I’m told that one could see the terrible smoke rise from the Pentagon from my home on September 11, 2001, barely two miles away. My coworkers in Crystal City, immediately to the south, felt our office building shake (explaining their added nervousness during the recent earthquake). I wouldn’t know. I was stranded more than 800 miles (1,300 km) away attending a quarterly business meeting as the terrible events unfolded in New York, Washington and Shanksville.
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September 11 was a Tuesday that year, a gorgeous sunny day in the Midwest. We’d flown to St. Louis, Missouri the previous afternoon from all corners of the United States. It was a logical choice: middle of the country, lots of direct flights, decent September weather. We were preparing to get down to business and start our two-day meeting when the news arrived.
I called my wife instinctively before the telephone networks clogged hopelessly with others having the exact same thought, but my call passed to her voice mail. She was sitting in an office building in downtown Washington, DC, and she was eight months pregnant with our older son (the insightful one who loves maps). I got nervous as I saw events unfolding on television, as panicked workers gridlocked the city fleeing en masse.
Most of my DC friends walked home that morning, several miles, the only form of "transportation" public or otherwise moving at a decent speed. My wife did not have that option because of her condition. She had to remain in place for several hours which, thankfully, was located in a bunker-like basement. By then the city was a ghost town and she had the easiest commute of the year. I didn’t know any of that until much later in the day so it did little to relieve my mind at the moment. Helplessness is a horribly uneasy feeling.
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Air traffic ground to a halt and nobody knew when flights would resume. We were stuck in St. Louis. Our New York crew left on the afternoon of 9-11 and drove all night. The rest of us checked-out of our hotel at St. Louis’ Union Station early the next morning. The first streaks of light greeted our long, weary treks back to home and family. Even the folks who lived in Seattle and San Francisco returned by automobile. We didn’t have a choice for reasons I won’t bore you with, just that our services contributed directly to restoration efforts.
Thus began my dreadful road trip, the one I didn’t enjoy. You can still see the gash of new counties on my County Counting map if you look closely. Frankly, counting counties was the last thing on my mind. I shared a car with two coworkers and we drove non-stop except to refuel. We chose the northern route back to Washington while others in our group chose the southern; either one is fine as they’re almost exactly the same distance.
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It’s funny how a few moments of the drive come to mind vividly while the preponderance has become a largely-forgotten blur. The most intense memory, the highlight or lowlight depending on point of view, happened as we approached Indianapolis, Indiana. Interstate 70 abuts Indianapolis International Airport. The sight of hundreds of jet airliners parked on the tarmac in the middle of the day, none of them moving, has been seared into my brain. Many of them were FedEx cargo planes that serviced their Indianapolis hub, a place that ordinarily processes 50,000 packages a day. Chilling.
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The shock of the previous day’s events along with a total airline meltdown must have canceled a lot of plans. Traffic was sparse as we cruised across the Heartland. We shared the road with few other automobiles. Even truck traffic was light with a few exceptions: FedEx wasn’t flying but they were shipping by road, as were UPS and the US Postal Service. It was us and the mail carriers sharing an Interstate with few others venturing onto the roads. The only time we encountered traffic, and I mean that in a relative sense because it only slowed us down to the actual speed limit, happened in Columbus, Ohio. It was getting into afternoon by that point and local traffic mixed with the intercity trekkers to cause a few slow-downs.
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We checked-in with loved ones by mobile phone periodically. I didn’t know it at the time but my wife had a large map of the United States hanging on the wall behind her desk and she moved a push-pin to each new location as I called. Apparently her entire office was tracking my progress while I moved closer to home. The cell phone network was fairly well developed in 2001 but there was one stretch of non-existent coverage: between Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania border. Otherwise the rest of the trip went uneventfully and I returned to the office the next morning, helping to staff the 24X7 operations center we’d established.
My path took me past the Pentagon on I-395 uncountable times over the next several months. It reminded me of the first time I gazed upon the Grand Canyon except in a most terrible contradictory way: no photo or video will ever come close to what one can see with one’s own eyes.
It’s been ten years and I’ve still not returned to St. Louis.