On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at work as a Program Associate Director at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB—the President’s budget office. Specifically, I was in the Old Executive Office Building, which is within the White House complex. My colleagues and I were in the daily morning meeting with the Director, Mitch Daniels (now Governor of Indiana).
It was an uneventful meeting until one of our colleagues came in late and said that a plane just crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I suspect that many in the room had the same thought that I had: “How terrible, a Piper Cub or Cessna propeller plane gone tragically off course.” After a modest delay, the meeting resumed for another half hour or so. After it adjourned, we all left the Director’s office and stood in front of the TV in the outer-office, and realized for the first time watching CNN that it was a jetliner, not a small plane. We were all aghast, and watched in horror for a while. We all thought it was a terrible, terrible accident.
I then left and went downstairs to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee. By the time I got back to the second floor, my assistant was in the hallway waiting for me and told me that another plane hit and that the news reports are saying that it is a terrorist attack. I was stunned! Everyone was. We all had TVs tuned to CNN in our offices, and we were glued to them.
After a few conversations about how this was our generation’s Pearl Harbor and that war was sure to follow, security personnel were moving frantically through the building telling everyone to evacuate. We didn’t know why then, but quickly realized that this was either protocol for such emergencies or that we were directly under threat of a similar attack. There was much confusion and fear, and we all left the building. Other buildings around us had evacuated as well, and there were thousands of people milling about the streets trying to find out what was going on.
We soon learned from random sources in the street that a plane had hit the Pentagon, and that another was on its way to Washington. Speculation was that either the White House or the Capitol was the target. I thought, “Four planes were hijacked and used as missiles? What’s going on?” I was with my mentor, Sean O’Keefe, then the Deputy Director of OMB, and other OMB colleagues. We were desperate for news and to connect with the Director for coordination and direction, but cell phones were mostly inoperable. We found ourselves standing by a street vendor’s cart crowded together trying to listen to a transistor radio for news.
At that moment, I heard Sean O’Keefe mutter something like, “This smells like Al Qaeda.” This was the first time I had heard this name/term, and after asking him what it was, he told me that it was a terrorist group that the government had been tracking. The thought that a terrorist group could execute such a coordinated attack on the United States successfully was an extremely humbling and disorienting thought. I had been at OMB for about 4 months, and I was still adjusting to the awe of working in the White House complex. Now I was there during one of the most vicious acts of war against the nation I loved and served.
The streets were gridlocked with cars, and people filled the sidewalks. One surreal moment I remember was when I heard the distant sound of an airplane getting closer and louder. Everyone else…I mean every one of the thousands of people in the vicinity also heard it and we all looked up in horror, given what had been happening that morning. After one of our fighter jets zoomed by, we all simultaneously sighed in relief, and some of us began laughing nervously because we all had the exact same fear and relief in the exact same moment. It was like the surreal scene from the Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Birds, where everyone in the street was terrified of what was coming down from the sky above.
Our little group from OMB finally made our way 10-15 blocks away to a law office at which one of our colleagues used to work. The lawyers and staff there were great. They basically let us take over their main conference room, where we all gathered to watch the news and take turns calling home and other loved ones to let them know we were okay. We stayed there most of the day, and after gridlock had died down, I was able to get my car and drive home to my apartment on Capitol Hill. After a few drinks at my local watering hole, I went to my apartment, went to bed, and began to cry myself to sleep. The world had changed and I didn’t know what was next.
The next morning at the daily meeting in the Director’s office, the first order of business was to determine how long we would allow people to stay home before we would begin to compel staff to return to work. I don’t know the percentage, but a fair share of people did not come to work that day, and it was completely understandable. Schools were closed, people needed to be with their children, and people were just downright afraid of what might happen. It was that day that I learned that some of my staff, who worked on the 9th floor of the New Executive Office Building, across Pennsylvania Ave from the White House complex, had actually seen the plane hit the Pentagon. They described the horrifying experience.
About 3-4 weeks after the attack, I travelled to New York City with a small delegation of Administration officials to visit with business leaders to discuss ways to get business activity in the city back up and running. After the meeting, we were given a tour of Ground Zero. It was extraordinary to see a big hole in such a densely populated city, steel and ruble still smoldering, with a smell that was like none other I had experienced. We all wore masks, but while it protected us from the toxic soot still lingering in the air, the smell permeated everything. You could see giant bent and broken steel beams everywhere, including lodged in neighboring buildings.
Many people lost family and friends that fateful day. I knew one person who died in the Pentagon attack, a recent graduate from the graduate school I attended at Syracuse University—Brady K. Howell (http://projects.washingtonpost.com/911victims/brady-k-howell/). He was 26 years old. May his and others’ souls who perished that day rest in peace. May God continue to bless and heal the hearts of the many families who lost loved ones that day. May we all never forget.
Author: Dr. Lloyd Blanchard, Director of Public Performance Management, IEM