The Attacks and Their Aftermath.
A collection of non-fiction essays that appeared on this site following September 11, 2001.
The Works Of Humankind.
BY DON PERKAL
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The airliner crashed between two and three hundred feet from my office in the Pentagon, just around a corner from where I work. I’m the deputy General Counsel, Washington Headquarters Services, Office of the Secretary of Defense. A slightly different calibration and I have no doubt I wouldn’t be sending this to you. My colleagues felt the impact, which reminded them of an earthquake. People shouted in the corridor outside that a bomb had gone off upstairs on the main concourse in the building. No alarms sounded. I walked to my office, shut down my computer, and headed out. Even before stepping outside I could smell the cordite. Then I knew explosives had been set off somewhere.
I looked to my right and saw a raging fire and smoke careening off the facade to the sky.
One of the attorneys who works for me called in sick Tuesday. The satellite office he works in was utterly destroyed. His wife and child will hug him more tightly tonight.
Another friend, who works for a government contractor in the Army section of the Pentagon that took a direct hit, crawled out of what was his office to safety.
People walked around in a daze, looking at the gaping hole and flames, appearing uncomprehending. The skies, normally leaden with commercial jets, were empty. Helicopters circled the building and an occasional F-16 streaked by. Sirens blared from what seemed hundreds of emergency vehicles. I lost count of the hook and ladder companies. People left their vehicles in the parking lot and started walking the bridges towards D.C. Hundreds of F.B.I., Secret Service and Defense Department plainclothes investigators were deployed in the parking lot, recording witness statements. Photographers by the dozen made their way to as close to the flames as they could bear.
Two explosions, a few minutes apart, prompted me to start walking. I walked for three miles past office buildings, restaurants and shopping malls. Everything was closing down, public transportation ceased, people were milling about the streets unsure of what to do. Cells phones stopped working, and traffic was total gridlock. As I walked along, I heard the bad news from car radios. Reaching U.S. Route 1, I approached a young man in a pickup and asked him if he was headed towards Alexandria. He gave me a ride although he hadn’t planned to travel that way. We traveled five miles in two-and-one-half hours. When he got close, I thanked him, left, and walked the last mile home.
I’m still processing the events of this past Tuesday. On Wednesday I went into work but in the early afternoon we were told to evacuate the building because an unidentified plane was making its way to Washington. It later proved to be a plane chartered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Everyone went home early.
On Thursday, we were all still numb. We spent almost the entire day consoling each other.
An attorney I’ve known for fifteen years was killed instantly when the plane went into the building. He had retired two weeks ago and went to work for a government contractor. He was in the Pentagon to pitch a contract to a Lieutenant General. Everyone in the room died from the explosion of jet fuel.
A woman I met told me that on Tuesday morning she went to get a cup of coffee. When she tried to return to her office, it was gone and two of her colleagues were gone as well.
Friends of mine had relatives or business associates who worked in the World Trade Center.
A month ago, while in New York City, my granddaughter and I decided to go to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. As we were riding up the escalator to the mezzanine to purchase the tickets, a thought occurred to me: how misguided the terrorists were who attempted to bring down an indestructible building by setting off a truck bomb in the basement. So much for the works of humankind.
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