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Watching the Pentagon Burn

9/11/2001, mmartin

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I was at my office in Arlington, Virginia, where I work as a magazine editor. At about 9 a.m., I was talking in my office with Anita, our publications director, when one of our coworkers came in to tell us that there was an explosion at the World Trade Center. We went to the conference room and it was playing on the TV: two planes had hit each of the towers of the World Trade Center. They were burning.

We watched, we wandered back to our offices, we wandered back to the TV. More details emerged. A plane had hit the Pentagon, just a few miles away. Then the two towers collapsed one after the other. Our boss told us we could go home, but I hung around my office until about 11:30 a.m. Then I got on my bike.

It was a beautiful day. A mostly clear sky, the fall air so soft and cool that you're suddenly glad that they built the nation's capital on this patch of Potomac swampland. If the day had no history in it, it would have been perfect.

I rode down Fairfax Drive to Clarendon. I could see smoke in the sky in the direction of the Pentagon. I started to encounter roads that were blocked off. There were blocked roads around the Court House Metro station—a cop shouted me away from one street. I think they were keeping people away from the Arlington Court House, the seat of the county government.

I pushed on down Clarendon Blvd. People were walking the other way, away from the city, but I rolled closer. There were traffic jams on some roads, again going out toward the country. One woman saw my bike and said "That's the best way to get around today!"

I rode to the Iwo Jima Memorial. I could see less there than I could at Clarendon. A couple of police wouldn't let me ride on the bicycle path that runs along Highway 110, along the edge of Arlington Cemetery. I hung out at the memorial—six giant marines, frozen in the act of raising the flag. It was very quiet. Normally, planes would be roaring toward Reagan/National Airport, but all flights across the country had been cancelled. There was just silence, except for one pass by what I guess was a military jet. I heard it, but I never saw it.

Looking up at a hill, I saw a building where my friend Sedge lives. There were people on the roof. I headed in that direction—maybe it was Sedge, and maybe he would let me up there.

Sedge wasn't there, but I ran into his girlfriend as she returned from walking his dog. She let me in and I went up to the roof.  

From there, I had a panoramic view—Virginia in the foreground, the river, DC and the hills of Maryland beyond. I could see the Pentagon, and where the plane hit—a hole with black all around. Smoke was pouring out, but I didn't see any flames. There was water shooting into the building, but I couldn't see the firemen because of trees.

I thought the fire must be out, and that the building was just smoldering. I was wrong. At about 1:15 I saw columns of fire on the building. They seemed to be one or two stories high. At one point I looked away, to survey the unusually quiet streets and bridges of D.C. Everyone had fled the city. When I looked at the Pentagon again, I thought the hole in the building looked bigger. My imagination? I'm not sure.

A photographer showed up with a telescoping lens. He took some pictures. I asked him if I could look through his camera—I wanted to use the lens to investigate some strange slanted lines across the building. He let me look, but I couldn't figure out what they were. (Later, watching the news on TV, I realized they were parts of the roof that had collapsed.) The photographer took off—he said we was going to try to sneak across Arlington Cemetery to get closer shots.

Down a small hill from where I sat, the Iwo Jima Memorial stood silent. Six giant marines, eternally in the process of raising the flag. World War II heroism, persistence, courage, embodied in a statue. The Pentagon was a World War II building. Just two miles away, it burned.

© 2001, by Maurice P. Martin

— Maurice Martin

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