It has been eighteen years since that horrific day in September of 2001. This story shares my terrifying experience stranded on the streets of downtown Washington, D.C. in the midst of the terrorist attacks. May we never forget those we lost, those who survived, and the hero’s and heroines that saved so many. May the peace of God bring comfort to those who still grieve.
Nowhere To Go
It was a splendid September morning, the sky painted a bright, cornflower blue that held the promise of a delightful day ahead. White puffy clouds floated across the autumn sky as if to showcase their splendor. Though the air was warm, the humidity was down, offering a welcome relief from the typical summer swelter of Washington, D.C.
My spirits were high. I was headed home, so thankful to have completed my yearly eye exam the day before at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. This yearly trip was always so stressful as I waited to learn whether my vision had declined further. The news yesterday had been good, no further changes in my vision.
On this particular morning, I woke from a good night’s sleep filled with the joy of a new day. I checked my train tickets, confirming our departure time. The train was scheduled to leave Union Station at 10:20 AM. The date was September 11, 2001.
My traveling companion was my mother-in-law, Liz. I seldom thought of her as an “in- law”, preferring instead to think of her as “my other mother.” She and I had made this journey together for five consecutive years, Liz coming along to support me as I waded through the battery of tests that accompanied each visit to the retinal specialist. However, these trips were also a chance for us to enjoy some much needed girl time. Once the testing was complete the day before, we had ventured out for a nice dinner, then retired to our hotel room to chat before bedtime.
On this fine morning, we were up early, preparing for our journey home. Liz and I gathered our things and made our way to the hotel lobby to catch the 7:30 AM shuttle to the Metro. Having done this before, we wanted to allow plenty of time to navigate the rush-hour sojourn to Union Station.
Our Metro ride was uneventful. Exiting the subway, we headed to the food court to grab some breakfast. Snagging muffins and drinks, we sat down to munch and chat. As was our custom on these yearly trips, we planned to stroll through the Union Station shops prior to catching our train. Thankfully, the ease of our morning commute had left us plenty of time to shop. It was only about 8:20 AM and our train wouldn’t leave for two more hours.
Dragging our suitcases, we stepped into several of our favorite shops, just browsing and passing the time. Liz mentioned that she needed a brightly colored luggage strap for her upcoming overseas travel. She recalled seeing a luggage store on the lower level, and we went in search of it.
Locating the luggage shop, I trailed Liz into the store, taking over care of the suitcases while she looked for her strap. Noticing the absence of any sales clerks up front, I peered curiously around a suitcase display to follow the sound of hushed voices near the back of the store. Spotting the two sales clerks, I noted that they stood gathered around a small television, their backs to me. Suddenly, one of the clerks let out a stifled cry, while the other exclaimed, “Oh, no!”
My curiosity got the better of me, and I wheeled the trailing suitcases toward the television screen. Liz had found her bright pink straps and joined me at the sales counter. Raising my voice to grab their attention, I asked the store clerks, “What’s going on?”
The two clerks turned in unison, their faces awash in bewilderment. “A plane just crashed into one of the Twin Towers.”
As they stepped back from their previous viewing post, Liz and I could see the TV as the news program replayed the moment of impact. Images of the plane burrowed into the side of the massive tower covered the screen as we stared in disbelief.
Liz and I stood there, glued to the TV, as we watched the news cycle evolve. Several minutes passed before we jerked ourselves out of our shocked stupor. With effort, the clerks turned from the screen to ring up Liz’s purchase. No longer in a shopping mood, we slowly departed for our train gate, sharing our shock and sadness at what had just happened.
Reaching our gate about 9 o’clock, we found seats and settled our luggage. We took turns visiting the restroom, and then I wandered up the way to grab a Diet Coke to nurse on our train ride. Passing by the shoe shine stand, I heard the crackle of a small radio. With no televisions inside the gate area, people were huddled near the radio for news updates. Seeing the gathering crowd, I stopped to ask for an update.
“Another plane has hit the tower. It hit the other tower.”
“They’ve both been hit. Both towers have been hit!”
A chill ran down my spine as the impact of those statements rebounded in my mind. With a sick feeling in my gut, I knew instantly that this was no accident. “It must be a terrorist attack. Something awful is happening!”
