Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Day After

Yesterday I wrote about how I survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon by the great good fortune of being on the opposite side of the building from where the aircraft hit. People are always a bit surprised, though, when I tell them that in some ways, September 12th was worse for those of us who survived the original attack.

The leadership of the Defense Department was anxious to show that, although we'd suffered a terrible blow, we were still up and running, and so those of us who worked in undamaged parts of the building were told to report to work as usual on September 12th. This turned out to be an adventure.

First of all, the Metrorail station underneath the Pentagon was closed, so we had to get off at the Pentagon City (shopping center) station and walk from there through the pedestrian tunnel under Interstate Highway 395, across the vast south parking lot, and into the building - a bit less than a quarter of a mile. We were stopped at each end of the pedestrian tunnel for an ID check, and then stopped again as we approached the building, where every package, parcel, and briefcase was searched before we could enter. Soldiers in full combat gear were everywhere, emergency equipment and workers were still assembling and organizing, and smoke and flames were still rising from the shattered side of the building.

Once inside the building, we saw more roving troops in full kit, and the air was foul - the internal air circulation system was still working, and it was pulling smoke, fumes, and soot from the burning side of the building and spreading it through the rest of the structure. I work in a secured vault space, and although our telephones, computers, and electricity all continued to work without interruption, our air was awful. About midmorning, people from the Air Force Flight Surgeon's office came by and passed out paper filter masks for us to wear...a bit like locking the barn door after the horse runs off, but a welcome gesture nevertheless.

By lunchtime, we'd all had about as much as we could stand...our eyes were watering and burning, and the air wasn't getting any better, and so we all went home.

We were, of course, back at work the next day, and the days after that, and gradually over the coming weeks the intense security and searches eased up. The fire was finally put out after a few days (it had spread from the original impact area through the old wooden parts of the roof) and the air handlers gradually got the soot and stench out of the air.

Today, six years later, the building is better than new. As a result of the around-the-clock labors of the workers of the Phoenix Project, the damaged sections of the building have been repaired and replaced, with many new safety features based on the lessons learned on that terrible day. A memorial is being built outside the building, and a beautiful memorial chapel now occupies the space where Flight 77 slammed into the building.

Even bad memories fade with time, and the horror of September 11, 2001 has gradually receded to be replaced with second-guessing and the wild conspiracy theories. I'll talk more about that tomorrow. Today, I'll continue to enjoy being alive to thumb my nose at those whose solution to the world's problems involves hate and murder.

Three of my grandchildren have been born since that awful day. I owe it to them to make the world they'll inherit a safer place.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

I'm more than a bit surprised about you going to work the next day. I suppose in situations like 9/11 it is important to show that the Defense Department is still functioning but I can't imagine how all of you must have felt showing up to work on the 12th. There must have been HEAPS to do but could anybody really concentrate?

Jean-Luc Picard said...

That's very interesting to hear a side to it all no one had before.