“Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.” –President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001
When the White House was evacuated on that fateful day in 2001, my sister was a member of President George W. Bush’s administration. My memories of that day — and the danger she was in — are still sharp.
Instructed by Secret Service agents to evacuate and then to flee as fast as possible, women removed their high heels and ran in bare feet as staffers in the White House and Old Executive Office Building raced for their lives. They were fully aware that United Flight 93 was on a path toward the nation’s capital. My sister has barely talked about that day … the rawness is still real … and we are forever grateful to the heroes of Flight 93 who prevented a tragedy at the Capitol or White House. No one is certain which one was targeted.
I will never forget September 11, 2001 … and I don’t want to forget. Nineteen Septembers have passed, and I am still easily overcome with emotion.
That week my husband and I were vacationing in Colonial Williamsburg with our two teenage children. The morning of September 11 we had just arrived in the Colonial area with our freshly-purchased annual passes in hand, when a Colonial interpreter leaned in and quietly told us of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. We were shocked and asked more questions, and then I quickly stepped off to the side to call my mom in Richmond to see if she had heard from my sister in D.C.
Amazingly, perhaps because her Austin cell phone was still routing through Texas, my sister had already been able to call and reassure Mom that she was okay even as tens of thousands of others in D.C. encountered jammed phone lines.
Reassured of my sister’s safety, we started walking through the recreated early American village, making our way to the Colonial Capitol to hear from costumed interpreters. Our hearts, however, were not on the Virginia history we usually loved. Visitors talked among themselves, strangers speculating about the events that were unfolding north of us, and wondering if America was under attack.
Under a tree on the capitol grounds, the historical interpreter’s animated voice talked about American history but it was difficult to concentrate on what he was saying. After an hour or so we decided to head back to our condo so we could turn on the television and follow the latest news.
In D.C., the White House and U.S. Capitol had been evacuated, and stand-still traffic made escaping the nation’s capital a nightmare. It took hours but my sister eventually made her way home to Bethesda where she then waited to hear news of her next-door neighbor who worked at the Pentagon, also a target of the terrorists. He had fled his office, leaving cell phone and keys at his desk, so with no way to contact family to assure them that he was safe, he began the long walk home from Arlington to Bethesda. He arrived hours later after making his way through the clogged streets of D.C.
Our much-anticipated Williamsburg vacation had suddenly taken a sad turn on that Tuesday in 2001, and all I could think of was going home to the Shenandoah Valley. Tears flowed easily … I was in touch with family and friends … and a patriotic, defensive streak came out in Americans. We were glued to the TV for updates and hated to get too far from the news. There was an uncertainty because no one knew what was next. Everyone was on edge.
With two children, however, who had looked forward to our planned visit to Busch Gardens amusement park on Friday of that week, we made the decision to stay the remaining four days of our trip. We tried to make it as normal as possible for them although we stayed on high alert, wondering along with the rest of the country if there were more attacks to come.
On Friday morning when we arrived at Busch Gardens, a new reality hit as, for the first time ever, our backpacks were searched when we entered the park. Little did we know it was the beginning of a new normal that was to expand and necessarily intrude in the years to come.
At noon, the park ceased operation for a time of remembrance. Patrons lined the park’s walkways and held hands as all bowed their heads in prayer, then listened to and sang along with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” as it played over the park’s intercom system, echoing off roller coasters and drifting across the hilly terrain. Tears streamed down the faces of strangers standing shoulder-to-shoulder who came together that week not as Democrats or Republicans, not as black or white or immigrants or rich or poor, but as Americans.
After the remembrance was over, as our kids made a beeline for the roller coasters, we worried about snipers in such a high profile area. It may sound silly now but it was, after all, only four days since the terrorist plane attacks and all were aware that more terror could be planned. The day, however, was uneventful, and we, thankfully, headed home to the Valley the next morning.
One memory that sticks in my mind is the sheer number of American flags waving after 9/11 on vehicles, store fronts, houses … I had never seen so many flags flying in the USA. At home I had dozens of American flags but none with me on our trip, and when we checked at Williamsburg shops for anything red, white, and blue, everything was sold out.
I was aching for an American flag. Again, it probably sounds silly, but it taught me a lesson: never leave home again without one.
Back in the Shenandoah Valley, we were in church Sunday morning as a sanctuary packed with friends and strangers sought comforting words even as tears streamed down many faces. The most important thing of all was that we were home. Home.
In the days, months, and years after 9/11, I held my children tighter … my husband and I lingered in conversations a bit longer … family and friends were dear and we pulled them closer. The events on 9/11 reiterated the importance of those around us.
As America went to war in the wake of 3,000 innocent souls murdered and the destruction of 9/11, we held Support the Troops rallies to show our public gratitude to our men and women in uniform who were protecting not only the United States by taking the war to foreign soil, but also our freedoms. We recognized our First Responders, the front line of America’s defense.
For almost nineteen years we have said good-bye to those going to war … and embraced those who returned. We watched close family friends leave for battle and prayed for their safety. We have grieved with military families who lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and flown American flags in their honor. Yellow ribbons have adorned our yards. We’ve sent care packages to troops in harm’s way and embraced their families at home.
We volunteered long hours on campaigns of political candidates who were strong on national security. In the middle of a war on terrorism, it was comforting to have a no-nonsense leader like George W. Bush whose first priority was the safety of the American people. Under his watch, America saw no more terrorist attacks on her shores.
Watching families mourn loved ones, my appreciation and respect for United Flight 93 continues to grow. Each 9/11 brings renewed fear of terrorism attacks, and there’s a hope that we will someday return to the unity that temporarily held our nation together after that grim Tuesday in September.
Cross-posted at Bearing Drift