Note: An edited down version of this story was first published by the National Journal. What follows is the complete text:
Long before I ever considered a career in journalism, I had graduated from college in the summer of 2001 when I made the decision to head to Washington D.C. to pursue a career in international politics or international relations. My roommate and I settled into our apartment in Glover Park in late August. I began an internship at the Organization of American States the first week of September after Labor Day.
I overslept that Tuesday morning. Normally, I would have eaten breakfast or watched the news as I got ready to go to work, but because I had only been there for a week, I didn't want to make a bad impression by showing up late. I skipped breakfast and drove to my office in Foggy Bottom, located right next to the campus of the George Washington University.
I still remember that drive very well ten years later. There was little traffic on the streets, and the weather was spectacular. I recall thinking at that point that maybe my roommate and I should go out for drinks in Georgetown after we got home from work because it was such a nice day outside.
When I got in to the office at around 9:10 a.m., I noticed a sort of commotion or sense of urgency from the people who worked in the building as I headed to my desk. I didn't ask what was going on, and there were no televisions nearby so I had no idea what was going on. I settled in to my desk, turned on the computer, and as soon as I checked my usual news sources for my morning read -- in those days, it would have been the CNN, New York Times, or Washington Post websites -- that I found out what was going on.
Naturally I was shocked. Once that initial reaction had somewhat subsided, I began asking the next logical question: who could or would do something like this? By coincidence, I had finished reading Robert Young Pelton's book The World's Most Dangerous Places a week earlier, in which the author wrote about some of the most dangerous or unstable regimes on the planet. Based on this information and some other material I dug up at the time -- I think I was using Yahoo since Google was not the online research juggernaut it is now and Wikipedia was in its infancy at the time -- my initial guesses were Moammar Gadhafi -- because of the role of Libyan intelligence agents in the Pan Am 103 bombing, which in my mind was the precedent for aviation-based terrorism to measure this attack; Osama bin Laden -- because of the 1998 embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000; and Saddam Hussein -- based on the various sanctions, no-fly zones against Iraq over the years, and the Iraqi intelligence service's attempt to assassinate former President Bush after he left office. We found out pretty quickly through news accounts that bin Laden and al-Qaeda were the ones responsible, as I recall within a few hours of the attacks.
I tried to get to work but found myself unable to concentrate. I asked my boss if we were going to evacuate the building, and he said he didn't think so. I recall being told by someone else that leaving for the day was optional. I kept my web browsers open to different news organizations to check for updates. I got an email from one of my college friends asking if I was OK and I assured him I was.
I recall reading a report -- which turned out to be inaccurate -- that as many as ten other planes were still unaccounted for. It is worth keeping in mind that at that point, anything seemed possible. I also began asking myself if terrorists were attacking the commercial, banking, or financial icons or institutions of the United States and the World Trade Center was already hit, what else was left? The list I came up with was the Sears Tower, the Federal Reserve, Fort Knox, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- the latter two were located directly across the street from my office, which was also a few minutes' walking from the White House and the State Department. Five minutes later, I found out the Pentagon was hit.
At that point, I wasn't taking any chances and evacuated. Unfortunately for me, so did everyone else in downtown Washington D.C. I barely knew my way around the city at that point, so I stuck to the major streets to get back to my apartment. All the streets in Foggy Bottom were jammed, and Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street were no better, especially because many people were heading for the Key Bridge to go to Virginia. A drive that normally took me less than 20 minutes wound up taking nearly two hours.
In all that time, I had two things keeping me distracted: the radio and my cell phone. I was trying to call my roommate and everyone I could think of in DC to let them know I was OK but the lines were jammed and I couldn't get through. I tried calling my aunt in California -- no luck. Ironically, I called my cousin who lived in lower Manhattan and worked at Merrill Lynch's office in New Jersey at the time and got through without a problem. I told him I was OK, and asked him to call or email my family to let them know since I didn't know when I'd be able to get them on the phone.
I eventually got home and my roommate was already waiting, freaking out he couldn't reach me. He had spoken to relatives of his who lived in Davidsonville, Maryland and they invited us to come over to their house and crash for a few days to get out of the city. There was no discussion about this -- my roommate took the liberty of packing a gym bag for me with some clothes for a few days. It was at this point when I first had access to a television that morning and I first saw the now-familiar images of the second plane crashing and buildings collapsing into rubble.
I remember the drive to Davidsonville being very quiet. My roommate and I barely said a word as we listened to the radio. I thought traffic would be just as bad going north on Wisconsin Avenue or once we reached 495. It was exactly the opposite -- there was barely a car in sight. We spent the next day or two out there watching the news and trying to figure out what this meant for us and our jobs, since neither of us were in the terrorism or national security sectors and we suspected, correctly as it turns out, that everything would take a backseat to terrorism or relief efforts.
Looking back on it now with the benefit of a decade of hindsight, that day had a profound impact on me in ways I couldn't have imagined at the time. After I began my journalism career in late 2002, the 9/11 plot became a personal and professional interest of mine. In time, this interest would expand to include other national security and foreign policy issues. Nine years later, I'm still in journalism and am halfway through a M.A. program at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program.
My concentration? Terrorism.
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