Dark Days Never Forgotten - SunGlo Photo

Dark Days Never Forgotten

It was going to be another awesome fall day. Temperatures were in the high sixties and the skies were clear when my wife Ann dropped me off at the Fairfax Connector bus station. I was beginning my morning commute to my office in Arlington, Virginia. The bus would take me to the next leg of my daily trip, which was catching the METRO Orange Line at West Falls Church station.

This was the first time in my career that I had access to mass transit and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting back and letting someone else do the driving. Especially in the Washington DC area where getting behind the wheel of a car requires a well-honed survival instinct.

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The hour-long commute gave me time to reflect on our move from Keller, Texas to Herndon, Virginia and the DC area. It had been a big adjustment but so far, we were enjoying the change of scenery. Even though it was definitely an urban environment, Herndon still had a small town feel.

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Our biggest adjustment was moving from a three-thousand square foot single story house into a fifteen-hundred square foot two story apartment. Although it was an upscale gated complex with all the amenities, it still took a while to get used to apartment living.

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I was in the process of retiring from the telecommunication industry when I was asked if I would put my retirement on hold and transfer to Virginia to develop and implement a plan to start-up a voice Network Management Center (NMC) at the company’s existing Network Operations Center (NOC). The job was equivalent to an upper level department manager however, my initial title would be Consultant – Network Management.

As luck would have it, things progressed well over a four-month period and before we knew it, our Network Management Center (NMC) had been in actual operation for a little over two weeks. My job now, as the subject matter expert, was to support the NMC. That included representing the NMC at all meetings, developing and documenting practices and procedures, interfacing with the IT folks and equipment vendors and basically being a dumping ground for anything anyone else couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with…yeah, my days were really busy.

Suddenly I was brought back to reality by an announcement indicating my train was arriving at the Court House station in Arlington. This was my stop and once I left the METRO station, I had a short two-block walk that took me through a parking lot, past the Arlington Court House, and to the front door of the building where I worked. It was my daily trek and neither snow nor rain nor heat nor…well, you get the idea.

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I arrived at my office around seven in the morning, grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down at my desk, and cranked up my computer getting ready for a busy day of work. I had some meetings scheduled for the afternoon, but planned to spend the morning documenting a call gap process for the NMC.

Call gaps are network controls that are implemented in a voice network when large events such as contests or call-ins threaten to gobble up all the available telephone circuits. Call gaps limit the number of calls that enter the network which are destined for a specific phone number and, because of the large volume of calls, have little or no chance of ever completing to that number. Implementing this type control prevents a percentage of those high volume, low completion contest calls from “eating up” all the call paths and thus blocking normal calls and emergency calls from traversing the telephone network.

I was having a good morning and things were moving right along. Three cups of coffee later, I had the new procedure successfully installed on the NMC data server. Just as I was about to pat myself on the back, one of our support managers stuck his head in my office and delivered some rather disturbing news. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center…they want you down in the Network Management Center right now.” I was stunned. I turned and yelled to him “Was it our building?”, but apparently, he had moved on to notify others, because I did not receive an answer.

I asked that question because of our New York switching center. It was located on the one-hundred and tenth floor in the south World Trade Center Tower. When I lived and worked in Texas, I managed our switching centers located in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. Two technicians ran the New York office. Derrick was an existing technician, but I had hired Lenny when the other existing technician had transferred to a different department. Derrick had survived a previous attempt to bring down the south World Trade Center tower by using a vehicle filled with explosives.

I quickly headed for the NMC, forgoing the elevator, instead making a mad dash down the stairs. As I arrived in the center, to my surprise, everything looked normal with the exception of the stunned look on everyone’s face. The large main monitor panel in front of the room was displaying one of the news channels and they were replaying the plane crash. I immediately inquired as to which tower had been hit and was told it was the north one. When I asked how the network was performing, I was told everything appeared normal, but the call volume was starting to increase.

I headed over to the maintenance operation area to find out if anyone was in contact with Derrick or Lenny. Just then, one of the technicians yelled over to everyone, “They are on the roof, everything’s okay, They are going back to the office to get their laptops and personal items, and then they are going to exit the building.” Immediately, everyone shouted, “Screw the laptops and stuff, tell him to get out of there!” I guess we were all thinking the same thing, if the north tower collapsed it could take out the south tower. I was really beginning to worry. If for some odd reason they shut the elevators down, they would be forced to use the stairs and I remembered Derrick telling me it took him a full hour to walk down the stairs and exit the building during the previous attempt to destroy the tower.

