down Route 50 toward Washington D.C., about twelve miles away, as fast as I safely can. It is also the direction where I live, just off Columbia Pike, and where I have my camera. 1500 AM, the news station, plays on the radio. I find myself wishing I was in New York. I want to be where things are happening.
Commentators now report that a plane has crashed into the Pentagon. I park my car in the garage, run inside, and retrieve my camera. I get back into my car, pull out to drive up the street, and turn onto Columbia Pike. Columbia Pike leads to the Pentagon. Smoke appears down the hill.
Traffic backs up on Columbia Pike. Movement slows to a crawl. I learn that Tower II has collapsed in New York. That hardly seems possible. It's a huge building where I spent a lot of time. When I worked sales at ROLM telecommunications I had both towers within my territory. I traveled up and down the elevators to visit every floor and map the types of telephone systems each company used. While making this map, I met and interviewed the VP of Sales Training at Dean Witter in Tower II. Soon afterward, I joined Dean Witter as a stock broker.
But that was some time ago. I did not stay in touch.
I leave Columbia Pike and take a side road through a neighborhood that leads to a chain link fence alongside I-395. A news crew has also parked their van by the fence. They unpack equipment. I check my camera bag. It holds one roll of 24 exposure film plus what's left in my camera - 36 shots in total. I always keep at least one roll of film in the bag. My camera is a manual focus Canon-AE1 I received as a Christmas gift in 1981.
I say to one of the news people something about this being another Pearl Harbor. It seems trite, but then I hear a commentator on the radio in their van make the exact same statement. The radio commentator also says another plane has crashed in Pennsylvania and that other hijacked planes might be in the air. I climb over the fence and take a photo of the Pentagon.
I walk down the center of I-395. No cars appear in either direction. Several cars are parked on the shoulder. Their drivers and passengers stand outside and watch from behind the guardrails. I stop to take another shot and then walk closer.
I cross on an overpass of I-395. The sun shines bright overhead, and I think of the sunscreen I left behind in my gym bag. I am wearing gray sweat pants and a red Chicago Blues T-Shirt that my girlfriend gave me.
I walk along the chain link fence. The Pentagon comes into view. I can see an airport fire truck spray flame retardant onto the fire. The fire truck is from National Airport I am sure, about a mile south of the Pentagon.
I see the Capitol dome in the background through the smoke and take a photo. I think about the smoke filled image of St. Paul's Cathedral during the Battle of Britain. The dome is too distant to mirror that image, but I take it anyway.
A hornet's nest of helicopters flies overhead.
I continue to walk along the fence line by the barracks on the hill above the Pentagon. I take another shot to show the helicopters over the fence line. Vietnam era Hueys dominate the airspace. The characteristic thumps of the Huey rotor blades are the most prominent sound I hear.
I take another photo of a helicopter, but I remind myself that I don't have many shots. Then I continue along the fence line until I reach the crest of the hill before it descends toward the Pentagon.
I overhear a radio playing inside an Army Colonel's car. The Army Colonel watches along with several enlisted members of the Army and Air Force. They stand on the other side of the fence in a parking lot of the barracks that line the hill. The news commentator on the radio projects 800 dead in the Pentagon and 15,000 or more from the Towers. I learn from the radio that the second tower, Tower 1, has also collapsed. I put a medium range telephoto lens onto my camera and set it to full zoom. I don't have a tripod, so I hold the camera as still as I can by hand.
I take another shot in case the first shot does not come out.
I attach a long range telephoto extension lens to my camera and make another attempt at the St. Paul's Cathedral shot with the Capitol dome in the background. I put my camera back into its case and attempt to call my office with my cell phone. All circuits are busy.
I pull my camera back out of its case and take another shot with the regular 35mm lens in case the telephoto shots do not come out. That is the last shot on the roll, so I wind it back up and exchange it for the new roll. Another news crew sets up a TV camera beside me. The reporter, a young woman who I do not recognize, stands by for signal. An older photojournalist arrives a moment later. I follow him through a hole in the fence and into the parking lot of the barracks.
