On the morning of 9/11/2001, I was attending a knowledge management conference in Reston, VA, a suburb of Washington, D.C. My wife and 7-year-old son were with me on the trip, planning on doing some sightseeing in D.C. while I was at the conference, and then we were taking the rest of the week as vacation, going down to Williamsburg, Jamestown, etc.
We didn’t hear about it until the second plane hit and someone came running in to the conference — “planes just hit the twin towers!” I think until the second plane, many people thought that it was just a tragic accident, not necessarily a terrorist attack. At that point, most of us went into the hotel bar, where we stayed the rest of the morning as the events unfolded.
Once it was clear that this was a terrorist attack, I began to be concerned about my wife and son. Although there was no attack on Washington yet, it was obvious that the city was getting ready to be in a major state of turmoil – possibly an evacuation. I started trying to call my wife’s cell phone, but couldn’t get through.
And then the plane hit the Pentagon. I had a momentary panic, but quickly assured myself that my family certainly wasn’t there, as it wasn’t even on the list of places they were interested in seeing. However, there was no telling what other sites might be targeted. And I still couldn’t reach her cell phone.
I spent the next hour or so in a state that defies words. The cell phone system was overloaded. My apprehension only began to ease slowly as we received news that air traffic had all been grounded. We still didn’t know what other attacks might have been planned in conjunction. And even in a best-case scenario, I still had images of my wife and son being whisked onto an evacuation bus, scared to death, and being taken God-only-knows where.
And then she called.
Fortunately, they had gotten a late start that morning and were on the subway into town when the first plane hit. As people began getting on the train and telling what had happened, they made the very smart decision to get off and grab an outbound train back to Reston, where they spent the rest of the day.
As noon approached and it seemed that the attacks had stopped, the conference attendees got together to discuss the events of the day and what we should do. And we unanimously decided to continue our conference. We unanimously decided that there was nothing to be gained by spending the day watching the news; nothing we could to help make the situation any better for anyone; and that the very best thing we could do to defy the terrorists was simply not to give in to terror – to get back to our lives as quickly as possible.
The following day, we continued our conference, with the only change being a brief moment of silence at the start of the day in memory of those who died on 9/11. And yet, “normal” now felt different. Just the ability to meet freely and share ideas openly took on a whole new meaning.
Washington, D.C., was committed to opening back up for business. While the Capitol and the White House remained under lockdown, the Washington Zoo was open; the Smithsonian was open; the monuments were open. And so, my wife and son went sightseeing.
One funny thing happened that day. While they couldn’t go inside the Capitol, they did go walk around it. As luck would have it, my son picked that time to have to go to the bathroom. And of course, there aren’t any porta-potties near the Capitol, and nothing else within close walking distance.
National security can’t stop a mother on a mission. My wife went up to one of the Secret Service agents stationed outside the Capitol and explained that he needed to go to the bathroom. After a brief round of his refusal and her insistence, he finally said that he would take him inside, but she had to stay outside with the other agent.
And so, the Secret Service escorted my son to the Capitol bathroom. When he was done, my son remembers him asking, “Did you wash your hands?”
An exceedingly normal act of human compassion. My heartfelt thanks go out to that unnamed Secret Service agent. Thank you for putting the well-being of a 7-year-old boy over proper procedure. I wish that kind of attitude were more common.
My wife and I discussed whether we should take our rental car and drive home, but we decided there was truly nothing to be accomplished by that. We called and verified that Historical Williamsburg would be open, as would Busch Gardens. We continued our vacation. No one really spoke about 9/11, though it clearly was on everyone’s mind. But we didn’t give in to the terror. We went back to “normal” as fast as we possibly could, knowing, though, that normal would never be quite the same.