Thirteen years ago I was sitting on the fourth floor of the New Headquarters building of the Central Intelligence Agency in McLean, Virginia. I was the graphic designer for the National Counterintelligence Executive, and I had been at work for about an hour. The day was clear and bright and felt like any other day. Around 9 a.m., a friend stopped by my cubicle and told me to go online to watch coverage of a plane striking the World Trade Center in New York City. I switched it on and immediately saw very tiny video of a plane flying into one of the gigantic skyscrapers. At first, because of the size of those buildings, I thought it was just a small plane that had probably lost control, but then upon seeing more of the coverage and the scale of the towers, I realized the plane that struck it was a passenger jet.
We all gathered around a TV in the front office with the director as smoke was billowing out of the tower. A few minutes later we watched as a second plane speared into the second tower dissolving into fire and smoke. We were speechless. I was surrounded by highly trained and experienced FBI, CIA and military intelligence agents who had seen what they had thought was the worst that humanity could accomplish, and they were speechless.
The executive officers in my office started scrambling making phone calls and making necessary contacts. The majority of us could not leave the TV so that we could see the coverage and try to understand how something like this could happen. We continued watching as coverage in New York suddenly switched to some pixelated coverage of a plane striking the side of the Pentagon. America was under attack. Others ran to their phones to call friends and family who were at work in that very building. Phone lines were down or so flooded that it was hard to get a phone call out. A few minutes later the loudspeaker system crackled with life: “EVACUATE THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY!”
My director, an FBI agent with decades of experience, came running out of this office and told us, “Get the [expletive] out! Another plane has gone missing, and it could be headed this direction.”
Everyone dropped everything and did our information evacuation protocols and then hurried to our vehicles. I carpooled with a friend every day, and I couldn’t contact him because even the internal phones were tied up. Cellphones were not allowed in the building, so I couldn’t contact him like that either. I just had to go and hope he would meet me at my car. I rolled out the front doors with the crowds but was amazed that as I left there were men and women heading into the building to do their mission at finding information and updating the President with what was happening. Their safety was secondary to the mission. I got to the garage, and my friend was waiting for me. We jumped in and then had to slowly make our way out of the now congested garage exits. We both were looking out at the sky as much as possible and trying to get the radio to pick up any information. We finally got out into the open air and could hear that another plane had gone down in Pennsylvania. Were there more planes missing? And would they now attack the congested beltway system that surrounds our nation’s capital?
Our drive home was usually filled with conversation, but that day we said nothing as both of us watched the skies and listened to the news station for more information. Our cellphones were useless as the cell towers were overloaded. My wife, Erin, worked for an organization in Alexandria, Virginia, right across the river from the Pentagon, and I couldn’t get hold of her even when I got home. The phone lines would be busy for many hours that day. Erin gratefully got home fairly soon after me, and we sat in silence around the TV for the rest of the day.
When I returned to work, I was amazed again at how politics were forgotten for those first few weeks. The mission was all that was at the forefront of everyone’s workday. Our country was unified like nothing I had seen since the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle — and really not since what I had heard about America during World War II after Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately politics and the media always come back to play, but I hope this day is never forgotten for those people lost that day. I hope that their families are never forgotten when they suddenly had loved ones ripped from them. I hope true heroes are never forgotten that sacrificed their lives in Pennsylvania to spare other Americans. I hope this day is never forgotten for the unity that this great nation can have in good and bad times. Never forget 9/11.
Tim Cox, graphic designer