PERSONALLY SPEAKING: Remember the lessons of 9/11

Personally Speaking | Sylvia Warner

High school seniors whose final year in area classes began just last week were mostly brand new kindergartners only a few days into their school journey when jihadists, flying hijacked airplanes, murdered more than 3,000 Americans right here in the U.S.

Most Americans over the age of 8 or 10 on that beautiful, sunny Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, remember where they were when they heard the terrible news. The attack on America ripped a giant hole in our sense of security and set off a ripple in our financial structure that is still felt in America and across the world yet today.

For me, like many other Americans, the events of 9/11 are etched in memory forever. Nothing can erase my first view of the smoke from the Pentagon where a friend from church and a number of acquaintances worked.

At first it seemed almost unreal until I had to abruptly end a phone conversation with a Michigan reporter as U.S. Capitol police ran down the hallways of our office building across the street from the U.S. Capitol yelling “get out, get out, another plane is headed this way.” At that point, reality set in.

The heroism of Americans on that fourth plane took it down in a Pennsylvania field and it never made it to Washington, D.C. But the television images from New York City and the realization that the Pentagon was burning just a short distance away set the tone for a long and eerie day. Usually busy streets on Capitol Hill and around the Capitol campus were deserted except for members of Congress and a few staffers like me. We were all on foot and linked to the rest of the world only by the spotty service on our Blackberries.

In early afternoon, we were allowed to get our cars out of the underground parking garages to ferry members of Congress back and forth to briefings with the Capitol police.

Later, in the early evening, authorities reopened bridges and main arteries out of Washington and I was able to leave for home about 7 p.m.

Intersections around the Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings as well as the Supreme Court and Library of Congress buildings were blocked off with commandeered city buses. Today those intersections all have metal gates embedded in the streets that can be deployed quickly to stop threatening traffic or prevent people from getting into harm’s way in the event of an attack.

Going home that evening meant crossing the Fourteenth Street Bridge across the Potomac River and driving down I-395 past the Pentagon. Smoke still rolling out of the south side of the building crossed the highway and engulfed my car briefly. Families waiting for news of their loved ones working in the badly damaged building were watching from along the guard rail as Virginia state troopers stood guard.

Someone had tied a U.S. flag on a short staff to the guard rail, and it remained there for more than a year, tattered and weather worn. I don’t know who eventually removed the flag, but I hope it was retired properly.

At home, just a couple miles directly south of the dead and wounded at the Pentagon, I caught the end of a Congressional news conference held on the front steps of the Capitol. As it ended, the members of Congress sang “God Bless America.” It was an emotional moment I later learned was spontaneous. As the news conference ended, one member of Congress began to sing and the others joined in.

Since that 2001 attack on the American people and our way of life, many changes have taken place, but one thing remains constant: If we forget the lessons of that day, we do so at our own peril and we risk the future of not only today’s high school seniors, but the generations that follow them.

A recent visit with my late father’s cousin brought that into focus for me. Well into his 90s and a veteran of World War II, this gentleman looked at old photos of himself in military uniform and in military tanks. I found the photos in my late parents’ home.

Prompted by the photos, Dad’s cousin shared with me both war and family memories — some made him sad and some made him smile.

That conversation emphasized how important it is to leave future generations a personal legacy of our historical experiences. Voice, recording, or written — we owe it to ourselves and our children and their children to share with them.

Sylvia Warner, former editor of The Daily News, worked for the  Michigan Legislature and retired as press secretary for a U.S. Congressman.

Leave a Comment