Thursday, September 11, 2008

Where Was I on 9-11?

Seven years ago today I had no idea what was about to unfold as I reported for work. At the time I was a interpretive ranger with the National Park Service at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP.

Here I am...all 255 pounds of me.

I arrived at work about ten minutes 'til nine and began the start up procedures for the visitors center and museum: cash register, audio-visual monitors, museum lighting, and so on. The only thing I didn't turn on were the lights to the visitor center, and unlock the doors. (that happens at nine o'clock)

Rita, one of my fellow rangers, with her trademark Rayban sunglasses.

A minute or two before nine o'clock, I was standing behind the desk in the visitor center enjoying a quiet moment, while waiting for my fellow rangers to arrive. I had seen Rita drive past and figured she had entered the building by another door. And I figured to see Bob strolling across the parking lot at any second.

The Western Maryland train station. Home to many organizations including the National Park Service. The entire bottom floor houses our visitor center and museum.

It was approaching mid-September, it was mid-week, most of the tourists had gone home and the kids had gone back to school so we didn't expect a heavy day as far as visitors were concerned. While I was waiting for Bob to show up the phone rang.

"Good morning, C&O Canal Visitor Center," I said.

"Hey, Paul; it's Bob." (he always said who he was...even though I knew his voice. "Hey, I'm running a little late." (as he's saying this, I can hear his razor and the television in the background) "My alarm clock didn't go off on time."

"Bob, are you trying to tell me you over slept? That's so grade school," I countered, feeling rather silly.

"I'll," he started to say when he abruptly stopped and yelled into the phone, "HOLY SHIT, a plane just flew into the World Trade Center!"

At this point I'm thinking a Lear jet, or a Cessna, or a traffic helicopter, not a jumbo jet. I remember something from World War II where a B-24 bomber got lost in the fog and flew into the Empire State Building. So I was thinking along those lines. Even so, your mind isn't able to comprehend such information, which is why you say things like, "it did what?"

"A plane flew into the World Trade Center."

"Okay, um, look, hang up and I'm gonna call my wife. She'll have the TV on, if she hasn't left for work yet."

I got no answer when I called home. Goody Two Shoes had already left for her office, which is only a five minute walk from our house. No sooner had I hung up when Rita walked in, in uniform, complete with Smoky Bear hat and her trademark Rayban sunglasses.

"Working in the dark are we, Ranger Paul?" she kidded, as she reached for the light switches.

Before she could turn on the lights I informed her that Bob was running late and that he'd said that a plane had crashed into the WTC. While she and I were talking back and forth the phone rang again. This time I never got the standard greeting out of my mouth.


"What the hell is going on?" I wondered aloud.

"I'm on my way in," he added, before hanging up.

After informing Rita, I called my wife at work and asked if she had her radio on. She said she did, and knew about the first plane, but didn't know about the second plane. After telling her about the second plane, I hung up and looked at Rita and we wondered what to do. Clearly the situation wasn't normal. By this time (9:10-9:15) Bob had arrived, and the three of us talked for several minutes before he decided to go upstairs to the office and get on his computer in an effort to get some news.

Hearing the word news, I asked Rita to cover the desk for a moment while I ran to the parking lot. Goody Two Shoes and I had been camping the previous weekend and I had left several items in the back of the van, most notably, a transistor radio that ran off of batteries or electricity. As we had no such radio in the visitor center, my little radio was about to take the mornings events and drop them right in our lap.

With my little radio humming away, I got on the computer in the visitor center and tried to find some additional news. By half past nine the Internet was very sluggish and it seemed to take forever to get an image or a page to load.

By ten o'clock I was alone in the still darkened visitor center. Bob was upstairs, and Rita had gone up herself in an effort to get some work done, leaving me alone downstairs. Total visitor count at No one was moving about.

The rest of the morning was a bit of a blur. We'd gotten word shortly before ten that the Pentagon had been hit by another passenger jet. This is the point where you start asking yourself, 'what's next?' Bob and Rita were in and out of the visitor center several times. Rita relieved me once so I could go stretch my legs or do whatever. For some strange reason I went upstairs to the third floor where our offices, as well as the offices for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority were located. As I'm walking down the hall, I look in the Canal Place main office (they have large glass windows, affording an unobstructed view). I could clearly see Cindy, Michelle and Brenda huddled around Cindy's desk, listening to the radio. One of the women has a hand over her mouth and another one is crying.

