I had no intension of writing about September 11, but this blog has been composing itself in my head.
When I’m honest, I admit that I live in Rome now because of the events of September 11. I didn’t flee Washington, where I lived then, because of fear. In fact, I flew on September 21 for a long-planned weekend with my sisters. We agreed that the terrorists would win if we altered our lives as a result of the attacks. I remember our resolve each time I’m forced to remove my shoes at an American airport.
On September 11, 2001, I worked at an international language school one block from the White ouseHouse. I arrived early that morning for a special project, a semi-private class for three Columbian sisters. They had come to D.C. to escape the violence terrorizing their country and struggled to learn English.
That lesson started at 8:15, earlier than the normal sessions, and extended beyond their usual start time. My boss covered the first hour of my regular class while I finished up with the Columbians and took a brief break. I was alone in the teachers’ room when a silly woman entered laughing. “Can you believe this?” she asked. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center. Ha. Ha. Ha.” That was my introduction to the horror.
The news came in dribs and drabs. Someone with a Walkman reported that one tower had fallen, then the other. A phone call from a worried husband revealed that a plane had hit the Pentagon. Another, that a fourth plane had gone down in Pennsylvania. Had it been headed for the White House? Was another plane now aimed at us? Would we survive?
School phones crackled with calls from around the globe as anxious relatives checked up on our charges. We scurried to help our students find ways back to their residences because public transportation had stopped. We felt great responsibility for these people with a limited grasp of English. A group of Saudi women in traditional dress posed a significant problem. Their embassy feared for their safety and urged us to keep them until transportation could be arranged. In the end, my boss drove them home with her.
When at last I could leave, I stooped under the yellow police tape that sequestered the White House and encircled the school building. Every vehicle equipped with a siren seemed to be blasting up and down Washington streets. I joined the human stream that flowed over the bridges to the Virginia and Maryland countryside. I lived precisely one mile from the White House front door, so I trickled away from the stream after a short while, but others trudged on for hours.
My apartment had a northeastern exposure that looked away from the White House and Pentagon, so I climbed to the roof where, in the past, I had watched Fourth of July fireworks and enjoyed meteor showers and celebrated other good times. That day, I joined a neighbor to view smoke billowing up from the stricken Pentagon. Fighter jets screamed overhead, so low we could read their identification numbers.
The aftermath was no less unsettling. My usual work day included morning classes at the school and afternoon private sessions at the International Monetary Fund. I had always walked from one to the other along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. That route closed after the attacks. One police officer might send me to H Street where another would tell me I couldn’t walk there. While overhead the fighter jets shrieked.
White SUVs bearing Kevlar-vested agents swooshed along Washington streets, bullhorns extended from windows, squawky messages to pedestrians blaring forth. And overhead the fighter jets continued to squeal.
Like other Americans I felt helpless and wanted to do something. Finally, I made a five-gallon pot of soup and dragged it around the corner to my neighborhood firehouse where fire fighters told me about what they had observed at the Pentagon.
The tension continued to rev. Then a tornado struck, a rarity in Washington. More death and destruction. One day a fighter jet swooped especially low as I walked near the 17th and S Streets park. I looked up, but the jet was long gone. Where it had been, soaring with wings outstretched, was a bald eagle. I think I made my decision then.
We all reacted to the September 11 events on a personal level. I saw—felt—how quickly life can be snatched away. I had been harboring a dream of returning to Italy to live since I had packed up in September 1971 and returned to the U.S. after three years in Tuscany. For thirty years, I’d thought, maybe someday. Now I realized that someday may not come, and that I must do it now or never.
In March 2002, I came to Rome to investigate living here, went back to Washington, and folded up my life. The day after the November elections, I boarded a plane with three suitcases and never looked back. So, in a way, I did alter my life as a result of the attacks. But for good reason.