From Connie Burner Henry, 9/10/21
Background: I lived in Virginia and worked in DC three blocks from the Capitol. I was a 1968 graduate of WHS. I worked for the Food and Drug Administration, mostly in Washington for 42 years. For the majority of my career, I worked in the Office of Food Labeling but I began my career as an investigator in New Jersey and later worked in FDA’s Office of New Drug Evaluations.
September 11 started out like any other day: I had driven into work from the Virginia suburbs, down the George Washington Parkway, over the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge, past the Tidal Basin and down Independence Avenue to 3rd Street SW. I parked the car in my usual garage and walked the two blocks to C Street. I took the elevator to my office where, if I leaned really hard to the left, I could catch a glimpse of the Capitol.
As I had entered the building, I caught a snippet of the morning news on the lobby TV tuned to CNN. There was something about a plane hitting the World Trade Tower. I figured it was a small plane that had somehow strayed off course and crashed into the tower—a tragedy but probably nothing too terrible. Nevertheless, I turned on my computer and tuned to the CNN feed.
Then the second plane crashed in the south tower. I remember going into my boss’s office and saying, “we are under attack.” We will remember this day—September 11 – 9/11. Wow. But that was New York City and I was in Washington.
I went back to work half paying attention to the small CNN picture playing on my computer. Then I saw it. It was a picture of the Old Executive Office Building with gigantic clouds of black smoke in the background. The EOB is across from the White House. It was at that moment that I realized that I was no longer safe and the terror had come to my back door.
I quickly shut down my computer, told my boss I was going home and rushed out of the building. I would have been ahead of the crowd except for the fact that my car was in a garage that housed a government agency. In order to use the elevator to go to the garage, folks were being required to sign the sign out sheet even though it was early morning. They quickly ran out of space and rather than just turn the paper over, they insisted on getting a new official page. The guard disappeared and it took like what seemed to be 15 minutes before he returned. Time was passing and I was inside a government building near the Capitol. “Just let me out of here,” I thought.
By the time I got in my car, traffic was already heavy. Since Virginia is west of DC, I needed to eventually head that direction and get across the river but that was toward the Pentagon. Not a good idea. I also knew I had to get away from the Capitol which was basically three blocks away. Gridlock!
I inched along for several minutes until I was finally able to break free from traffic and head north away from everything. I turned on the TV in the back of my van which I could listen to but not see. There were reports of a fourth hijacked plane. Where was it going—the Capitol, the White House? I had escaped the Capitol area but my husband at the time worked very close to the White House and two of my kids’ high school was next to the CIA. No one seemed safe. Then the fourth plane crashed and the second tower fell.
In a way I felt relief that the fourth plane had not hit its mark, for my life could have taken a totally different trajectory. Yet I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the tragedy that had befallen New York and to a lesser extent DC. I had not seen the pictures of the towers collapsing. It took more than a day for what had happened to sink in as I began to watch the towers fall again and again. I remember how churches across the country had quickly assembled services that evening. In DC and environs, we were so traumatized that the services only began the next day.
Everyone’s nerves were on edge and no one really wanted to come into DC to work. My office was scheduled to move out of the city in November and I needed to pack up an overly full office. I came into work one Saturday morning full of fear and trepidation. It was all I could do so stay there. After several hours, I had had enough, and left.
My usual route home was towards, but not by the Pentagon. That day, however, I was inspired to go into Arlington Cemetery where my father had recently been buried. I had a pass so I could skip the tram and drive directly into the cemetery. I had never realized that my father was buried in view of the Pentagon (only part of it was visible from his grave so I had never realized that the building I could see from his grave was the Pentagon.) That afternoon, instead of driving directly to his grave, I was inspired to turn the other direction. I quickly say a small parking lot in the woods filled with several cars and many people. I parked and went to see what everyone was looking at. It was the Pentagon with a clear view of the pancaked, burned-out floors. My breath was taken away once again.
Gradually, those of us in DC began to heal and life began to returned to a new normal. My office moved to Maryland and I visited DC less often. Memories faded.
To this day, however, when I think about that horrible day, I give thanks for the brave people on flight 93. Were it not for their bravery, the Capitol, our wonderful symbol of liberty and democracy, could have been destroyed, and on a personal note, my life could have been unalterably changed.