On September 11, 2001, I was at work in my newly remodeled office at the State Department. Following my normal routine, I was at my desk looking at the morning newspaper for any story that might require attention or action on my part for the noon press briefing that day.
Our new office suit included several wall mounted television sets that allowed us to monitor the world news, primarily CNN. As people arrived for work and moved around I caught conversation talking about a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York City. I stepped out of my office and looked at the TV screen which was showing the first tower after the impact, but that clear cloudless blue sky told me all I needed to know. We had been reading about Osama bin Laden’s plans to launch just such an attack for almost a decade. The first question in my mind was, “how many other airliners are involved and where are they?” The question was partially answered as a second airliner now crashed into the second tower as I watched the live picture from New York. It was now clear beyond doubt that we were under attack.
My job, however, was to go back to work until it was determined at some higher level that I was to do something else. But as the morning passed, additional bits of information kept being passed around from news sources, rumors, etc. Shortly after 10 am, I was asked to visit the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Political Military Affair’s office, who was also a longtime friend and colleague. His office was on the other side of the building from mine and his view included the Virginia side of the Potomac River. As I stepped into his office I could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon where it had been struck by another airliner sometime after the twin towers had been struck. We watched the smoke rising for a while and attempted to ascertain what if any damage we could see.
Around 11 am, the directive came down to evacuate the building as they were still aircraft unaccounted for and it was feared that one or more may still be headed to Washington DC aimed at targets there unknown. I called my wife to tell her we were closing the building down and that I would be heading home with no known time of arrival in the face of an overwhelmed transportation system and highways already jammed with traffic. She shared what news she had heard from the media and conversations with friends – including the rumor that a car bomb had detonated at the State Department. I told her that there definitely been no car bomb at the Department and that she should share that information widely – and if anyone disputed her, remind them that I had spent two years in Belfast during The Troubles and had a pretty good idea what a car bomb explosion looked and sounded like.
After that phone call, I walked through the office suite to make sure that everyone was heading out of the building. One of the younger officers asked, “where should we go” to which I responded, “home, go home, so we know where to find you.” As we secured the now empty offices, the Office Director offered to give me a lift home which under the circumstances, I gladly accepted -- even knowing that traffic would be a veritable nightmare but I wouldn’t be trapped waiting for public transportation or actually walking home from central Washington DC. After what seemed like a couple of hours negotiating through a sea of vehicles, I arrived home to join my wife and daughter and wait out whatever was to happen next -- and spending much of that time in front of the television news broadcasts. One thing in particular, was already clear, it was not just the United States that had been attacked but the world -- and the complete list of victims from New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania made that clear.