I stood listening for a few more minutes, shaking my head in horror, wondering how in the world such a terrible thing could happen. Realizing Liz would be worried, I headed back to my gate. As I delivered the news, Liz stared at me in shock. “What on earth is going on?”
The news was spreading quickly amongst the waiting passengers. The buzz of conversation around us climbed to a rumble as anxiety levels soared. Faces were drawn and worried as we sat there waiting for our trains to arrive.
After a few minutes of fretting, Liz decided we needed a cookie and wandered up the way to the bake shop. Cookies in hand, Liz was headed back to the gate when several men came bursting through the main entrance to the station, screaming, “They’ve hit the Pentagon. A plane has hit the Pentagon.”
Liz stared in horror for a moment and then rushed to find me, revealing the awful news, fear palpable in her voice. She was barely settled in her seat when we heard the announcement over the loud speaker that struck fear in our hearts. “All northbound train service has been cancelled. All trains departing for the northeast sector have been cancelled until further notice. Southbound trains will continue as scheduled.”
I knew full well this was not a good sign. Since we were headed south to Richmond, Liz and I were relieved to hear that our train was still scheduled for an on time departure. It wouldn’t be long now before they would announce the boarding call.
Liz asked me to call Pete, my father-in-law, and tell him to turn on the TV. “He won’t even know anything is happening.” Pulling out my cell phone, I realized with a cringe that I had forgotten to charge the phone the night before. When Pete did not answer the phone, I left a quick message, hoping to save as much of my limited battery as possible.
The train we were ticketed for was the Carolinian offering southbound service to Charlotte. Liz would ride as far as Richmond where Pete would meet her. I would continue on several more hours until arriving in Burlington, NC where my husband, Eric, and my son, Jonathan, would meet me. With an ever increasing sick feeling in my gut, I wondered whether the current circumstances might delay our train, but so far the board showed an on time departure.
Soon, the boarding agent called our train, and we gathered our things and joined the forming line. Tickets checked, we moved through the double doors, making our way to the escalator that led down to the train platform below. Our train was there, waiting, and I felt a note of relief at spotting it. I was ready to get out of there.
With assistance from the conductor, Liz and I boarded the train, found two vacant seats and stored our small suitcases in the overhead compartment. Slumping into our seats with a sigh, we both agreed we were ready to get home.
It had been no more than ten minutes since we had stepped on the train when we heard the conductor’s voice making an overhead announcement. “Attention all passengers, this train is now out of service. You must gather your personal items and exit the train immediately. Amtrak staff are waiting on the platform to assist you with directions. Please proceed to the nearest exit immediately.”
Liz and I looked at each other in shock and confusion. Not for the first time that day, we muttered, “What in the world is going on?” Obediently, we collected our luggage and headed for the exit.
Stepping off the train, we heard the calls of Amtrak personnel directing us to move quickly to the waiting escalator. By this time, my nerves were on edge, and you didn’t have to tell me twice. I scurried toward the escalators with Liz right behind me.
Reaching the upper platform that we had crossed only moments before, we encountered several staff members pointing directions and ordering us to move quickly down the corridor. I paused for a moment, allowing Liz to catch up.
Glancing through the glass window of the station gate door, I was shocked to find the train terminal completely empty. Not fifteen minutes before, the station had been teeming with people waiting for trains. Now, there was not a single soul in sight. An eerie feeling washed over me as I stood there transfixed on the deserted scene.
My stomach fell to the floor with the next sight. Uniformed police officers armed with automatic rifles were patrolling the station corridors. Paired with police dogs, the policeman were moving quickly up and down the aisles of the station gates. I caught my breath in shock. Growing up as an Army brat, I knew about that kind of firepower. This was not a drill. Something was terribly wrong.
The Amtrak staff were shouting for us to move along quickly. I tore my eyes away from the scene inside the station and began to move rapidly down the corridor, my mother-in-law trailing closely behind. The knot in my stomach grew as a station official directed us to take the escalator down to the underground Metro station. I had already started processing what was happening. If those were bomb sniffing dogs, we needed to get out of there fast. As I ascertained that we were being directed down into the Metro, my chest tightened in panic. If there was a bomb in this station, the last place I wanted to go was further underground. Yet, there was nowhere else to go, no time for argument. We did as we were told.
