In our everyday lives, 10 years is long, long time, and yet it seems like only yesterday that the 9/11 tragedies rocked our nation and the world. The memories are still eerily accessible in the not-so-far corners of our minds, perhaps as a result of the media blitz, the days and months of analysis, the movies, books, and water-cooler remembrances. A decade later, we can easily recount where we were, what we were doing, and how we responded when we first heard the horrific news.
Those of us who work for the Smithsonian are no exception. This week, we have gathered stories from our own hallways, detailing the events of 9/11 as seen, heard, and experienced from the staff at SITES. The following recollections are complete and unedited:
It was a sunny Tuesday morning, with unremarkable traffic, so my husband and I listened to the radio on the drive into town. Between songs came a report around 9 am that a plane had flown into the World Trade Building–with commentary about how odd that was, and that it must have been one of those tourist small planes. Not much to worry about, so I dropped my husband off at the Dept. of Agriculture, parked the car in the staff parking garage at Air & Space, and walked the few blocks back to SITES. On Tuesday mornings, we have staff meetings at 9:30, but colleagues had begun to hear about New York, so we gathered in the conference room early where our only TV in the office was tuned to the news. There we were, 3 floors underground, in the Ripley Center, watching as a group, completely stunned by the unfolding drama and horror.
Eventually, we each connected with loved ones nearby and scattered across the country and beyond, checked with car pools, weighed rumors about whether the Metro was running, whether to leave or stay, where it was safest, whether more was coming. When we emerged "above ground" to a sunny day in the Smithsonian Garden with perfect blue skies, we could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon across the river, and not a sound overhead. The landing approach to Reagan National Airport is right along the Potomac, but all the planes had been grounded. It was eerily quiet, and the crowds of people were quiet, too–stunned into silence. I met up with my husband, and we returned to Air & Space to fetch our car and drive home, listening to non-stop news, got home and watched more non-stop news for hours and hours (and then what seemed like days and days). We hung out our flag, called far-flung family members, wept.
--Andrea Stevens, Director of Strategic Communications
I was driving to work. At the time, I worked in Tenleytown, and I drove through Georgetown to head up Wisconsin Ave. I remember I was listening to my Russian language CDs, but paused them to check traffic just as I turned onto Wisconsin, near Reservoir Road. It’s a bit fuzzy, but I think they were reporting the first plane hitting the first tower, and I was listening when someone in the studio yelled, there’s another plane, and the radio people didn’t know what was happening, but it was pretty clear that a second plane meant it was on purpose.When I got to work, a TV had already been set up in one of the main areas, and people were gathering to watch. We would all watch for a while, then run up to our own desks to check email and make phone calls, and then come back down. One coworker was from New York and as we were watching, and the first tower started to fall, she was the most upset of everyone. Funny I can remember trying to comfort her, but I can’t remember who it was.
My husband was out of town, in Colorado, and I remember I wanted to call his mother to tell her he was fine, and then I heard about the fourth plane, only 10 miles from his mom’s house, and suddenly it meant checking on her instead of reassuring her. I can’t even remember learning about the third plane, but I do remember wanting to talk to my mom because my dad was in a meeting that day, and I was afraid it had been in the Pentagon. It turned out it was at the Navy Yard, and they were in lock down, and we couldn’t talk to him until much later. My mom didn’t want me to drive home over the bridges, but traffic was pretty light and I wanted to be home. That night or the next day, I remember talking to my dad on the phone and at that point the estimates on how many people might have died in the towers was very very high, and I was crying about the thousands and thousands of people. My roommate had been driving along Ridge Road, going to her parents’ house or coming back, and heard the plane hit the Pentagon. That really struck me, thinking how close she had been. My husband was stuck in Colorado for a while since so many airports closed, and when he finally got home I picked him up at Dulles and just hugged him hard.
--Devra Wexler, Project Director
I took my family to see the 9/11 objects at NMAH over the weekend – my older son, now 15, was in his first full week of kindergarten on Sept 11, and my younger son, now 11, was a toddler. After we looked at the objects from New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, and saw the short video about the day’s events, my younger son asked, "How come I never heard about this?" For most adults (say, anyone now over the age of 18), the sights, sounds, and emotions of that day are still so painfully immediate and dramatic, we almost can’t bring ourselves to think on them. But for anyone younger, Sept. 11, is simply an event in our nation’s time line, like Day-D or Gettysburg or the first walk on the Moon. It is left to those of us who lived through that day to shape and define what makes it into the history books for the next generation.
--Melissa McCracken, Development Specialist
After we were dismissed from work I remember walking across the Mall hearing the F-16's scrambling above, there was a weird stillness even though there were touristsaroundand the traffic was already a mess with folks trying to get home. I didn't want to take the subway butfinally caught the bus once I got to the convention center. After I got home, I was glued to the television for the rest of the day trying to absorb what had happen.
