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9/11: The day America changed

By DOUG THOMPSON - Capitol Hill Blue
September 11, 2012

September 11, 2001: A clear, crisp fall day in Washington, DC, and New York.

I was shooting a routine photo assignment in the District when my Blackberry went off.

“Explosion a the Pentagon” the message read. I walked out on the street and looked towards Virginia. Smoke snaked into the air from the direction of the Pentagon. I loaded my cameras into my Jeep Wrangler and headed towards the 14th Street Bridge.

But police had already closed off the bridge so I headed towards Southeast DC and the entrance to I-295, which led through Anacostia towards the DC Beltway.

While waiting at a stoplight near the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard, I saw Marines armed with M-16s guarding the gate — an unusual site. I snapped some photos from the open Jeep before the light changed.

Arriving at the Pentagon, I pulled the Jeep into the grass alongside Columbia Pike. A morning commuter sat by his car. He looked dazed.

“A plane hit the Pentagon,” he said. “It just flew into the building and disappeared. Then the explosion.”

A light pole crushed the front hood of a taxicab. The driver of the cab said the plane flew so low overhead that it knocked the pole down onto his hood.

I grabbed my cameras and headed a rise to get a better view. Smoke poured out of a gaping hole in the side of the huge structure. An acrid odor assaulted my senses: Burning kerosene and something else — the stench of burning human flesh. I had smelt it before, many years ago in a far off land. It was something I hoped I would never smell again.

For the next 17 hours, I went on autopilot, shooting photos and handing the compact flash cards from my Nikon D1s to a runner who brought fresh cards and a batteries. I would be several hours before another photographer and I working on that hillside would learn that two other planes had struck the World Trade Center in New York and even longer before hearing the news that United 93 had crashed into a field.

My photos would not only appear on Capitol Hill Blue but in newspapers, magazines and web sites around the world.

And it would be early the next day before I staggered home to our condo in Arlington — only about five miles from the Pentagon.

Stuck in the door was a card from an Criminal Investigations Service at the Navy yard. I called the number. He wanted to know why I was taking photos at the main gate the day before.

I explained who I was and gave him the ID number of my Department of Defense press pass. He verified my identity and said he was sorry to have bothered.

“We have to follow up on these things,” he said. “It’s a bit tense around here.”

Yes, it was. I collapsed into bed knowing that life in America had changed on the day before and would never, ever, be the same.

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6 Responses to 9/11: The day America changed

  1. Sandy Price

    September 11, 2012 at 10:37 am

    Thank you Chief for another remarkable commentary of the horror oif 9-11. You have an eye for drama and a heart and writing ability to make it real.

    This morning on “Morning Joe” they interviewed Pasquale Rotella who on that morning had just arrived at his job with the Port Authoritry and talked about his survival of riding a chunk of concrete down the elevator shaft or stairwell that brought him safely down to earth. The Discovery Channel is showing his story this evening at 8 PM.

    His thoughts during that horrible fall were for his wife who was pregnant with their first child and managed to hold herself together and tell her husband by phone what had happened as she could still get television coverage.

    It took years of reflection for Mr. Rotella to relive that morning as shock can often help the person involved to survive. It is a remarkable story and will be shared with all of us.

    Thank you for your commentary on the Pentagon disaster. When you brought this to Reader Rant so many years ago it sold many of us on your talent for reporting.

  2. blutodog

    September 11, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Lucky guy. It’s amazing how a few always survive. Even in the horror of Hiroshima a few also remained unhurt almost as if they were being protected, while so many other perish instantly their lives snuffed out in mid-stride. Yes, a day most of us will never forget, yet it didn’t change things for the better did it? Today’s mess is a straight line form that horrifying day isn’t it?

  3. Sandy Price

    September 12, 2012 at 11:31 am

    blutodog. There are always survivors in the most horrible attacks on all sides of a terrorism war. Americans seems to have short memories but the wrath that sits in their emotions return during times of stress. By the time 8 PM hit here in California, I had felt such remorse for all Americans that I had had quite enough of the emotions following 9-11. I’m one of those old women who cry easily when I recall that so many of my family members and friends were in terrible jeopardy on that horrible Tuesday morning.

    In 2001 I had lost a Hospice patient that previous day and I do not lose a parient well even when they are terminally close to death. Working so hard to maintain dignity with my patients is not always easy and watching 3000 people killed in a matter of hours, did me in. It came back yesterday.

    I ordered Richard Clarke’s book on his experience in the white house and his notes were very clear and precise. He added a time line of 9/11 and it did not match with the Commission Report. I was not fond of President Bush 43 and will go to my grave that he somehow knew this attack was going to happen. No, I do not think he planned it but he knew….he knew.

  4. woody188

    September 12, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    The worst part is the victory handed to terrorists by the fearful and those that would use their fear to consolidate power in the Unitary Executive. Yeah, we’ve changed. We torture, we hold people indefinitely without trial, we disappear people, we assassinate, we invade countries unprovoked. I can’t help but wonder if the people that died that day would be proud of what we have become.

  5. woody188

    September 12, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Link to a video with news footage of the Pentagon and Flight 93.

  6. John Lovejoy

    September 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    There are so many unanswered questions about 9/11. That’s all I’m saying.