Once arriving in the subway station, I realized that the staff were pushing us toward the Metro exit leading to the street outside. I stepped up the pace, ready to get out of that building. I was totally unprepared for the scene that awaited us.
On the streets outside, there were hundreds of people clogging the sidewalks all around the station. People were wedged on every available surface in order to stay out of the streets. Bumper to bumper traffic was at a standstill on every road within view. Horns were blaring. Several city buses were stuck in the traffic circle near the station, the roar of their idling engines nearly deafening. Exhaust fumes from the throng of cars clogging every inch of roadway wafted up from the street, making my eyes water and my nose turn up in disgust.
I stood there staring, not knowing where to go, what to do, as if I had somehow stepped into a movie scene without the benefit of reading the screenplay beforehand. It was surreal. Nothing made sense. My mind struggled to take it all in.
The sound of the policeman’s whistle brought me back to reality as the officers shouted for us to move along away from the building. Liz and I looked at each other in bewilderment. Where were we to go? Every inch of concrete was covered in wall to wall people.
The police officer was insistent with his orders, forcing us to inch our way forward, wheeling our luggage in between the jammed traffic. Reaching the concrete slab in the middle of the traffic circle across from the station, we weaved our way through the crowd to find a small patch of real estate upon which to perch. A buzz of mumbled conversation emanated from the people standing nearly shoulder to shoulder all around us, suitcases at their feet. Knowing they must have been evacuated from Union Station, Liz asked several people, “What’s going on? Why did we have to leave the station?”
“I’m not sure. The police just told us to leave immediately.”
“Bomb threat is what I heard.”
“Yeah, I heard someone say a bomb threat in the station.”
The crowd ebbed and flowed as people moved off to other locations trying to find a better spot to wait. Voices all around us crackled with little sound bites of news.
“I heard the Twin Towers collapsed.”
“They say there’s other planes out there, maybe more hijackers.”
A woman with a handheld radio stood several feet away from me. I inched closer to her and asked, “What are they saying? What’s going on?”
“A plane has hit the Pentagon. They’re shutting down all the government buildings, evacuating everyone. There still might be other planes out there.”
I stared at her in disbelief. I couldn’t seem to take it all in. Just the same, my eyes flew to the sky, searching for clues. Tall federal buildings loomed in front of us, but I knew the direction of the Pentagon from where I was standing. You see, I had lived in D.C. in my twenties and was quite familiar with my surroundings.
My stomach clenched in panic as I saw it. There in the distance, amidst that cornflower blue sky, was a trail of dark black smoke. I felt sick. This was really happening. The unimaginable was taking place.
With fear rising in my chest, I thought, “What if there is another plane?”
I turned my head in what I knew to be the direction of the Capitol building. It took a nanosecond to begin to process the scenarios. If there was another plane out there and it was headed to D.C., then the most likely target would be the U.S. Capitol. I had flown enough times into National Airport to know that the Capitol building and the Washington Monument stood out like beacons from the air. You could not miss them. If you were a terrorist bent on weaving destruction, those would be easy targets. Come to think of it, the White House was another prime target. The fear bubbled up in my throat as I internalized that all those places were just blocks from where I was standing. “If a plane hits one of these places and we are standing out here with no cover to shield us, we are in trouble. Flying debris from the Capitol could kill us. We’re just sitting ducks.”
With an ever deepening sense of dread, I realized that there was nothing we could do. There was nowhere to go, no shelter to seek. We were stuck out here on the street, at the mercy of whatever comes next.
I wanted to call Eric, but was worried about how much battery charge I had left in my phone. I dialed anyway, only to find the busy signal indicating there was no service. Asking others around me about their cell service yielded the same findings. There was no way to call anyone.
So, we waited. Standing in the hot September sun, listening to the roar of the standstill traffic, we just stood like statues and waited. There was nothing else to do, but try to stay calm and pray, and pray I did. I prayed hard. Over and over again, like a broken record in my head, I cried, “Lord, help us!”