I take a photo of another helicopter. Military, government, police, and news helicopters all share the same airspace.
Fire bursts through one Pentagon window, and then another. The fire walks its way down the Pentagon's face.
Reporters and bystanders line a barren knoll to the right of the Citgo station. I take a shot as a Huey medivac flies past.
I climb to the top of the knoll and take a shot of an ambulance as it crosses the bridge on 110. The fire trucks have stopped spraying.
Fighter jets fly overhead. Their engines, like the thump thump of the helicopters, fill in background noise. They fly too high up to capture with my camera, but I take the best shot of an F-16 I can anyway. It appears fully armed.
I reattach the telephoto extension and take a shot of the gap in the Pentagon's outer ring. Individual offices appear through the smoke. I rest the lens of my camera on my crossed arm to keep it steady, the same way I learned to do with my rifle at a sniper school in the Army. Then I take the telephoto extension off.
One medivac Huey keeps flying back forth and around, but it does not land. I try to capture its image in front of the Pentagon, but it does not present the opportunity. I take a shot as it passes close over the knoll. I switch lenses back to the long range telephoto extension. That takes several seconds. I picked up the lens at one of the many small camera shops in New York City. It does not fit perfectly.
Bad choice. I have the wrong lens on the camera. The medivac comes around again. I see it headed to the right place for the shot. I set the lens on as low a power as I can, track the medivac in, and then take the shot.
I walk with several photojournalists closer to the Pentagon. The lawn area between the Pentagon and the Citgo has become a helicopter parking lot. I take a photo of a helicopter that belongs to the Arlington police force.
I am at the police line. A few people walk through to bring water and other food or drinks from the Citgo station further back by the knoll. Several people use grocery carts to carry the supply.
One of the government Hueys flies close and fast overhead. Loose grass and sand pelt the arms and face of me and everyone around.
The medivac lifts off. Photojournalists work in the foreground. Behind me, a reporter with her cameraman asks for witnesses. Arlington police start to clear the area.
I walk back to my car. Arlington police officers expand their perimeter beyond the knoll. A long row of ambulances wait in a line on Columbia Pike.
Additional fire and rescue vehicles arrive.
Another Huey passes overhead.
I leave the barracks area through the hole in the fence. I turn to take one more photo of the Pentagon. I am almost out of film.
A government Huey formation passes overhead.
I cross the bridge on I-395. A lone Arlington squad car blocks the entrance to 110 that passes in front of the Pentagon.
To take my last shot, I look back down I-395 at the Arlington police. They have blocked all access at this point. I head back to my car. I plan to have the film developed and then head home to watch the news. I drive the film to a Ritz Camera in Falls Church across the street from a Borders book store. I ask the young clerk to get these right. No one else is in the store. My cell phone still does not work.
It is my girlfriend's birthday. We will go out to dinner that night to a Thai restaurant in Shirlington and pretty much have the restaurant to ourselves. We eat outside. It is a warm clear night. I think about people who might have had such dinners on the evening of December 7th, 1941. As we talk, I tell her this will be different. It will be a Special Forces war. Most of the conventional army will not be involved.
The first bombs fell in Afghanistan this morning. I return to see the Pentagon for the first time since September 11th, even though I live less than two miles away. I take a photo of the gap in the Pentagon where United 77 crashed.
I zoom in on the gap and the flag that has become a signature emblem of 9/11 on television.
It's late in the day. I turn my camera back toward the barracks to show the many people walking between a makeshift memorial and the Pentagon itself.
I walk right up to the highway that runs in front of the Pentagon and take two photographs of the gap.
Someone earlier had left this small flag on a large dirt mound that overlooks the highway and the Pentagon. The wind catches it when I attempt the first shot.
Many people ask others to take photos of them with the gap in the background. It seems odd, as if the gap is the Magic Kingdom Castle or the Grand Canyon. I imagine this is just how people always take photos. When most of the people clear the hill, I take this shot of two brothers.
