I thought it was a fire drill.
I arrived at the Hart Senate office building, across the street from the Capitol, just before 10 a.m. As I settled into line for an 11 o'clock hearing, I spotted a source and approached him. He greeted me quickly, snapped his cell phone shut, and said, "I think we're being evacuated." A few people were running, but there was no sense of panic. I figured they were hurrying to pick up essential papers. I did not realize what had happened until I got outside. A young staffer told me about the explosions. No one knew for sure, but something had happened at the Pentagon. Nobody could get their cell phones to work. Sirens were blaring as emergency vehicles screamed towards the Capitol.
Unable to contact anyone, I decided to head back to REASON's office on the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. I avoided the Metro. I wasn't even sure it was running. Instead, I decided to walk back through the Mall. As I walked, I realized how bad things were. A woman visiting from Minnesota said she saw everything on television while visiting the office of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). But even she wasn't sure what was happening. Standing on Constitution Avenue, we could see black smoke billowing in the distance and wondered if it could be coming from the Pentagon, which is about two miles to the southwest. People guessed that another explosion had occurred. Someone told me there was a fire further down the Mall.
That wasn't true. Small crowds were gathering on the grass. I walked past the Washington Monument, but realized upon seeing the security forces there that it probably wasn't the best place to be standing. I heard an enormous concussion and thought a bomb had gone off. People around me heard it, but no one panicked. Someone guessed it was a sonic boom from a military plane and that seemed to calm people.
Walking was easy because traffic was at a total stand-still. People continued pouring out of buildings, adding to the crush of bodies on the street. People eager to leave the city were trying to pull out of parking garages, making the gridlock worse. There was no screaming or running, just a general sense of confused wonder as people noticed the growing black plume rising above the buildings.
Finally I made my way to 17th Street and headed north towards Pennsylvania Avenue, but I didn't make it far. The street was closed. I headed west to 18th Street then up to Pennsylvania, but security forces had just secured that street as well. I could not raise any of my colleagues on my cell phone and I could not get to my office, so I set off to figure out what was going on. I noticed that I didn't have any cash, so I stopped at an ATM. The line was only two people deep. I asked if anyone had any information, and a young woman told me that someone had just bombed the Washington Monument. I told her I was just there, but she didn't seem to notice and walked off into the crowd.
After getting some cash, I headed north on Connecticut Avenue in search of a television. On the way, I saw a group of teenage tourists who apparently didn't realize that anything unusual had happened: The kids were hamming it up for a camera at the intersection of Connecticut and M Street. Apparently, people from outside the area thought the gridlock was standard for the city.
I finally found a television playing in the window of a photo shop. There was no sound, but a crowd had gathered to watch CNN through the window. Even then, there was disagreement. I asked if the towers at the World Trade Center had collapsed, and a woman confirmed that they had. A man beside her said that wasn't true. Footage on the screen soon confirmed who was right. The scene was quiet. Everyone was engrossed in the footage.
Eager for a sound feed, I continued up the street until I came across a construction site. Near Dupont Circle, workers had a small black-and-white television set up on a makeshift table. Most of the people gathered there had already seen the footage over and over. Only one man came upon the scene unaware. He was silent as he watched the jetliner smash into the skyscraper on the tiny screen.
I left that scene and finally found a television bank at a bar off Dupont Circle. It was standing room only as people gaped at the dueling coverage on either end of the bar. People were drinking.
"What happens now?"
"I know a lot of people who work at the Pentagon."
"This is fucking war."
After I absorbed what little information the networks had to offer, I headed towards my apartment in Adams Morgan. There, I figured I could try to reach my editor on my land line. More than a mile from the White House, 16th Street was deadlocked as cars and pedestrians streamed out of the city. I stopped and viewed the city from high on the hill occupied by Meridian Hill Park. From there, I could hear countless sirens blaring in the distance. A few emergency vehicles tried to make their way to Ground Zero through the mayhem, but the going was slow. By this time, it was almost 1 p.m. From their vantage point on the hill, a small crowd of people watched in disbelief as the smoke from the Pentagon continued pouring upward into the sky.