By Anthony V. Fasolo
Everyone agrees that we are a divided nation now. But we were united then.
Members of Congress even joined arms and sang God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol. President Bush convened an ecumenical religious service and warned us that it was Osama bin laden who was to blame—not all Muslims—for what happened. He told us it was a group of radicals trained by Osama bin laden who did this act, which was not in accordance with the teachings of the Qur’an. The skies were empty of aircraft for a few weeks, since all flights were grounded—the only plane that had been allowed to leave the U.S. was the one carrying Saudi Arabian officials. People were very friendly with each other. Children sold lemonade with money going to 911 victims.
The Department of Defense brought in the relatives and friends of the victims for a memorial service. I took part in local hotels welcoming relatives and friends of those killed on the plane and in the Pentagon. Grief dogs (Collies with red white and blue scarves) moved through the crowded lobbies, held on a leash by general officers. The generals encouraged people to gently pet the dogs to help them with their grief.
Foreign Nations such as England and Germany were with us then. German ships passing ours had signs off encouragement on them. The band at Buckingham Palace played our National Anthem. Then we sent troops to Afghanistan where Osama had trained the terrorists who attacked us. Then the decision was made to go into Iraq after Sadaam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction—none were found. Fighting erupted and spread, and many refugees fled their countries and are fleeing still.
How did we get from the point where we were united, and Congress sang God Bless America all together on the steps of the Capitol to where we are now in 2019?
It all started on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. It was a clear day and after taking a commuter bus ride from Loudoun County (actually it was more like a moving bedroom than a bus since almost every passenger was sleeping), I was at work in my cubicle in the Pentagon at 7 a.m. as usual. Then about two hours later we heard reports of a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers in New York (an accident?). The colonel I worked with had his TV set on tuned to CNN so we could see what was happening. We tried to guess what was going on and then the second plane hit—no accident for sure! I went back to my windowless cubicle and called my wife to let her know something was going on in New York. As soon as I hung up the phone, I heard a WOOOMP! sound (like incoming artillery), Then we were told to evacuate. We silently and calmly got up and started for the exits but were told to go to another exit because there was smoke coming down that hall. I still did not know what was going on and did not associate what we were doing with what was happening in New York. The first time that I realized that what was happening in the Pentagon had something to do with the World Trade Center in New York, was after we evacuated and got outside. It was then that I saw the huge plume of thick black smoke rising from the Pentagon and smelled the fuel burning.
My first thought after I saw the black smoke rising from the Pentagon was that this was insane, and we had to learn to live with each other and find ways to understand and work peacefully with everyone.
However, even then I was not sure just exactly what it was that had hit the Pentagon. Was it a missile, a plane or what? Although I did not know what it was that had hit the Pentagon, I had a pretty idea who did it—I do know what I heard—I heard a few military officers, say that “Osama Bin Laden did this.” This was the first time I had heard that name.
Another voice kept saying, “Get away from the building; there is another high-performance aircraft headed this way” (this must have been the plane that was taken back by the passengers crashed in Pennsylvania). I then headed for Reagan National Airport to try to take the shuttle to Dulles. I realized that it had been three hours since I last spoken to my wife. I called her from a Crystal City Marriott pay phone where people were surprisingly polite, stood in line and took turns using the phone for only a few minutes. As I walked, I heard reports on TV that the State Department had been hit and other places, too (all wrong). Cars were bumper to bumper, but no horns were blown, and no one shouted at anyone else. I took the metro, reluctantly since only a few months before the terrorists in Japan had killed people with Sarin gas in their subway system. My wife met me at the West Falls Church Metro station in a car driven by a co-worker.
It was not until Monday, Sept. 17, almost one week after the attack, that I was able to return to my cubicle in the Pentagon. I remember being surprised that my stuff (Day-Timer, bottle of water) was still where I had left it when I returned. Another surprise was that the vents had been cleaned and the carpets shampooed, the first time in years that had happened.Then at approximately 11:30 a.m., the assistant chief of staff for Installation Management, Major General Robert L. Van Antwerp Jr., gathered us together in a shaded area on the Pentagon grounds and spoke to us.
He confirmed that two of our co-workers, Carole Singlaub and Sandy Taylor, had been killed along with almost 200 others in the Pentagon and on the plane that had been hijacked and crashed. Also, Executive Officer Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, had been severely burned and was in very serious condition. (Birdwell was visited by President Bush at Walter Reed Hospital, subsequently retired, wrote a book, “Refined by Fire,” in which he described his experiences, and is now a legislator in Texas.)
Gen. Van Antwerp then told us that we should all put our affairs in order and hold no grudges against anyone, make amends now. I did this and feel today that a load has been lifted from my shoulders. We need to tell those we love, that we love them every chance we get. That’s very important.
Lastly, we all needed to look at the area where the plane hit, he said. He understood that this would be a hard thing to do but that we had to do it. It took me another two days before I could do this, but I remember my first impression when I saw the site. It looked like a large fireplace poker had hit the building. I had expected to see the outline of a plane going into the Pentagon but later learned that the plane was so full of jet fuel that the wings were completely incinerated and collapsed.
Anthony V. Fasolo, Leesburg