A makeshift memorial stands off Columbia Pike below the barracks. People gather around this memorial to read notes that others have posted.
An Australian flag flies next to an American flag. I catch them both in the light of the descending sun.
Shadows cover a garden of flags.
Sunlight reaches one flag between the shadows.
I set my camera aside to read from the memorial for several minutes. I take two photos to try to capture the presentation. The image of one of the victims in the first photo sticks with me. Not many people will have seen this memorial. The media focuses its attention on New York.
I take this photo of two girls by another sign. Columbia Pike and part of Arlington Cemetery appear in the background.
I take another photo of the flag garden.
The shadows grow longer but the sun still shines in places. A woman reads a mural put up by a local grade school.
A large number of cars drive by with small American flags clamped to their roofs. I wait for one of these. A car shows up completely painted in red white and blue. The lighting could be better, but I take the shot anyway.
The first shot I take of the tree I expect will seem empty. I take another shot when a woman walks up and looks at mementos people have tied to the tree's branches.
Shadows overtake the scene. I have just enough light for a few more shots of the pentagon. The car in the third picture has one of the many flags that drivers fly from their roofs. The grassy areas that separate lanes on Columbia Pike serve as parking lots for those visiting the site. Today I brought the truck I had in the Army.
New York City - December 2001
I am on business in New Jersey. I drive into New York City at night in a Hertz rental car. This is where I entered Wall Street as a stock broker some time ago.
I look for the World Trade Center site. To my surprise, I drive right up to a black mass that was the north tower. When I step out of the car, I catch the metallic odor described by the media and hear the construction equipment working. I have never seen the streets so empty. No one else is around.
I brought a small Samsung camera up from Washington D.C. It's not a sophisticated camera, so I don't expect too much from my night shots of the buildings. I take a few shots of the memorials and flags to add to the Pentagon photos. Even though no one is around, the scene does not welcome cameras.
My morning meeting cancelled, so I use the time to drive back into New York. It is gray, cold, unfriendly, but not because the people are unfriendly. The people present do not seem to notice me. I take a few shots that I want to include with the Pentagon shots, yet do not want to be one of the "tourists." Hoses continue to water down the remaining structures. I do not linger, but I do remember. When Dean Witter hired me here, I had tried to find my way to succeed only after I arrived. I did not know then that the people who succeed on Wall Street have already succeeded before they arrive. They have connections, a mentor, or an overwhelming talent. If I had had any of these, this might have been my future.
The many New York memorials appear similar to but much larger than the single counterpart I visited at the Pentagon. The teddy bears look like they are waiting for someone.
Reconstruction at the Pentagon takes place rapidly. The booms over the Pentagon become a fixture of the landscape for nearly a year. Workers remove a large swath of the Pentagon and rebuild it.
It is September 11, 2002. I show a security guard a leather photo book that has my photographs from the previous year. They allow me to stay on the knoll in front of the Citgo station. Buses carrying family members approach the Pentagon. Many buses drive by.
I am outside looking in at the memorial for those who were at the Pentagon and their family members. The media report on the story from my left and immediate right. To my far right many others have come to watch. I salute when the ceremony ends.
Before September 11th
At another time in New Jersey I saw a full moon rise with the Twin Towers in the foreground. I stopped on the shoulder of a bridge along the highway, set the Canon AE1 on the roof of the car, and took this shot between the passing of other cars and trucks that shook the bridge. At another time, I took this photo of the Pentagon through the window of an airplane on a flight out of National Airport. The knoll and the Citgo station appear in the upper center of the photo.
I had already taken several photos on the first roll of film that I used on September 11, 2001. This was the last shot I took prior to that day. I spent that weekend in Ocean City, MD. This is a pond at sunset as it appeared from the hotel balcony on September 8th. The headlines talk about sharks off North Carolina and Virginia Beach. Beside the sharks, there really isn't much other news.
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