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Opinion: A young reporter’s 9/11

Smoke and flames rise above the Pentagon during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
(Agence France-Presse)

Nineteen years ago this morning, I had arrived for work at the Washington Post — where I was one year into my career, a young metro reporter covering the D.C. City Council — when my colleague Justin Blum told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

My first thought was my sister, who worked in New York City at 99 Church St., a building that was diagonally across from the World Trade Center. I tried to call her, but there was no answer.

Then word came that a second plane had hit the towers. It was clear this was no accident. Editors were starting to come in, and I was told to head to the Pentagon. My colleague Yolanda Woodlee and I quickly exited the Post’s newsroom (at 1150 15th St. NW in those days) and got into a cab.

Traffic was heavy, and we came to a stop outside the Treasury Department a few blocks away. By now, there were rumors — false ones, it turned out — that the State Department had been bombed; that the National Mall was on fire; and that the Capitol was under attack. (Plotters later revealed that Flight 93, downed in Pennsylvania, was indeed headed for the Capitol.)

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As he realized what was going on, the driver refused to go any farther. Yolanda and I walked to a nearby Metro station and boarded a train heading to the Pentagon.

The train pulled to a stop at Rosslyn, two stations short of the Pentagon, and passengers were told to get off. Yolanda and I hailed another cab, which took us as close to the Pentagon as we could get. We came across another colleague, Linda Wheeler. We helped one another climb a fence at Arlington National Cemetery — the one moment of levity that day — and we walked along the eastern edge of the cemetery to get to the Defense Department headquarters. As we got close, I interviewed military personnel who were streaming up the road on foot from the stricken building. Later that day, I saw the charred hole where American Airlines Flight 77 had crashed into the side of the giant complex. That afternoon and evening, I wept — for the loss of life and the loss of innocence, with the certainty that the world and my hometown would never be the same. I had just turned 24.

It wasn’t until that evening that I finally reached my sister, who had left her office building after the second plane hit the towers. (When she asked a supervisor if she could leave, she replied, “Well, I can’t stop you.”) Mercifully, she had managed to board a subway train heading toward midtown Manhattan and Queens before the transit system shut down. Mercifully, her colleagues survived.

My maternal grandmother, then 87, saw the destruction from her south-facing window at Confucius Plaza, the giant Chinatown apartment complex where she lived until her death in 2018. She was shattered, and more fearful than at any time in her life — including the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in 1941, which had forced her and my infant mom to flee to mainland China, and the subsequent Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, which again forced the family to flee, back to Hong Kong.

I haven’t shared these memories publicly until now. I know my story is insignificant compared with the upheaval that followed, and the loss suffered by so many. The decision to treat 9/11 as an act of war — and not simply as a crime — had consequences across Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond that reverberated over the next two decades. There is, to my mind, a tragic arc that connects Presidents George W. Bush, Obama and Trump, one of endless war and relentless polarization and tumult. Sept. 11, 2001, is hardly the sole cause — no one factor is — of the anger, anxiety and sense of loss that have dominated our national consciousness over the past 20 years. But for me it was a turning point — a rupture between the first two decades of my life (hopeful striving) and the next two (anxious striving).

As I write, New York City is trying to come back from the greatest calamity to hit it since 9/11. I pray for its recovery. I pray for our fellow Americans — Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern — who suffered persecution after the attacks. I pray for those whose lives were taken — across nations and years — by this crime and the wars that followed. I pray for America, that it might recover a spirit of optimism and inclusiveness. I pray for peace among nations, and cooperation among peoples to address the colossal challenges that lie ahead.


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