Twenty years later, residents reflect on 9/11

Twenty years later, residents reflect on 9/11

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Everyone remembers where they were when, 20 years ago, planes descended from a crystal-clear blue sky and crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Shanksville, Pennsylvania field. But for people who were near the crash sites on Sept. 11, 2001, those memories are particularly vivid, even two decades later.

Many current residents of Alexandria witnessed, and in some cases experienced, the events of 9/11. The memories of that day still linger in the Port City, and its impact has rippled out to affect Alexandrians in ways they may not fully understand.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this week, the Alexandria Times spoke with three residents about their experiences and recollections of how they and the city responded on that day and in the weeks that followed. Here are their stories.

The military man

Retired Lt. Gen. Bob Wood had just gotten off the phone with his daughter, who called him after learning that two planes had hit the World Trade Center buildings at 8:46 and 9:03 a.m. He was trying to help her calm down. Wood, who was director of strategic planning for the U.S. Army at the time, looked up at the T.V. in his Pentagon office to see smoke spewing from the Twin Towers.

“I’ll never forget, I said, ‘Just keep your head down’ and hung up the phone, and then the plane hit the side of my office,” Wood said.

The impact from the crash flung Wood across his office. When he was able to get up and take stock of his surroundings, smoke and heat were spreading into his office – and his door was jammed shut.

Wood’s executive assistant, realizing her boss was trapped, gathered some other people and worked to break down his office door. Brig. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who would go on to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, ended up rescuing Wood.

When Wood finally escaped from his office and rounded up the rest of his staff, none of them knew what had happened.

“I had no idea it was a plane that hit the building,” Wood said. “You know the picture of the cut of the Pentagon? The first window to the left of that cut that wasn’t broken on the third floor, I was sitting behind that window. I heard two things one after the other, which they tell me was the plane hitting the ground and skipping into the building.”

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Bob Wood.

Wood was also unaware that just behind the wall in his office, two people had been killed by the plane crash.

Wood and his nine staff members left their offices and put their training as members of the military to good use.

“We made our way down through the hallways of the Pentagon, which were filling up with smoke, into the main courtyard. I was constantly looking in all my offices making sure everybody was out, even as we went down the inner hall to the courtyard,” Wood said. “Training just kicked in. It was: account for your people, keep calm, move quickly to a safer area and we’ll figure out what happened a little later.”

By the time Wood and his staff made it to the main Pentagon courtyard, hundreds of people were already there, most of whom had been briefed about the plane crash and were sharing details about their experiences to put the pieces together. Since the plane had hit only one side of the building, most people had little idea of how bad things actually were.

“I came out all smoke-covered, and I was a curiosity because there was a huge number of people who were just sent out of their offices to safety, and they went to the center courtyard,” Wood said. “There was just a constant conversation about ‘What did you see? What did you hear? What is happening?’”

Soon after, people were ushered away from the building, and for the next few hours Wood was tasked with accounting for Army operations personnel. Cell phones were almost useless – with so many people trying to call or communicate with family, friends or coworkers, cellular communication immediately backed up.

Although the Pentagon sent out lists, via text, of employees who had escaped the building, Wood was unable to communicate directly with his family until he got back home to Old Town later in the day. The weight of the day didn’t hit him until he looked into the eyes of his family.

“I think it sunk in when I got home and I saw my whole family, plus my father who had come to the house, and they were all huddled around the T.V. in the kitchen, and in walks this smoky apparition. It was a pretty big greeting,” Wood said.

Over the next few days, Wood plunged headfirst into his work. As the Army’s strategic planning director at the time, Sept. 11 had changed everything for him and the Army at large.

“The key question on the table – ‘What happened and what are we going to do next?’ – was being discussed rather actively, so suddenly it became immediately clear how broad it was and the inflection point it represented in strategic planning,” Wood said.

The Army’s priorities had to change quickly. What would normally take years had to happen in weeks, Wood said, and that meant reassessing everything from training to budgets. The attack on the Pentagon also forced Wood to reconsider things outside the military, and although he retired from the Army in 2009 to start a consulting partnership in Alexandria, the lessons he learned that day have stuck with him.

