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Monday, July 15, 2024

The day America changed

September 11, in so many ways, is our generation’s Dec. 7, 1941 — the attack of Pearl Harbor — a day that thrust us into an armed conflict that continues to his day — 16 years later.

I was in Washington, DC, attending to normal assignments when my Blackberry buzzed with a short message: “Explosion at Pentagon.”

With my cameras in the front seat of my Jeep Wrangler, I headed to the headquarters of America’s military. Smoke was already billowing into the air.

Washington police cars blocked the entrance to the 14th Street Bridge, the most direct route out of DC and the one that led to I-395, which ran alongside the Pentagon, to I headed over to the bridge that crossed the Anacostia River to I-295.

At the stop light next to the entrance to the Washington Navy Yard, I noticed the facility locked down with Marines with M-16s standing post. Once was a female Marine. Her M-16, with bayonet attached, appeared taller than her, so I picked up my Nikon D1 digital SLR and clicked off a half-dozen photos before the light changed.

It took more than 45 minutes to negotiate I-295 over to the Washington Beltway and then turn onto 395. By the time, reached the Pentagon, the large fire emerging from the side of the building could be seen from most of the metro area.

I pulled off on Columbia Pike, grabbed my two cameras and a bag of lenses and headed to a knoll that gave a view of the carnage. A Pentagon cop tried to stop me but let me through when I flashed my Department of Defense press card.

As I crossed the street, I saw a taxicab with its top crunched in by a downed light pole. The driver was telling another cop that a large plane had flown over him, knocked down the pole and crashed into the Pentagon.

That was the first I had heard about a plane starting this madness. Commercial airlines follow the Potomac River to land at nearby National Airport but the angle of the fire and gaping hole in the Pentagon was way off hat that flight line.

A fellow press photographer, Larry Downing of Reuters, had staked out a spot on the knoll and I found a good location near him. With telephoto and zoom lenses, we began to shoot photos.

At one point, Downing asked: “Did you hear about New York?” I shook my head. “Two planes have crashed into the twin towers of the World Train Center.”

We shot photos as the morning became noon and the afternoon. At one point, a Pentagon cop ordered us to evacuate the area because they had a report of another hijacked plane headed for Washington. He moved down the line and we stayed put.

A strong stench in the air made some people gag.

“What is that smell?”

“Something I never expected to smell here,” came the answer. “Airline fuel and burning flesh.”

Press agency employees showed up throughout the day to bring us fresh batteries and compact flash cards for our cameras. Most of the photographers on that knoll worked through the night and to well after midnight.

I got home around 3 a.m. and found a business card from a Criminal Investigative Service agent. The note on the back asked me to call him the next morning.

After some breakfast, a long shower and several cups of coffee, I picked up the phone and called the number on the card. He answered on the second ring.

When I identified myself, he asked:

“Were you in the vicinity of the Washington Naval Yard on 11 September?

“Yes,” I said.

“And what was your purpose there?”

I told him that I was trying to get to the Pentagon to shoot photos for news organizations.

“Is there a quick way I can verify that?”

I had the Washington Post on the dining room table and saw that my photo of the young female Marine was on an inside page. It identified me as the photographer and pointed him to the paper.

I heard him open some papers before he came back on the line.

“I see that.” I also gave him the ID number of my DoD Press credential.

He asked a few more questions, including one that wanted to know my political persuasions. I told him i was a political agnostic.

“That should take care of this,” he said. “We will be in touch if we want anything more.

I never heard from him again. His call, like so many other things that happened on Sept. 11, 2001, told me that America had changed.

On this Sept. 11, 2017, I realize that it has changed in ways that we never imagined.


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