--Michelle Torres-Carmona, Director of Scheduling & Exhibitor Relations
I was born and raised in New York City and remember watching the Twin Towers go up. In fact, my father knew someone who got us in for a hard-hat tour while the buildings were under construction. When they were done, I could see them from my bedroom window, which was more than 80 blocks north; and when we celebrated big family events, like my parents’ silver wedding anniversary or my grandfather’s 80th birthday or my uncle’s wedding, we went to Windows on the World. Those Towers were not only an imposing force in my physical world, they were also a permanent part of my emotional landscape. So when I came in to work on that perfect blue-sky September morning, hurrying slightly because we had staff meeting and I’d just dropped off kids at school, I remember hearing someone calling out that there had been a terrible accident in New York, and we better come quickly to watch the TV. I got to the conference room just in time to see the second plane hit. It was clear that we were under attack. I’d just read a New Yorkerpiece about the Taliban that mentioned Osama bin Laden, and it didn’t take long to put the pieces together. But what I remember most is how we sat together as a staff in stunned silence, tears running down our faces, as we watched over and over again as the buildings were hit, as they crumbled, as people fled and jumped and screamed.
How we tried calling loved ones close by and around the country and how we stayed underground in the Quad unsure about what to do or where to go. We sat together and then, when word came to go home, we made sure we all had safe ways to get back to our families and friends.I also remember snarled traffic, people offering strangers rides and an eerie quiet. No planes were in the sky, no horns were blaring, and no one was talking much. When I got to the elementary school, children were still in class, but were escorted out as parents arrived. We went home and got on our bikes and rode and rode through the park just to get away from the news.Within a few weeks, the exhibition proposals started to pour in - people – artists, curators, museums – had an overwhelming urge to document and present the events. Exhibitions popped up seemingly at a moments’ notice. Photographers shared images of the Towers, the impacts, the aftermath; collectors had shards of wreckage and ‘missing’ posters; artists produced portraits and patriotic assemblages. We drew back and decided that rather than select one project to take to the nation, we would wait and work with our colleagues at the National Museum of American History. The September 11 exhibition opened there on the first anniversary of the attacks and went on the road the following year.Of all of our projects, thinking about this one still brings tears to my eyes.
--Fredie Adelman, Director of Exhibits
I was on a family vacation in Ireland with my parents and brother, Jeff. My parents live in Wisconsin, Jeff in Minnesota, and I was in DC, so it was a nice time for us all to be together. It was our last full day and we were touring a peat bog. Jeff and I had just climbed out of the bog where we each took our turn at cutting peat, and we headed to the café to freshen up. That’s when we saw the images on the TV. The screen was filled with smoke and only one tower was standing. We spent the rest of the day back at the Inn with our fellow American travelers and our new Irish friends in a daze trying to take in all the news.
One of our fellow travelers had a son who worked in the Trade Center; thankfully, a call came in quickly reporting that he had been at a doctor’s appointment that day and hadn’t been at work. For a few hours, it was wrongly reported that there was an explosion on the National Mall, home to the Smithsonian with my colleagues and friends. There were a lot of unknowns—including when we would be able to get home because they stopped all international flights to the U.S. for a number of days. We ended up staying in Ireland for an extra week. We were all very thankful that we were together on that day.
--Jennifer Schommer, Assistant Director of Public Relations
I was working in Annapolis, Maryland, at the time, in an old building adjacent to the U.S. Naval Academy. Normal, beautiful September day with the late-Summer thrill of low humidity and clear blue skies. We were getting ready to give a museum tour to some school children when a colleague came in and said a plane had accidently run into a building in New York. I didn't think too much of it, visualizing a twin-prop with an inexperienced pilot skimming the side of a skyscraper. Then, more news--another plane had hit. I had to take a deep breath with the sudden realization that this was no coincidence. We rushed over to the small 13" television in the public gallery and watched in total shock as the towers crumbled, the city fell apart, and the world seemed to dissolve into total chaos. Rumors swirled that the Capitol was next. We tried to get home amidst the uniformed soldiers brandishing weapons in the streets. The following days were surreal. I woke up on September 12 hoping that it had all been a dream. Later that day, I just had to turn off the TV, satiated with the media coverage, too weary and emotionally shaken to see any more destruction or come to terms with the colossal loss of life.
--Heather Foster Shelton, Editor & Web Content Manager
My main memory of 9/11 was my feeling of having so many unanswered questions: Why did the planes fly into the buildings? Who flew the planes? Were there more planes heading to DC or the mall? Was it safe to stay in SITES underground offices or was it safe to go outside? Was the Metro running so that I could get home? Was the Metro safe to use? My other main memory in the days that followed was my surprisingly strong feelings of patriotism and support for President Bush- surprising given my lifelong liberal political views.I think that 9/11 had a particularly strong emotional impact for me because my first-born 4 month-old son was waiting for me when I got home that day.
--Ed Liskey, Senior Scheduling & Exhibitor Relations Coordinator
The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has created a September 11 digital archive to collect and archive the stories of average Americans, about a day that defined our modern collective understanding of security, loss, and patriotism. Please contribute your story at http://americanhistory.si.edu/september11/