“So much of it was the blessings of family. [It’s] very important. And everyone did their own reassessment and realized some things were important, some weren’t,” Wood said.

The politician

When a coworker burst into former Mayor Kerry Donley’s office on Sept. 11, 2001 to tell him a plane had hit the World Trade Center, Donley almost couldn’t believe it. That feeling of shock and disbelief would intensify over the next few hours as Donley gradually realized the United States was under attack.

“You’re thinking it’s a small plane, and you find out very quickly it’s an airliner. You’re sort of confronted with a whole lot of shock and horror and trying to grasp the inhumanity of the act, and then it escalates from there to a second plane and then a report of a plane striking the Pentagon,” Donley said.

Donley’s office closed shortly after news of the plane hitting the Pentagon came over the airwaves, and by 1 p.m. he was headed to the command center that had been set up at city hall. Donley said his shock subsided and his adrenaline took over, as he, the city manager, City Council and chiefs of police and fire worked to secure the city amid uncertainty and in the aftermath of a tragedy.

“Our concern was the public safety of the residents here, and then deploying resources not only to address the needs of the Pentagon but to make sure that we had adequate coverage here in Alexandria because there was just a tremendous amount of uncertainty. Are there going to be other attacks? What do we need to do to keep our citizens safe?” Donley said.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Donley recalled how Alexandria sent fire, police and emergency medical units to the Pentagon to assist with recovery efforts, while units from Prince George’s and Fairfax counties took up residence in Alexandria’s fire stations to assist with the local response.

Former Mayor Kerry Donley.

“One of the things that I thought was tremendous was the ability of not only the city but for the region to come together and meet a challenge,” Donley said. “… It was gratifying to meet that challenge and to see that government can work, and work for the betterment and improvement of our communities.”

Later in the week, the city was able to take stock of its losses: Two residents had been on the plane that hit the Pentagon and many more residents had friends and other people from their lives who had been killed or impacted by the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania. On Friday, Sept. 14, the city held a candlelight vigil at Market Square, with residents filling the area in front of city hall and overflowing onto King, Cameron and Fairfax streets. Donley said he was “quite struck by the enormity of the event,” which is still held, albeit in a much smaller form, every Sept. 11 in the city.

In the days, weeks and months following 9/11, Alexandria and the region also had to reckon with the economic fallout of that catastrophe in a way that the rest of the country did not, according to Donley.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport remained closed for almost three months after Sept. 11, curtailing business travel and disrupting commerce throughout the region, including in Alexandria. Employees at local hotels, restaurants and shops were laid off, and things became so dire that Donley joined a number of local leaders in traveling to the White House to explain the situation to President George W. Bush’s senior staff and Virginia’s congressional leaders.

“We needed to restore normalcy not only because of peoples’ livelihoods, but we felt the sooner we could get back to normal, the better it would be for not only this region but for the entire country,” Donley said.

While Alexandria and the rest of the DMV have largely recovered from 9/11, Donley argued that the long-lasting impact of that day remains so omnipresent as to be undetectable. Like many other communities, the city’s approach to security completely changed after Sept. 11, 2001, and in the days right after the attack on the Pentagon, Donley and the rest of City Council had to view their jobs as local leaders from an entirely different perspective.

“You had to make all of those decisions, but you had to do it through a new lens now, and the new lens was, ‘What’s the worst-case scenario, if there’s a terrorist attack or some act of violence?’” Donley said.

For years after 9/11, any large public event at city hall was accompanied with a heightened police presence, bomb sniffing dogs and security checkpoints. Donley also recalled debating whether or not to set up metal detectors at city hall, a decision that council ultimately resisted because “we viewed city hall as a place of community, where people should be free to come in and seek city services, meet with elected and appointed officials.”

However, Donley said the community’s willingness to come together and prove its resilience remains the most long-lasting effect for him. On Sept. 11, 2001, Alexandria’s residents reminded Donley of why he chose to represent them in the first place.