Hours passed. We had no water, no restrooms, no official updates on what was happening. Though moving at a crawl, the traffic did inch forward and, over time, the streets began to clear. The crowds thinned out some, though I had no idea where all those people went. Eventually, Liz and I made our way over to the steps of a federal building and found a seat with a tad bit of shade. Devoid of sunscreen, our cheeks and noses were beginning to burn from the sun’s unrelenting rays. Without food or drink since breakfast, we were hot, thirsty and hungry. I remembered I still had part of my Diet Coke in my bag and pulled it out for us to share. Liz located the chocolate chip cookies she had bought that morning. She pulled out the well warmed cookies and we munched on them, licking our fingers to cleanse the oozing chocolate from our hands.
Positioned across the street from Union Station, we could watch for any signs that the building might be reopened. We waited. We worried. We prayed.
We did debate our options from time to time. “If the station remains closed, should we try to go back to our hotel and see if they have a room? But how could we get there? Maybe we could find a pay phone and call our old friends to meet us somewhere? Maybe they would let us stay with them until we could get out tomorrow. Will the train even run tomorrow? What happens if it gets dark, and we are still out here on the streets of D.C.?”
We wondered for the hundredth time that afternoon when we might hear some news from the station officials. We were not the only ones waiting. Hundreds of other passengers, suitcases stashed beside them, were positioned all around us on the steps of adjacent buildings. Surely, they would let us know something soon.
“What must Eric be thinking? And Pete? They must be worried sick.”
Still, there was nothing to do about it. There was nothing to do, but wait and worry.
As the sun shifted, throwing long shadows over the concrete, the sound of traffic slowly diminished. There were no cars on the streets around us, no roar of buses within earshot. It began to feel like we were the only people still left sitting in downtown D.C. For almost six hours, we had sat there without food, water or a restroom. By this point, we were miserable and working on just plain numb.
Finally, close to 5 PM, we began to see movement near the station doors. Police officers were moving back and forth, near the entrance. We watched as other passengers approached the officers, and one by one, they began to form a line near the door. The officers started waving a security wand over each person and their cargo. Liz and I collected our luggage and trudged toward the station. Making it inside, we made a beeline to the bathroom.
That need relieved, we went in search of water. The stores were all closed, though it looked like a few might reopen. The water fountain did the trick for the moment. I tried my phone again, the battery nearly drained. I hoped there might be cell service soon so I could call home. Hopefully, I would have enough battery charge to make the call.
Amtrak officials were busy updating passengers and posting information. All northbound trains remained cancelled, but they would be running a few southbound trains that evening if all went as planned. We settled into wait some more, though at least we had more comfortable seats.
Within an hour or so, we received word that there would be a train to Richmond leaving at 7 PM. Directing us to the same gate we had passed through earlier that day, we were told to wait there for further updates. We had already decided that if we could get to Richmond that night, I would get off and go home with Liz. She and Pete could drive me home the next day. If we could just get out of there, I wanted no further part of public transportation for awhile.
I tried my phone again and there was cell service. I made a quick call to Eric. His voice was shaky as I quickly explained the train update and reassured him we were OK. He would call Pete with the news.
There were no televisions or radios for us to learn about what was happening. The best news source available was the gossip line from our fellow passengers who were randomly reporting that they had heard this or that. We should have been hungry, but the stress of the day stole any appetite we might have had.
Close to 7 PM, we were called by the ticket agent that the train was now boarding. I had a weird moment of deja vu as I stepped through those same double doors I had walked through eight hours earlier. Quickly, Liz and I crossed the upper platform toward the escalators. As we descended slowly to the lower platform, I felt an eerie tingle down my spine. The platforms below had this uncanny sense of quiet. The usual complement of trains were absent and you could feel it in the air. I must admit a sense of trepidation as I stepped onto the train. Stabs of fear kept needling me. “Is this train safe? Should we be doing this? Are we going to get there OK?” But there was nothing else to do. Our only option was to spend the night in the station and I wanted no part of that. I wanted to go home. I wanted out of there.
All passengers boarded safely, the train began its slow progress out of the station, exiting underground through a tunnel. Within a few minutes, we popped out of the tunnel preparing to merge onto the 14th Street Bridge. Looking out the window, I could see the streets of D.C. interspersed between the facades of the various office buildings that skirt the Capitol Mall. There was no one on the streets, no cars, no pedestrians. It was empty, completely devoid of any signs of human life.