Just then, someone yelled out “Oh God!” We all looked up at the monitor in time to see a second plane strike, only this time it was the south tower. At that point, we knew this was no accident. The technician that was in contact with Derrick yelled out “They’re blocked, the plane hit the floors below where they were, so they are heading back up to the roof.” That was per the normal evacuation procedures and then rescuers would use helicopters to get them off the roof. I called over to the NMC to make sure everything in the network was still okay. They indicated it was and said a conference call had been established and all the affected local, long distance, and wireless companies had joined the call. It was common back then for all companies to work together during emergencies and share facilities. It was all about providing customer service and a two way street. Sometimes we used their facilities during emergencies, and sometimes they used ours.

We were then notified that a plane had just hit the west side of the Pentagon. With that news, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we were under attack. We ran to the back windows where we could see smoke coming from the Pentagon. It was now getting too close to home.

The technician who was talking with Derrick yelled out that he had lost contact with him. We all looked up at the monitor and saw the south tower start to collapse. I felt as though my heart was just ripped out. The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I remember hearing some people crying, some praying, and seeing others just staring in total disbelief. I headed back to the NMC because I knew things would quickly begin to deteriorate in our network. Nothing could be done about calls traversing the network via our World Trade Center switch. That was lost traffic with absolutely no way to reroute it. I suggested to the NMC manager that he start implementing controls to block all traffic destined for Manhattan and to do the same thing for office codes associated with the Pentagon and surrounding area. The companies on the conference call apparently agreed with our decision since they all began requesting that we implement those very same controls. The idea is to free up circuits for calls originating from the affected areas. In theory, one call coming out of those areas will eliminate five calls going into those areas from people trying to verify friends or relatives are okay.

As we were banging around ideas, the north tower collapsed. For a minute, I felt as though my whole world was crashing down along with the tower. This cannot be happening…I have to be dreaming. What kind of sick people would do such a thing? I am not a violent person, but a second later my shock turned to rage and I just wanted to punch something. Finally, I settled down, but I was feeling completely drained and wondering if this day would ever end.

Just as we thought it could not get any worse, alarms all over the building started sounding along with flashing strobe lights. A split second later, an announcement over the PA system ordered us to evacuate the building. This was not a good time to leave the NMC, but we had no choice, there was no way of knowing the reason behind the evacuation. Everyone was scared…we had no idea what was going on, and we had no idea if we would even make it home at the end of the day. Once outside, we tried to put some distance between the building and us. No one had any idea what triggered the evacuation, no one knew if it was safe for us to be outside, everyone wanted this nightmare to end. Finally, our director said this is BS and headed inside to talk to the security folks.

When he returned he had a strange look on his face and yelled for everyone to go back inside. He then came over to where the managers were standing and told us that there was another plane hijacked and they thought it was headed for the White House. Since our building was somewhat in the flight path the plane would take, and since we were in “virgin territory” with no procedures to cover this type of emergency, the security folks took a vote and decided to evacuate the building. If we were not so scared, we probably would have thought it was funny and laughed it off, but instead we all just mumbled some not nice words and headed back inside.

As I stepped off the elevator, my phone began to ring. It was Ann, she was scared and wanted to know if I was all right and when I could come home. I had no idea when I would be able to leave, but I told her I was on my way to a meeting where we would decide who would stay and who would go home to be with their families. I told her I would not be one of the ones to leave, but maybe I would get some idea as to when I could leave.

Ann said there were armed helicopters constantly flying over our apartment complex. Apparently, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon had originated from Dulles Airport, which was five miles up the road from where we lived. I suspect the armed helicopters were escorting all the congressional members and dignitaries who were in a real hurry to get out of “Dodge”. Dulles Airport was the main arrival/departure point for the DC area especially for long haul flights and during emergencies, more so than Reagan Airport. I told Ann that I would call her as soon as I knew anything and we both ended the call with “I love you”.

