Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Washington, D.C.

Back in 2001, when the tragedy of 9/11 happened, even though I was living in the Outer Banks, I was working for, a newsroom just down the road from the Pentagon, where Flight 77 crashed at 9:37 a.m. For several weeks, as a small part of a huge news operation, I labored in the middle of the biggest, most tragic story I had covered.

One of my assignments was compiling a list of the businesses that had been housed in the World Trade Center buildings and how they could be contacted for those searching for loved ones or trying to locate missing persons, a minute-by-minute reminder for me of the scope of loss.

In late September that year I had a vision, something I've shared with very few people. Somewhat akin to reporting a UFO sighting, you never know if people will believe you or question your sanity -- and, in truth, even I wavered between the two.

I call the experience a vision, because although I was lying down, I was not asleep, yet neither was I fully awake. In the vision I was not myself. I was a professional working in the World Trade Towers on 9/11. This time, instead of being part of a tragedy from afar, I was transported into its midst.

The vision began just after the plane hit our building. We didn't seem to be fully aware of what was going on yet, but we began evacuating by getting in an elevator. By looking at my hands and clothing, it appeared that I was a black businesswoman wearing a bright blue skirt and matching jacket. Judging from the way I was treated by those around me, it seemed I was older than the others, perhaps in my 60s.

Our elevator was full to capacity, and I was near the back on the right side. The elevator descended for many floors and then stopped for a long time.

I don't remember when those of us in the elevator began learning the details of what was going on in the floors above us, but we did. Nobody panicked but the mood was serious and edgy. At some point, our elevator jarred into motion and began descending again, eventually letting us out on a floor that was not the lobby.

Thrilled to be out of the elevator, we then as a group entered the stairwell to descend the remaining floors. The stairwell was smokey and already packed with people going down quickly, but we merged into the crowd, one man who had been on the elevator with me kept kindly helping me along.

At one point I was on a landing between floors waiting for the crowd to move on when I heard a rumbling overhead. I looked up at the concrete ceiling above my head and saw it crack and then a powdery dust beginning to fall.

And that was the end.

You're are probably wondering why I'm telling you this now.

This morning we woke to the realization that Hurricane Irene is headed right at Cara Mia -- in a spot where she is decidedly not safe. The closest we can get to the boat by public transportation is via Amtrak to Williamsburg, Virginia, about 50 miles the other side of Mathews but in range where our friends on Anastasia, who coincidentally will be in Williamsburg tonight, could give us a lift to the boat.

We entered Union Station in D.C. and bought Amtrak tickets at 1:44.

Union Station in D.C. is a strikingly beautiful, enormous bit of architecture built in 1903 and restored in 1988. This image gives you some idea of its magnificence if not its scope, housing a shopping mall, restaurants, a Metro subway station below, a food court and the Amtrak station.

Union Station is 6 blocks from the U.S. Capitol building. We were standing at the Amtrak desk at 1:51, just a few days short of the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, talking to an attendant when I heard a rumbling overhead. I looked up at the concrete ceiling above my head and saw it crack and then a powdery dust beginning to fall.

At that moment, before anyone knew what was causing that building to shake, there was a collective flashback to a day almost exactly 10 years ago. A man near us yelled, "What have they done now?!?!"

Though we didn't compare notes until later, in that split second I was certain a bomb had gone off in the Metro station beneath us. Chip thought a plane had hit the building from above. I will never know what others in that crowded building thought, but it was apparent by the response that everyone felt certain it was a terrorist attack.

In the next split second Chip and I looked at each, and Chip said "Let's go."

Because I used to live a few blocks from Union Station and Chip had never been there before, I pointed the way to the door, and we ran.

I later read that Union Station was "evacuated," which is a restrained way of saying that people fled in near panic, most abandoning their belongings, some their shoes.

I've always wondered if I would be one of those heroic people who stands in harm's way to help others. Apparently I am not. The whole world in that moment consisted of me and Chip and the door far across the Main Hall. I'm pretty sure I might have leapt over a small child (not really).

My hands were shaking so badly, I couldn't hold onto the cell phone. It was a long time before we knew we had just experienced an earthquake and not a terrorist attack.

Amid the turmoil of an urban evacuation, we made our way on foot and by taxi, back to John's apartment (to which we had no key), bought a bottle of Prosecco and sat on his patio to celebrate being alive.

Our experiences are so acutely informed by both our private and shared history, and in my case, a vision. It was clear that the trauma of 9/11 was playing out in the minds of everyone around us in D.C. today, a sad yet intended legacy of the 9/11 terrorists.

It did not take long for our collective minds to realize that we were not under attack, there was no serious damage and, once we stopped shaking, to place a near tragedy in its rightful context.

An image circulating on the Internet before the end of the day.
Our own version staged in John's apartment,
much funnier at the time of the taking.
Evacuation reenactment. Photo by John Herlig
**As an interesting footnote, in 2002, a year after 9/11, I saw a documentary filmed by the Naudet brothers inside the Twin Towers on 9/11. It was surprising to me (yet somehow not) that a building I had never actually visited could look so familiar, exactly as I had seen in the vision. There were several other things that were eerily corroborated, including the fact that there were multiple banks of elevators in the towers where you ascended to a landing and then took another bank to the upper floors. At one point, I nearly levitated off the couch when someone mentioned how odd it was that one of the elevators had mysteriously started moving again, and people who had been trapped were suddenly coming out.

I find that the entire experience challenges everything I think I know, and I have come to rest in not knowing.

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