September 11: Alexandria, VA

Editor’s note: After the September 11th attacks, I sent out a request in our eNewsletter. Here’s what it said:

"I haven’t been able to get away from the news for the past week, and I’m sure most of you feel the same way. Wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you’ll probably remember the specifics for a long time. But memories deteriorate.

While I often find myself begging (almost) for more contributions, this request is of a different nature. Please take a few minutes to reflect on the past week and write down your experiences. I want to know where you were, how you reacted, what you saw, what you didn’t see.

I want to know how this has affected people. I will try to find a way to share it with everyone; or no one, if you prefer."

What I received soon thereafter surprised me. I not only received more contributions than I expected, but I found myself coming to terms with things through the reactions of those who wrote back.

I encourage you to read each and every response, for they represent a fraction of what I received. Please remember that these are uncensored responses that might offend you. Read and digest. Perhaps it will help you too.

– Michael Browne, October 2001

By Dana M. Mellerio

Alexandria, VA

I work at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. We turned on the television in the conference room just in time to vividly see the second building being hit by a second aircraft. I stood there stunned as the video replays looked like so many science fiction and action movies I’ve seen portraying exploding high-rise buildings. I returned to my desk and, shortly thereafter, someone mentioned that the Pentagon had just been hit. I went to the roof of our building and could see massive amounts of smoke coming from the general location of the Pentagon. Emergency vehicle sirens could be heard everywhere. I turned and, for the first time, noticed just how close the Capitol building was from our office; less than a mile as the crow flies. We were soon ordered to evacuate our Federal building. I made certain my staff received the word and I quickly changed into my bike clothes, hurriedly tossed my work clothes into my courier bag, and headed to the parking garage to get my bike.

People were milling around everywhere trying to get out of the building since none of us knew which target might be next. I arrived at the parking garage to see cars two abreast backed up as people tried to get out of the garage. I hopped on my trusty Ti Merlin and sped up the garage ramp to find nothing but gridlock outside.

I was able to weave through stopped traffic while listening to the news on my earbuds. The surroundings were nothing short of surreal; I reached the Jefferson Memorial where the sky was orange with smoke and the air had the acrid smell of burning wood. My eyes stung. Police were everywhere. In the background, smoke billowed from the Pentagon. The 14th Street bridge (my crossing to Virginia) was closed to everything but foot traffic. A sea of humanity was crossing the pedestrian portion of the bridge as I repeated "on your left" non-stop until I reached the other side, only to find the Mount Vernon trail full of wayward individuals trying to make their way home. These people, in their work suits and dresses, had left their cars in the District or decided not to be confined to the crowded Metro trains. Many people were standing around in groups, talking and gesturing toward the Pentagon.

Several minutes later I found that the trail through Washington National Airport was closed, even to pedestrian traffic and bicycles. The silence from the closed airport was almost palpable. I grabbed my bike and trotted across the George Washington Memorial Parkway and rode the grass on the other side of the airport until I could cross over again to access the trail. I was home six minutes later than my usual commute. My wife and I picked up our two daughters from school and sat at home together as a family as others still struggled to get out of the District.

Riding through Washington, DC and near the Pentagon while listening to live news broadcasts was such a surreal experience that I doubt I will ever forget it. I have never felt so free, independent and unencumbered as I did that day as I rode my Merlin home without anything stopping me. I rode the Metro to work one day last week and I did not like the new feeling of claustrophobia I experienced as the train went underground near the Pentagon. I have a new appreciation for my bike, as it safely delivered me home to my family without concern. Now when I am on my bike, I feel free, strong and able to handle any situation. My bike and I are an independent entity, able to travel at will, not dependent on anything or anyone. My bike and I represent freedom in a free country.


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