Certain dates take on special meaning, as shared experiences and defining vignettes in our global consciousness. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing on these dates. The Apollo lunar landing (July 20, 1969) is one such date. For many in the United States, September 11, 2001 is another. The recent anniversary of this date prompted me to reflect on my experiences
On that day, I was hosting a National Science Foundation (NSF) workshop on Computation as a Tool for Discovery in Physics at NCSA's Access Center, adjacent to NSF, in Arlington, Virginia. After the meeting opened, I ran downstairs to hail a taxi and head to Capitol Hill for a meeting at U.S. Representative Dennis Hastert's office in one of the Congressional office buildings. At the time, Rep. Hastert was Speaker of the House and second in line to the U.S. Presidency, a fact I had not considered particularly noteworthy until that day.
I arrived a few minutes early for my appointment with one of Rep Hastert's legislative affairs directors and was waiting for my other Illinois colleague in the hallway outside when my Blackberry began buzzing. Argonne's Rick Stevens had sent me a message asking if I were okay. I thought this curious and responded, "Of course, why wouldn't I be?" as I ambled into the office anteroom. Like almost all Senate and House offices, the anteroom contained televisions tuned to CSPAN and CNN, with the sound off.
At that point, I heard a mumbled comment about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. My immediate thought was that the pilot of a single engine plane must have done something incredibly stupid. As I was thinking this, the person I was waiting to meet emerged and told me we would need to postpone our meeting. "Why?" I asked. Pointing to the television, which was now showing a replay of American Airlines Flight 11 hitting the first World Trade Center tower, he said, "That's why."
Unbeknownst to either of us, a third plane had just hit the Pentagon, a few miles away. As we stood chatting, the Capitol Police began a leisurely evacuation process for the building. As I emerged into the fall sunlight, small groups of people were wandering slowly around the House and Senate office buildings. There was no panic, because most of us had no idea what was happening, at least until we looked to the southwest, where a column of smoke was now rising from the Pentagon.
My Illinois colleague and I retreated to the Bullfeathers, a bar just off the Capitol, where we joined a growing group of members of Congress and staffers. Rumors were rampant, including one that a plane was headed for the Capitol, and none of us really knew what was happening. Cell phone service was non-existent, overloaded by call attempts, and we had only relayed information from the single television in the bar. Through it all, my Blackberry continued to operate, though, and I received brief news updates from my friends.
Why didn't we leave a high value target area, you might ask? The Washington Metro was closed, taxis were non-existent, there was a security cordon around the area, and it was too far to walk. As we waited, fighter jets were flying low over the Capitol, sirens wailed regularly and bomb squads flew past.
After several hours, some semblance of normality began returning and the Metro reopened. My colleague and I boarded the Metro, which was packed with worried people. Their fear rose further when the train passed the smoke-filled Pentagon stop at high speed.
After what seemed a lifetime, but which was really only about three hours, I found myself again sitting in my meeting at NSF, discussing the future of computational physics. All the attendees had agreed that continuing the meeting was the best policy. It was somber and subdued, and we struggled to focus on plasma physics, molecular dynamics, or accelerator physics.
We now knew the airports were closed, and most of us knew we would need to find alternative transportation to our varied homes across the country. At least one of the workshop attendees had immediate family within blocks of the New York ground zero site, which triggered collective attempts to find any working communication channel to New York City.
Throughout the day, I continued to track developments on MSNBC, where I began experiencing timeouts due to query volume. That evening, I walked through the deserted streets of Arlington to reach my nearby hotel. Seeing the National Guard armed and ready outside buildings was sobering. It was a surreal time, with great uncertainty about what might happen.
Over the next three days, I collected information on various faculty, staff and students stranded in greater Washington, DC. Eventually, we found a rental car (no mean feat) and drove back to Champaign, Illinois.