“It was a tremendous challenge, but it was also a time of tremendous unity and community,” Donley said. “… You sort of look back on that time and you remember the terror, you remember the horror, but you also remember the patriotism and the unity in this country.”

The rabbi

When the plane hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Jack Moline, who was then rabbi of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, jumped in to help in whatever way he could. After ensuring the safety of his immediate family, the rabbi reached out to Inova Alexandria Hospital’s chaplain to offer assistance. Moline said he figured there would be casualties to treat and medical workers who could use the help.

“[The chaplain] asked me to come over, I went to the E.R. and there were no injuries. You either walked away or you were dead,” Moline said.

Realizing his services weren’t needed at the hospital, Moline returned to the synagogue. Within an hour of his return, members of his congregation started coming in with their own personal accounts of the attack on the Pentagon.

One member said they had been stuck on the highway next to the Pentagon when the plane swooped overhead, clipping their car’s antenna before plummeting into the building. Another member wandered in looking disheveled and told Moline that he had just come from the Pentagon. He had dived under his desk and survived, but the man in the office with him had not been so lucky.

Moline heard story after story, and while the details differed, each person wanted the same thing: guidance and assurance in a time of tragedy and calamity. According to Moline, at the time, he was unsure he could provide either.

“At the time, I was as frantic and panicked as everybody else, so I fell back on things that were familiar to me,” Moline said. “Because people were so frightened – they were just scared out of their pants – I was getting a lot of emails, I was getting a lot of calls from people who wanted to know what to do. And I had to answer that question on the fly. If I said something that was helpful to people, it was sheer luck because, like everyone else, I had no time to think it through.”

Later that week, during his normal Friday service, Moline saw firsthand how lost people felt in the wake of 9/11. Typically, Friday services at Agudas Achim would bring in 30 to 50 people. On Sept. 14, 2001, about 300 people stayed for the service.

“My anticipation was [that] people wanted to come and just pray for a little while, but they did not – they needed to hear something from me,” Moline said. “I remember talking to them about the importance of not despairing and of looking to rebuild and not to allow our anger to overtake our need to restore a sense of security and safety for everyone in the United States, not just ourselves and people like us.”

One thing that Moline said he was certain of was the need for interfaith action, particularly with leaders in the local Muslim community.

“Somebody put a brick through the window of a Muslim business in Old Town, so whatever I worried about, the minute I heard about that I knew things were going to get a lot worse before they got any better,” Moline said.

Jack Moline, former rabbi at Agudas Achim Congregation and current president of the Interfaith Alliance.

Moline reached out to Imam Mahdi Bray, whose work as a Muslim-American civil and human rights activist spans across Northern Virginia and the country. The two spent the days following 9/11 at speaking engagements and other events throughout the region, including the vigil at Market Square.

Moline and Bray spoke at the vigil, alongside other faith leaders, Mayor Donley, City Council members, the business owner who had a brick thrown through his window and, per Moline’s suggestion, students from T.C. Williams High School, including his daughter. Moline said the vigil was not his “finest rhetorical moment,” but that the message of hope and togetherness that every speaker came with resonated with the crowd.

“People wanted to be close to each other. There was no such thing as social distancing at that point,” Moline said. “People were standing literally shoulder to shoulder; they didn’t want space between them.”

During the 20 years since 9/11, Moline left his congregation in Alexandria to lead the Interfaith Alliance in D.C. However, he said he has been unable to shake the memory of that clear September day. Moline has lived through earth-shattering historical events like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and moved on, but he said 9/11 was “somehow different.”

“We’ll get past this [pandemic] somehow, but I don’t think we will ever get out of the shadow of those towers,” Moline said. “I certainly cannot drive past the Pentagon without noticing the difference in the brick on the side that faces [Route] 110; it’s just there. I don’t have to think about it – it rises in my mind immediately – that the world is a far more dangerous place and America is far less secure than I believed for the first 48 years of my life.”