Eight years ago today, my morning began much like any other early fall day. I was roaming the airport in search of coffee and a bagel, mentally celebrating a successful morning launch of kick-off flights at Washington National Airport (DCA) on September 11, 2001. I was one of two Customer Service Managers at DCA on duty for American Airlines that day. My colleague was responsible for ramp operations while I was working passenger operations (gates and ticket counter).
During a visit with our operations agent, I heard a radio call from our first inbound flight of the day. The crew had a question, “had we heard anything about an incident in New York involving a United flight?” The operations agent and I both looked at each other in agreement that we had not, but I immediately got on the nearest computer to find cnn.com. I’ll never forget the picture of smoke billowing from the first tower, and the caption “Aircraft Hits World Trade Center. Details to Follow.” I immediately went to our conference room where I knew I would find access to a television. By the time I arrived there, the second tower had been struck, and the newscasters were spinning replays of the aircraft striking each tower.
By this time phones were ringing and my boss, the station general manager had arrived in the conference room. He took a call, while other managers from flight, flight service and maintenance began to gather. Upon hanging up the phone, he stated that they think 77 from Dulles is involved. And with that, things got real. I immediately returned to operations where our ops agent informed me that two flights that had just pushed were returning to the gate. He’d just gotten off the phone with dispatch, and learned that American was grounding all of its flights and that we may have had an airplane involved in New York.
I proceeded out to the gates to assist as our flights returned. The first passengers were coming off and I was immediately stopped by one of them who wanted to know about the possibility of getting rebooked on another airline. No, I’m not making that up! She was nice enough about it, but wasn’t interested in giving me a minute to figure out what was going on. As we stood there discussing the situation at DCA’s gate 28, she happened to glance out towards the north, and immediately asked “what’s that?” I turned to see the strangest color of smoke rising just above the tree line in the direction of the Pentagon. I responded that I wasn’t sure, but that I thought that it might be a good idea to leave. Within seconds, an announcement was made throughout the terminal to evacuate the building. I didn’t know it at the time, but our flight 77 had just crashed into the Pentagon.
I could tell you a lot more about that day, and the weeks that followed. The mass exodus from the airport on foot as F-16s criss-crossed the skies above, and the sick smell of burning jet fuel wafting through the air. I was certain more aircraft would follow at this point, and half expected to see one plow into the Washington Monument, the Capitol or for that matter, our airport at any minute. I could tell you about taking a team of airport agents to Dulles to stand in while the folks at Dulles grieved for the loss of one of their beloved colleagues, a 45 year AA employee, not to mention the shock of being the origin of flight 77. I could also talk about walking through an empty National Airport terminal at 5:30am a few weeks later. It was an eerie place with most of the lights turned off and none of the escalators running, the silence only broken by the sound of my shoes hitting the floor as I walked through on my way to pick up the lay off packages I would have to deliver to people that didn’t deserve it. I could say a lot, but I won’t. I think I’ve made my point.