Even though you could not ask for a better group of people to work with, I dreaded going into that meeting. Everyone had been working hard to maintain our network and equipment, everyone took pride in their jobs, but now managers and directors were faced with deciding who would stay and who would go home. Right off the bat, the schedule for the NMC would have to be modified. We would have to cover the off hours with two individuals instead of the normal one. From that point on, it was a matter of who was essential and who could be sent home to their families. Since I was the only network management subject matter expert, I knew I was in for some long hours, not because I was told I would be, no it was my choice and I knew it was important that I be available to back up the NMC manager. The plan had been formulated, implemented and the only ones that were left in the NOC were a skeleton crew of very nervous and scared people. From a security standpoint, the building had been locked-down with only the main entrance remaining open. Armed security personnel guarded that entrance and all individuals entering or exiting the building were thoroughly screened.

From that point forward, everything was a blur of status meetings, strategy meetings, long conference calls, and working with the NMC and other departments to control telephone traffic in and out of the affected areas. Our goal was to provide the best service possible under less than desirable circumstances. All departments worked together to free-up a large amount of facilities to aid our local phone and wireless companies in circumventing their damaged and overloaded facilities.

During a slack period, when we were finally able to take a breather, I gave Ann a call to see how she was holding up. Like everyone that was watching the day’s events unfold, she was having a hard time coping with the senseless slaughter of innocent people. We spent a good part of the call crying together and trying to understand the horrific events that occurred. I debated whether to tell her about our evacuation and lock-down, but finally decided it would be better if she heard it from me rather than some obscure news media account. Once again, she asked when I could come home and once again I indicated I had no idea other than it would more than likely be sometime that evening. As on our previous call, we both ended by saying “I love you”.

Things began to settle down somewhat with less and less surprises popping up that needed immediate attention. Eventually, the traffic volume had decreased and the evening crew had settled into a manageable routine. At that point, the NMC manager and I had decided to take advantage of the lull and head home. We both made sure the evening crew had our pager and cell phone numbers listed on the emergency number board, then we both headed out.

It was after eight o’clock in the evening and I was not sure if the buses were still running. I called Ann and asked if she was comfortable with picking me up at West Falls Church METRO station. She has never been fond of driving at night but agreed to meet me there in about forty minutes. I left the building to head for the METRO station. The first thing I noticed as I cleared security and stepped outdoors was the absolute quiet. I mean, there was no one on the streets, no cars…well, other than the police cars patrolling. It was almost dead silent, no planes, no helicopters, no loud music, nothing. It was as if the world had stopped and everyone had gotten off…truly an eerie walk to the METRO station.

As I rode the escalator down into the station, I noticed immediately there were no other passengers on the platform and the only people I saw were METRO police, who were definitely keeping a close eye on me. I decided the safest thing to do was to cautiously approach one of them and show the officer my phone company security badge. The officer nodded and smiled, so I asked if the trains were running. He indicated they were running a normal schedule but there were not a lot of passengers in the cars. We chatted for a while until the next Orange Line train arrived and I quickly climbed aboard.

The car I chose had about ten or fifteen people onboard. Normally I ride standing up, but this was not a good time to be doing that since one could almost feel the sadness in the air, so I quickly found a seat. As I glanced around the car, I could not help but notice that some people looked like their whole world had been ripped apart while others were openly crying and still others gave the appearance of praying or meditating. I am guessing that many of these people worked either at the Pentagon or in businesses around that area. This is the first time all day that I finally realized that life as we all knew it had been inexplicably changed forever and there was not a thing anyone could do about it. Suddenly, the events of the day, the loss of Derrick and Lenny, all came crashing down on my shoulders and I fell into the same crushing sadness that had overtaken my fellow passengers.

As the train pulled into West Falls Church station, I knew I had to pull myself out of my funk for Ann’s sake. She had gone through a lot today and had no one to lean on for support. It was important that I not give her more grief to cope with, but instead give her the support she needed. As I walked out to the parking area, I was looking for Ann’s car but did not see it anywhere. I was almost at the panic stage when I saw the “gray beast” pull up…she had driven my Yukon instead of her own car. I was having a hard time keeping it together I was so happy to see her. After our normal greetings and “I love you”, we both settled into an uneasy quiet…each not knowing what to say. Finally, Ann came out with “So how was your day?” and we both started laughing. From that point on, the words started tumbling out as we both shared the ups and downs of today’s events.

