News: CJ Exclusives

Panic as smoke rises on the horizon: Covering 9/11 from Washington, D.C.

Parker King, 3, and Grayson King, 9 months, pose in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. in  September of 2001.
Parker King, 3, and Grayson King, 9 months, pose in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. in September of 2001.

Twenty years ago, on Sept. 11 I dropped my toddler and infant off at day care, completely preoccupied with the impending long commute into downtown Washington, D.C.  I was a reporter at Reuters Television covering North America and the nation’s capital. Like many of us, I remember noticing what a beautiful day it was, clear blue skies and a tiny bit of fall in the air.

Within minutes of arriving at work, we were all gathered around the banks of TVs in the newsroom, in shock watching passenger jets crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. While smoke rose from the Pentagon in the distance outside our office window, we were each assigned a cameraman and told to scatter around the city on foot. Abandoned cars were blocking traffic in every direction downtown and bridges were closed. I was sent to the Capitol and then to the State Department. When we arrived, the Capitol was being evacuated because there was word that another plane was headed our way.

I remember seeing terrified tourists crying in the street. One woman from the UK was sitting on the sidewalk sobbing while her children tried to drag her into a restaurant. Federal government workers were everywhere around the fountains in front of monuments, running around looking for a working cell phone. Only people who had Nextel phones could get a signal, and they were swamped with pleas from strangers.

Word came to us over a Reuters walkie-talkie the incoming plane crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania and that our next stop should be the Pentagon. “Get as close as you can, without getting in the way,” we were told. Police had media set up in a gas station parking lot overlooking the gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon. The smell of burning fuel comes back to me occasionally and still gives me a queasy pit in my stomach.

It was a really long day, but not emotional for some reason. I remember feeling almost robotically reactive; gather information, get images, get soundbites.

It wasn’t until I finally saw my children and my husband the next day that it all sank in. My toddler always wanted to ride her tiny bike to the park and I had always avoided it. On Sept. 12, we rode to the park and took a picture of her and her 9-month-old brother holding the historic front page of The Washington Post. On the way home, we took off her training wheels for the first time and she sailed down the sidewalk. Life is short.

Over the years, my children have heard these stories and always asked if it could happen again. I try to focus on the safety that our nation is privileged to enjoy, despite some tragedies. We talk about all those who work to make our safety possible, our police and firefighters, our military, our intelligence community. These heroes, including my husband, a retired Air Force officer, spend every day working to keep us free. I use the example of our airports and all the security measures that seem normal to them and explain they didn’t exist before. After the events of the last three weeks in Afghanistan, I am less confident that we will not report of such tragedy again.

Today, I pray for those who risk all for our nation, for peace for their families.