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Oct. 23, 2021 | Saturday
Editorials and Opinions
20 years After 9/11: Fear and trepidation after the attacks
The Pentagon on 9/11. (U.S. Navy photo)

Elizabeth Masson
Special to The Lake Report

After the 9/11 attacks, I, who read The Washington Post every day, did not read the paper, listen to the radio, or watch television for six days.

Finally, the next week I forced myself to do so and learned, for the first time, that the fire at the Pentagon had been caused by an airplane crashing into it. I had assumed a bomb had gone off there.

Three weeks later, I went to a conference in Virginia, south of the Pentagon and took the interstate that borders it. The gaping hole in the side of the largest building by square footage in the world was astonishing. The Post began publishing the biographies of the people killed, both inside the Pentagon and those on the plane that plowed into it. There was one each day for over 100 days.

I learned that our friend who had shown us the beautiful view from his office in the World Trade Center had survived but the son of one of my elementary school teachers, working for Cantor Fitzgerald on the top floors of the North Tower, had not. The fiancee of a friend’s daughter had also perished. Vanessa, who was working as a lawyer in New York City, quit her job, and applied for a position with the FBI as her contribution in the fight against terrorism. She has never married and is a FBI agent in their New York office today. 

My friend Pat, a freelance editor in Bethesda, who had edited a report saying there would be a terrorist strike on the U.S. and who had stopped riding the Metro well before Sept. 11, moved back to the town in Pennsylvania where she was raised but hadn’t lived for 40 years.

For several months after 9/11, I compared notes with friends on the times the fighter planes passed over our houses at night. They must have had a 45-minute route across the D.C. air space because I was awakened at 2:15, 3 a.m. etc. while Janet in Virginia would be awakened at 2:30, 3:15 and so forth.

The strange thing is that only women seemed to hear the planes. We were at a dinner party at the end of October when a woman commented on the planes. All the other women began talking about them while every man denied ever hearing a plane in the middle of the night.

Aside from the sleep disruptions, life seemed to be returning to some normality although having one of Washington's two airports totally shut down did not make travelling easy. But after a four-month closure, flights at National Airport slowly resumed and passengers became used to the announcement saying that we couldn't leave our seats for the first 30 minutes after takeoff. 

However, I wasn't prepared for the new pre-boarding routine that Air Canada had decided upon. I was leaving Montreal, after a conference the next spring, and found myself pulled over to a small room after showing my boarding pass to DCA when I reached security. Everyone on my flight was having their luggage searched by hand and then my purse was taken apart in minute detail with every compartment of my wallet searched.

We were all put into a guarded waiting room and then men with revolvers watched us board the plane. A flight attendant told me that it was only Air Canada that put passengers through this procedure. If I had taken Delta or US Air, I would have boarded normally.

When I got back to Washington, Dianne who had flown back from Montreal on a different flight, said her plane, parked out on the runway instead of at the gate as usual, had been hit by another plane and they were delayed for hours while their plane was examined for damage; armed security guards watched the National Airport-bound passengers the entire time.

In March 2003, I went into the grocery store and found the shelves devoid of bread and milk, the usual sign in D.C. that a snowstorm had been predicted. However, the 6 o'clock news revealed a different reason for Washingtonians’ panic. 

The Bush administration's new Homeland Security Department had finally been established and had termed the current security threat to Washington to be “Code Orange.'' The media urged people to stock up on supplies and prepare for an attack.

The Washington Post published a map explaining how the city was to evacuate if Code Red (a confirmed attack) was called and urged families to decide on a rendezvous point since it was likely that parents and children would be in different zones.

I noted that if I were at work, I would be evacuating on Wisconsin Avenue toward the north while my husband's workplace and our home’s evacuation route would be Macarthur Avenue toward the west.

One Saturday afternoon, a few of my neighbours and I stood out in the street and talked about the situation. Kate told me that Tom Ridge, the head of Homeland Security, had just bought a house on the street behind ours and that's why we were seeing a limousine with Jeeps before and after it on the hilly street that led out of our neighbourhood.

We jokingly said that it would be nice of him to put a flagpole in front of his house and run up a coloured flag each day denoting the current security level. I recounted the story of someone who told me she had stocked her basement with precisely enough food and water to last 72 hours. Then she said, “But we only have a toilet and sink in our basement. What are people going to think of us when we emerge and haven't showered for three days?” 

I had choked back my laughter at the naivete of anyone thinking that a terrorist attack would last precisely 72 hours and was worried about not being able to bathe during the period.

Then a neighbour with two young sons described how her previously independent seven-year-old was now afraid to play in the park more than a few feet from her. “Mom, I don't want to get separated from you when the terrorists come,” he explained to her.  Helen then turned to me and said, “Do you think we're irresponsible parents because we're raising our children in Washington?”

I had arranged long in advance to meet a friend at the Smithsonian on March 17, 2003, to see a special exhibit. I confirmed our outing a few days ahead and was surprised when Robyn said she no longer wanted to go. Her reason was, “Thursday is the day when the war in Iraq starts. There's bound to be a terrorist attack that day and I don't want to be far from my family when it happens.”

I pointed out that her two children would be “locked down” in their schools as would her husband, a teacher. “Robyn, you'll be all alone at home if there's a terrorist attack. You might as well meet me downtown and at least we'll be together.”

She agreed to come to the museum. I was surprised at how few visitors were at the exhibit and as I sat in the nearly empty Metro car going home, I thought, “There is so much fear in the world today. The terrorists on 9/11 definitely succeeded.”