Eighteen years ago came the day that changed America forever.
As a recently married, 27-year-old staffer in Washington DC, September 11, 2001 started off like any other workday for me. I woke up in our small Capitol Hill rental house, made breakfast, kissed my wife goodbye and we both headed off to work. She hopped on the Metro to go downtown and I made the ten-block walk to my office in the House Rayburn office building. That day she took the “family” cell phone to work with her. On my walk to work, the first thing I noticed was how beautiful the weather was. The temperature was perfect, and the sky was so blue that day.
My office in the Rayburn building was on the most southern edge of the building. It was right next to the U.S. Capitol and on a clear day like this one, from my window you could see clearly across the Potomac River and even make out the top of the Pentagon in Virginia. I grabbed a cup of joe, settled into my chair and got to work answering mail from constituents. The morning news shows were quietly playing in the background on the small TV in the corner.
The television pictures of the first plane hitting the world trade tower caused me to turn up the volume, and promptly triggered a call from my mom back home in Gonzales, La. I told her yes, I had the TV on also, but I didn’t know any more than she did but that my theory was it was probably just an isolated tragic accident. When the second plane hit, I knew like everyone else that was not the case.
At that point, I started trying to reach my wife who was across town. Phone lines were jammed, and busy signals were everywhere. Rumors started to fly. The state department was on fire… the Capitol was hit… nothing seemed too reliable or too far-fetched. Soon thereafter I could see smoke arising from the Pentagon and it very quickly got very real. Alarms, buzzers and announcements started to go off in the building from speakers I had never even noticed before. Our entire office evacuated to one of our colleagues’ apartments. I stayed behind determined to keep trying the office phones to reach my wife. That plan abruptly ended about ten minutes later when a heavily armed man with Capitol Security walked in to tell me in harsh language to get my “you know what” out of the building ASAP. “Yes sir” was all I said as I dropped the phone and ran outside.
Once outside, I was once again struck with how blue the sky was that day. It was gorgeous weather. Pennsylvania Avenue was filled with confused staffers like me walking somewhere but not sure exactly where to go. I could see the Capitol and it did not look hit. Everyone knew this was serious, but no one was freaking out. It was a giant crowd of uncertain ramblers walking down the street knowing they had to leave the Capitol premises but with no idea on which direction was safest.
My plan was to walk straight to our house in the hopes that I could reach Colleen from our house phone. When I got there, turned the TV on and started dialing the family cell phone was when some of the more tragic images started to hit me. We were under attack. I was scared for Colleen and didn’t know what to do to find her. Shortly thereafter, she simply walked in the door. She and a friend had hitched a ride after a long walk and found her way back home. She didn’t know much yet of what was going on, so after a long embrace we both sat down and watched the television reports in silence.
That day, 2,996 people went to work just like we did but never came home. Many of them kissed their spouse goodbye and headed off to their daily routine. They had no idea what the morning would become for them. They knew nothing of the cruel fate that awaited them. They had no idea that day would be their last.
A few years ago, Colleen and I took our boys to New York and toured with them the National September 11 Memorial & Museum on the site where the World Trade Towers once stood. We told them not only about our reflections of that moment, but why it is so important for them to understand why America must never forget what happened. The boys learned a lot that day but still left with lots of questions that we discussed for weeks. The museum is extremely well done, and it is a moving and patriotic tribute to the horrifying tragedy that occurred there. It tells the story clearly of who were the evil people that did this to us and how we as a nation united and responded in a way that reminded the world of our greatness and goodness.
At the end of that 9/11 museum tour, there is a long wall filled with plaques painted by school children. The children of that time were asked to color the plaques to resemble what the sky looked like that day in New York. All the pictures looked very similar. This long wall is filled with thousands of clear blue pictures.
The sky was so blue in Washington DC that September day in 2011 and the museum tour reminded me that it was just as blue in New York that day also. The terrorists tried to darken our skies and spirits with their horrific attacks, but instead they simply reinforced in all of us why it is so important that we as Americans carry the torch of freedom in all that we do.
Let us never forget what happened that morning. Let us never forget to appreciate each day we are given on this earth to be with our family and friends. Let us never forget to teach the next generation that despite the attempts of many over the years to attack what we stand for; America’s sky is just as clear and blue today as it has ever been thanks to our continued commitment to liberty and justice for all.