I caught my breath in shock for I knew the streets and sidewalks should be teeming with people at this point on a normal day. As we approached the bridge, I spied I-395 to my left, not a car in sight. “Had we lived through the Apocalypse and we were all that was left?” It felt like being stuck in the middle of one of those terrifying end of the world movies.
Passing over the Potomac on the 14th Street Bridge, the train made its turn southbound. It was then that I saw it. I let out a gasp of horror as I caught sight of the Pentagon, black smoke rising from its walls, emergency vehicles scattered amongst the debris that covered its giant parking lots. The glimpse was brief, barely time to take in the sight, but the shock would last for days. This horror had really happened, and it had taken place just a few miles from where I had stood in the hot sun for most of the day. I shook my head in disbelief, and for the millionth time, offered up my prayer, “Lord, help us. Help us, please.”
The train ambled slowly southbound, just barely creeping forward. Asking a conductor about the speed, he replied that we were following a search party, whose duty was to scan the tracks to ensure there were no bombs or hazards on the railway ahead. We could not exceed 35 mph between D.C. and Richmond. I nodded and gulped down the acid that had leapt from my stomach at the import of his words. Fear reared its ugly head yet again, as I thought, “Good grief! The danger is not over yet.”
As the conductor moved away down the aisle, Liz just looked at me with wide eyes of disbelief. We were both out of words at the moment. We rode in relative silence the rest of the journey, praying silently and trying to sort through the events of the day.
Finally, the conductor called out that Richmond would be our next stop. We collected our belongings and made ready for departure, hoping all the while that Pete had found out about our pending arrival and would be waiting for us at the station.
As my feet touched the concrete platform, I said a prayer of thanks to be out of Washington. When we found Pete waiting outside the station, Liz and I both let out a “Thank God!”
The car ride to their house was a bit surreal as Pete shared the news of the day with us. Though we had lived through it in the heart of the Capitol city, we knew little of the events in New York City and nothing of the foiled hijacking attempt and subsequent crash in Pennsylvania. My mind reeled as I realized that the brave men and women of Flight 93 had saved our lives. Had that plane made it to Washington and hit the Capitol, we would be dead. Standing on that street corner with nowhere to go, the falling debris would have killed us.
Still, the real shock came once we had arrived at their house and turned on the television. A sick sense of horror washed over me as the images replayed on the screen. My mind was spinning just trying to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy.
Of course, I had called Eric the moment I stepped foot in the house. So relieved to hear his voice, tears flooded my eyes. He was OK, and so was Jonathan. They had been worried sick about us. I could tell from the sound of Eric’s voice that the hours of watching the news unfold and not knowing our whereabouts had been devastating for him. He had been watching the news when the first plane hit the Twin Towers. His shock had morphed into panic when the news of the Pentagon attack hit the air waves. Like me, Eric was familiar with the landscape of downtown D.C. He knew how close Union Station was to the Capitol. When the Pentagon had been hit and there was talk of another plane on its way to the Capitol, Eric was practically apoplectic. All he could think was that the plane was headed right toward me and he was powerless to do anything. Like me, he had to watch, wait and pray. Yes, my day had been horrific, but so had his.
I thought I would not sleep that night, but the rigors of the day had left me exhausted. After a small snack, I made my way to bed. While I did sleep, my dreams were filled with buildings on fire and blown up trains. It was a fitful sleep and I was glad to leave it when the morning light streamed in the bedroom window.
It was decided that Pete would drive me home, while Liz attended to her work. The sunburn and dehydration of the day before had left her feeling poorly. With a tight hug, I left Liz in the driveway, both of us still reeling from the surreal disaster that was yesterday.
The ride was quiet as Pete and I listened to NPR and tried to process the events that had unfolded. Home had never looked so good as when we pulled up in our driveway that morning. Jonathan was at school, but Eric was waiting for us, his face awash with relief at the sight of me.
Pete refused to stay for lunch despite our invitation. After a brief break, he snagged a Pepsi to keep himself awake and headed back to Richmond. He was ready to get home. I couldn’t blame him. After all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, the only place anyone wanted to be was home.
Waving goodbye to my father-in-law, Eric and I turned to head back in the house. Falling into my favorite chair with a heavy sigh of relief, I thanked God that I was safe and sound, home at last.
–Anita P. Sherer
September 11, 2019