On September 10, 2001, my best friend from Chicago started her new job with the State Department in DC. She had just moved here. The next day, she and thousands of others evacuated the city on foot, watching smoke rise above the Pentagon.
Ironically, while many people around the world watched the events of that day in horror, I was blissfully unaware. I had a dentist appointment that afternoon and had decided to work from home instead of driving to work in the Northern Virginia office. So I was at our home in Southern Maryland with no TV or radio playing in the house. My first inkling that something was wrong came around 11:30 am, when the phone rang and the receptionist at the dentist office wanting to know if I planned to keep my appointment that day. Not knowing what was going on, I said of course I wanted to keep my appointment. She didn't mention NYC or the Pentagon, and I was still had no idea what was going on.
For me, this day would turn out to be very similar to a day five years before.
About 30 minutes after the dentist called, an email came through a listserv from someone in Europe stating that they were praying for everyone in New York City. Almost immediately after, an email came from someone in my office asking employees to meet at the flagpole outside for a moment of silence to remember those whose lives were lost in the Towers and at the Pentagon. That got my attention.
I turned on the TV and saw video of the planes hitting the towers and the collapse being played over and over and over, and I felt sick to my stomach. The footage of the Pentagon on fire terrified me because I couldn't remember if my husband had to go there that day. I tried calling him but both cell and land phone lines were jammed. I couldn't get through to my friends or family, either. My dial-up internet speed slowed to a crawl, and then just died, so I couldn't even send or receive email. After trying for almost an hour I just gave up and made a vain attempt at going back to my project. But I left the TV on.
Michael finally called about 30 minutes later to let me know that he was alright and not at the Pentagon, and my sense of relief almost made me cry. We both knew in our hearts that this was a terrorist attack, and the mix of anger and horror I felt is something I will never forget.
When I went to the dentist office, they explained to me that all the other patients had canceled that day. By that time in the afternoon, a number of theories were floating around about how many planes were involved, when the airlines would start flying again, and who might have been responsible for these unspeakable acts, and the dentist and the hygienist and receptionist discussed all of them while cleaning and examining my teeth. It felt surreal.
When I got home, I worked the rest of the day trying to find out if my friends in NYC and DC were safe, and ultimately I was very fortunate in that regard. I didn't lose anyone in the attacks.
But the day had a familiar feel, like a dull headache that keeps coming back...
I had worked in Saudi Arabia for a couple years in the mid-90s, and in fact was living in Dhahran when Khobar Towers was blown up in 1996. My house shook from the force of that explosion even though I was several miles away from the site. I remember going outside and looking around, trying to figure out what had caused that violent shaking. My house was located in the Aramco compound on a cul-de-sac near the end of the runway at the military airbase, and the planes would fly over the golf course at the end of the street as they took off and landed. I was sure that a plane had crashed, but could find no evidence of it. It was night time, and I was unable to see very far. I went back inside and turned on the news, but the local news had nothing. I stayed up late trying to find out what had happened, but the local station never mentioned it. It wasn't until the next day at school that I learned what had happened via students who had BBC News on satellite at home.
Unlike 9/11 where the events in NYC were shown live, the explosion at Khobar Towers was not even mentioned on the local Saudi news on the day it happened. Many of us had to get information from others who had "outside" access, such as American or British consulate employees. No one had Internet access from home. Internet use at Aramco was heavily restricted at that time, and you had to go to a special building and get permission to use the computers in a secured room.
So on 9/11, after making sure my family and friends were safe, my mind wandered and I thought back to Khobar Towers and Dhahran, and I realized that for me the days were similar in some respects. On both days I was cut off from information, either by circumstance or by law. On both days, I tried to find out what was happening, but was unable to get information when I wanted or needed it. On both days, I felt isolated until I understood what was happening.
Despite the similarities, there is also an important difference between those days. On 9/11, I was living in a country that treasures freedom above all things, that for the most part allows its citizens and press to freely communicate information, and allows me to choose my own sources of information. My country's laws say that people of all races, gender, and creed are created equal and have the right to be educated and to vote.
I have many freedoms in this country that millions of women around the world do not enjoy, and I have learned to treasure those freedoms.
Pentagon, DoD photo by R. D. Ward. (Released)
Khobar Towers, DoD photo by: SRA SEAN WORRELL (Released).
Andrea lives in Northern Virginia with her family. She also blogs at Andrea's Recipes.