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My 911 Reflection

Authors Note - I wrote this reflection some time ago because I think it is important to be able to share memories, even not so good ones, like the events of September 11, 2001.  It was one of those events where you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard what was going on.

My 9-11 Reflection by Jim Michalowski

In September 2001, I was a Coast Guard Commander serving at our headquarters in Washington, DC where I was Chief of the Hazardous Materials Standards Division.  Our house was in Manassas, VA about 30 miles away.

There are certain events that you will always remember exactly where you were when it happened.  Examples with me are things like the Challenger disaster.  9-11 ranks right up there.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001 started out like just about most days for me.  I boarded the 5:35 am Virginia Railway Express Train in Manassas, Virginia and enjoyed some coffee and some pleasant conversation with some fellow Coast Guard members during the approximately one hour trip to Washington, DC.  I don’t exactly recall the topic of the day, but I am sure that at least in our minds it was important.  We all boarded the Shuttle and arrived at Coast Guard Headquarters a little before 7:00 am to start our days.

I had been assigned to Coast Guard Headquarters since July.  My office was on the south side of the third floor of the Headquarters Building.  During the winter you could see the Anacostia River, but in September, all I could see was trees.  It was a very nice morning; very clear and warm and I was looking forward to a late morning workout.

By the time I got into work, my wife was busy with getting our kids ready for school.  Our son, Daniel, had just started third grade and our daughter, Adrianna, had just begun Kindergarten.  (Unlike Kentucky, in Virginia and the first day of school was the Tuesday after Labor Day).   I was actually feeling a little down because the air conditioner on our truck had failed the previous weekend and I knew it was going to set me back several hundred dollars to get it fixed.

I had been invited to a meeting with some people from Australia who had travelled to the US to propose some new pollution response equipment.  I really didn’t see much of a role at the meeting other than to perhaps comment on the storage tanks, but the chief of the response division was a friend of mine and asked me to attend if only to have a least one higher ranking Coast Guard person per representative.  As I was getting ready to leave for the meeting, one of my guys announced that it was on CNN that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  I’m sure that like most people, I thought that some fool in a small plane had crashed into one of the towers.  Clueless as to what was actually happening; I headed to my meeting which was in a conference room that overlooked Fort McNair on the west side of the building.  For those not familiar with the area, the Pentagon sits about a mile and a half (as the crow flies) west of Coast Guard Headquarters.

The meeting started at 9:30 and by 9:31 I was already bored.  That boredom came to an abrupt halt around 9:40 when we all heard a really loud noise outside.  Looking out the window you could see smoke rising from the Pentagon.  Of course, we all had no idea what was going on yet.  As the news spread though Headquarters, I was actually quite surprised at how calm the building stayed.  Of course, we had no idea if we had just witnessed the first wave with more to come or what.  Granted, Coast Guard Headquarters probably wasn’t on too many priority target lists, but you never know. 

Of course, my initial thought was “is my family ok?”  The thing is, I actually trusted the school to do what was right and after briefly speaking with my wife I knew everything was good at home.  Getting home that day proved to be a bit of a challenge.  All public transit ceased operation potentially stranding many of us in DC.  Fortunately, I was able to catch a ride to Vienna with a coworker and meet up with my family at the Vienna Metro Station.  It was actually quite eerie riding home since the roads were normally packed and had very few people actually out.  With our close proximity to Reagan National Airport there were always planes in the sky but the sky was empty that afternoon.

Living where we did, it was hard not to know someone who worked at the Pentagon. I rode the train with several people who worked there as did the father of one of the boys we were in scouts with.   Knowing all was well with my family, my thought turned to my friends who worked at the Pentagon.  I was quite happy to learn that everyone I knew was ok.

In retrospect, I am actually disgusted in how I felt after finding that no one I knew was involved with the Pentagon incident.  Why was I disgusted?  First, it disgusted me that with all the effort we put into intelligence that such a thing could have happened but mostly that while thousands of my fellow Americans were killed in the attack that I was so focused on my own family and friends that it wasn’t until much later that I thought about them.


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