Archive for Tuesday, September 11, 2001

EXTRA - In nation’s capital, disbelief and calm rule the day

September 11, 2001


— Downtown Washington this morning: A man stood on a corner, crying, saying, "I don't know what's happening." A woman sat in a convertible, listening to the radio, and suddenly put her hands to her head. "Oh, my God," she said. Siren pursued siren through paralyzed traffic, offices disgorged thousands onto sidewalks and, above it all, the pale gray smoke of a burning Pentagon drifted across the most blue of skies.

As the realization that New York was not the epicenter of terrorism saturated the capital region on Tuesday, the federal government elected to shut down, additional security enveloped leaders of Congress, many schools in Maryland sent children home, cell phone networks overloaded and rumors richocheted, many of them false.

There was no large-scale panic. But at the Capitol, some tourists simply left jackets and sweaters behind, on the floor, when security officers told them to leave.

"It started calm," said Don Keiser, a Georgia resident who had just taken the Capitol tour, "but then people started running."

In the 1800 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, Secret Service agents with machine guns, and some in paramilitary dress with tear-gas masks strapped to their belts, scurried throughout the area, shutting down H Street. At the Sun Trust Bank at Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, a hand-lettered sign appeared in the window: "Bank closed due to circumstances."

At 10:25 a.m., alarms began clanging in the building housing the Office of Personnel Management. "Gather your belongings and please leave," announced a male voice. At the State Department, workers began implementing special procedures. "We put up all of the classified documents," said an employee who requested anonymity. All window blinds had been closed, she added.

Traffic downtown slowed or stopped as federal and private-sector workers tried to go home from offices that had been closed. Because the Metro system seemed a likely terrorist target too, many workers began walking home, with those trying to take the 14th Street Bridge finding it closed to pedestrians. At the Tidal Basin, hundreds of people simply watched the smoke rising form the Pentagon, across the Potomac River.

OPM's decision to tell 340,000 federal workers that their offices were closed and they were free to leave was made in consultation with the White House, officials said. No decision has been made about when the offices would reopen. District government offices also closed.

"It's traumatizing," said Meyer Persow, who has worked at OPM for 15 years. "I never thought that something like this would happen to us here."

Jeannette Smith, who works at Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., waited outside an H Street parking garage for her car. Smith shook her head in disbelief at the events, as police barked orders at pedestrians, clearing the sidewalk across the street.

"We got word we could leave at our own discretion," Smith said. "Some of the diehards are still in the building."

"I can't believe this is happening here, or in New York," said another FDIC worker, Diane Rodgers, who was scrambling to find a way to her home near suburban Falls Church, Va.

A mobile Secret Service Command Center raced west on H Street, sirens blaring, shortly after 11 a.m. as police drew a growing perimeter around the White House. Metal gates and yellow tape blocked access to streets and alleys. People scrambled to find working pay phones or reach friends or family on cell phones.

Outside the H Street law firm Baker & McKenzie, which has a large office in New York not far from the World Trade Center, workers were hugging and consoling each other in late morning.

"This is a time for those of us who trust in God to rely on his promises," said Debbie Sanford of suburban Clinton, Md.

In the region, a steady stream of parents came to pick up their children for the day as school officials weighed whether to close schools. Northern Virginia school districts remained open, while most Maryland schools closed an hour or two early. Most districts canceled after-school activities.

Johnny Cervantes, a worker for the Internal Revenue Service, said that after the New York explosions, his branch chief suggested employees leave. "Word just sort of spread. I think, like everyone else, I'm shocked. I'm walking home to Crystal City because I don't want to take the subway. Sure, I'm going to be concerned about coming back to work. We'll come back to work when we get a better idea what kind of security plans are in place."

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