By this time I don't know what to do. I go back downstairs and learn, from Bob, that another plane has crashed outside Somerset, Pennsylvania. At the time this one made no reality none of them did, but the Somerset crash really confused us and scared us. Bob hails from Washington, PA and my Grandparent's farm is in Southampton Township (just down the mountain from Somerset.)

By half past ten, I'm alone again in the visitor center, and at this point I sink to my lowest level of dread, fear, or anxiety, or whatever. I pick up the phone and call my pastor. I know enough from the Bible to know that Armageddon will begin in the middle east. I know, (from the radio) that this is the work of terrorists (of middle eastern decent). I also know that my government is gonna want to get back at these people. So, when my pastor answers the phone I asked if this was the beginning of the end. He thought about my question for a moment and then calmly and confidently answered, "no, I don't think so." He said a few other things, but the beginning part was good enough for me.

A short time later I called our dispatch center to find out if there was anything, any special precautions we should be taking. The dispatcher I spoke with responded, saying, "the Superintendent is standing right next to me and he hasn't said anything."

Hurry up and wait seemed to be the order of the day as I listened to the radio. At one point Rita came in and we talked a little. Bob came in a short time later and we looked at a map of Maryland & Pennsylvania, trying to track the flight path of the plane that crashed outside Somerset. (It was Flight 93, and it crashed in Shanksville, but we didn't know that yet.) Using Somerset as an axis or reference point, we set a ruler down and then put the other end of the ruler on Washington DC. (At the time we were just guessing, but Washington seemed to be the logical target.) According to our calculations, had Flight 93 continued on it would have flown near Cumberland, not directly over, a little to the North, but it would have been close enough...too close.

Eleven thirty came, and there was a rumor that the Supreme Court had been hit by a plane. It turned out to be false, thank God. Then the phone rang. It was our dispatch center. The Superintendent was shutting down the park at noon. I informed my co-workers and asked Rita if I should hang a sign on the front door. Getting an affirmative, I took a sheet of paper and in black magic marker wrote, 'Due to the national emergency we will be closing at noon.'

Running to the back, I shut off all the exhibit lights and audio visual equipment and closed out the cash register. I then called my wife, who wanted me to stop by her office and pick her up, as she was told she could go home if she wanted to. The last thing I did was hang the sign on the door.

As I was hanging the sign, a Cadillac pulled up out front and a sixty-something couple got out. I thought, 'my first visitors of the day and I'm closing up.' Anyway, they saw the sign, saw me, looked back at the sign, read it, looked at me and pointed at the sign. Opening the door I stuck my head out and asked if I could help them. This is when the impact of 9-11 really hit me. The old man pointed at the sign and asked,

"What national emergency?"

"Haven't you been listening to the radio?" I asked.

"No. We've been on the road since six-thirty," the woman replied.

"Maybe you'd better come inside," I said, holding the door open for them.

At that point, I walked them behind the counter and showed them the images I had up on the computer. As they looked, I did my best to explain what had happened that morning. They were stunned to the point that they had trouble speaking. They were barely able to ask how and why.

After several moments of embarrassed silence they thanked me for my time, and what help I could provide, they used the restrooms and drove off. Five minutes later, Bob, Rita and I locked the visitor center and went our separate ways.

These were some of the images I showed the older couple.

I picked my wife up at her office and we sat in her parking lot a moment debating whether or not to get the kids out of school. Some parents were already picking their children up and taking them home. Reasoning that they were safe where they were and not wanting to add to the panic, we decided leave them in school and went on home. And from half past noon on 9-11 until around two in the morning of 9-12 we sat in front of the television and watched, and watched, and watched, as a parade of horrifying images passed by.

As long as I live I'll always hear the gasps and the ooh's and aah's, and the crys of Oh my God, as the towers were hit and as they came down. I will also never forget to sound of Aaron Brown's voice...we listened to CNN most of the day. I'll also remember 9-11 as the day I never felt so small and helpless.

I worked for the park service for three years (2000-2002) and I loved every minute of it, except for 9-11. That was the one day I didn't want to be at my job.


June said...

Definitely a day that we all remember...where we were and what we were doing at the time of the attack and then, the hours following as we found ourselves in shock...our world forever changed. I can't imagine the psychological effects it had on the people there seeing it happen around them.

cj said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Along with what I posted on my blog, my other memory of that horrible day was the hours I spent wondering if my nephew was all right. He lives in NYC but I had no idea where... I thought about calling my brother but figured he'd be trying to get in touch with my nephew. Finally, his sister-in-law called to say the nephew was all right.