I had not eaten anything all day, so when we arrived at our apartment, Ann put together a quick meal to silence my groaning stomach. After I finished my meal, Ann and I sat around for a while, rehashing all that happened. However, we were both so emotionally drained and tired, we were having a hard time keeping our eyes open…definitely time to turn in and try to get some sleep. It was a restless night as the day’s events kept replaying in our heads. Before we realized it, the alarm clock was sounding off, it was time to start another day, time to face the consequences of the previous day, and oh, how I dreaded doing both. Each of us looked as if we had not slept a wink. Ann said she was going back to bed after she dropped me off at the bus station.

My morning commute was rather strange. On most mornings, people tended to avoid eye contact and rarely exchanged words. On this particular morning, it seemed as though everyone was watching everyone else…me included. I am guessing we no longer trusted each other and especially anyone that was of Middle Eastern descent. There was also a larger than normal presence of METRO police and they too were also scrutinizing certain individuals. I did not like what I was seeing nor did I like the way I was feeling. I hoped it was just jitters and it would not last for long.

On this particular morning, I found myself staring out one of the train windows as my mind was once again replaying yesterday’s events. Suddenly, I was pulled back to reality as I noticed many of the vehicles traveling along route sixty-six, had flags attached to them in some manner. I was not sure what to think of that since I had not seen this phenomenon on any of my previous commutes. However, I quickly lost interest as the train began the underground leg of our journey and the darkness outside my window reminded me how tired I was. I started to doze off, but was rudely awakened by an announcement the train was pulling into my station. Having exited the train, I made my way up the escalator to the street level and once outside I became aware of even more flags…not just on vehicles, but also hanging from some of the small businesses.

When I arrived at work, I noticed many of my cohorts were wearing flag pins on their collars and lapels. Wow, talk about feeling out of place, I guess I really needed to look into buying a flag pin to wear. It was another hectic day of status meetings, strategy meetings, and conference calls. By the end of our normal workday though, things had settled down and it looked like I was going to be heading home at a more reasonable hour. When I did finally call it a day, as I passed through security and stepped outside, I was surprised to see a sea of red, white, and blue. There was nothing in the newspapers or on television that urged people to do this and it did not appear to be orchestrated in any manner. I am guessing it was just everyone’s way of fighting back, showing unity, and thumbing their nose at the terrorists. I liked what I saw, yeah, it was really cool. Even some of the taller buildings now had huge American flags draped on their front walls.

As was normal, I called Ann to let her know I was starting the last leg of my commute. When I arrived at my final destination, Ann was waiting and as I climbed into the car, she gave me a couple of American flag pins. Then she handed me two large, American flag window decals and told me to put those on both cars when we got to the apartment. She was telling me that almost every car she saw had a flag on it somewhere. She said, “It’s almost as if people don’t trust you if you aren’t displaying a flag somewhere on your person or vehicle. You should have seen the looks I was getting when I went to the store.”

From that day forward, each new day was a step closer to normality…well, except for the days of the “anthrax laced letters” and the “DC sniper”, those were definitely steps backward, but those are whole other stories. As the Christmas season rolled around everyone seemed to have moved on and the “Christmas spirit” filled the air. The whole area was awash with lights and decorations. People were truly friendly and caring much as they were before that ominous day. The entire DC area was beginning to return to normal, but trust me there was still an underlying fear of that awful day in September. Those dark days will never be forgotten.

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I will end my story with what was an upsetting day in my life. It was October the 15th of 2012, over eleven years from that dark day in September of 2001. For me, it was indeed another dark day, for I finally had to admit the American flag decal Ann had purchased those many years ago, was beyond repair. I had been regluing and mending the cracks for several years, but it was at the point where there was not enough material left to work with. I have purchased a replacement decal, but it just doesn’t have the same meaning, it is not part of history.

Goodbye my old friend, I will never forget you, nor will I ever forget those dark days back in September of 2001.

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There are many times when life throws you a curve ball that leaves you wishing you lived in a perfect world where every day is as wonderful as the day before and there is no crime, no hate, and no one ever dies. Unfortunately, that world only exists in storybooks but maybe, just maybe, someday attitudes and events will change and that perfect world will finally become a reality.

I guess as we travel the road of life, we can never be really sure which way the road will turn…one thing’s for certain though, if you tell someone you love them every single day, you’ll never have to regret not doing so.


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