Tales Along the Way Home
This was my experience on 9/11, fictionalized for inclusion in my historical novel, Tales Along the Way Home. If it seems like it rushes in places, it does. That's how I wrote it; that's how I felt it. I left it as it came to the page.
As Kristen listened, her cell phone rang. Answering it, she heard the voice of Elaine Gardiner. Kristen and Elaine had grown up together in Barrington. Now, Elaine lived with her husband, Bob, in Manassas. She was a freelance editor, while Bob was a federal civil servant.
“There you are!” Elaine exclaimed. “I’ve been trying to reach you all evening! Where have you been?”
“Trying to drive home from California.”
“Excuse me?” Elaine asked.
Kristen explained what her day had been like.
“What about you? Where were you when it happened?” she asked Elaine at the conclusion of her recount.
“I was in downtown DC,” Elaine replied.
“No! You weren’t!” Kristen exclaimed.
“I had to go in for a meeting. Just as we were getting started, they came and told us that we were being attacked. Someone had bombed the World Bank, and there was a fire burning behind the White House.
“The World Bank? Did they attack there, too?” Kristen asked.
“No, but that was the first word that came down. I suppose the fire behind the White House was actually at the Pentagon. Anyway, I looked out the window and saw men running in the middle of the street. Oh, Kristen! It was awful! Like a scene out of one of those horrible disaster movies.”
“Like the pictures on TV when the towers fell.”
“Yes! Anyway, my meeting was cancelled, and the office was closed. They told me to leave. Someone said the Metro – the subway – was closed, so I went over to Union Station. I thought I’d wait there until I could catch a train out. But when I got there, they said they were closing the station and that no one could come in. They told me to take the Metro out. It turned out that the Metro wasn’t closed, after all.”
“Good grief! It sounds like total confusion!” Kristen said.
“Oh! You haven’t heard the half of it!” Elaine replied. “Now, remember, we thought the World Bank had been attacked, and the Orange Line of the Metro runs within a block or two of it. Sure enough, each time the train stopped at one of those stops – McPherson Square, Farragut West, and Foggy Bottom – hoards of people crammed on board. I thought about the stampede of hooligans at the soccer fields in England, and I thought someone surely was going to be trampled to death.
“I’m sure!” Kristen agreed.
“It turned out they were people from the White House, which was being evacuated. They were petrified! You could see the fear in their eyes. They pushed onto the train like those frightened animals when they become dangerous.”
“I know that look. I saw that look at the airport.”
“The cars were so full that the doors wouldn’t close,” Elaine continued. “The train driver kept coming over the intercom, telling people to move away from the doors so they would close. They have a safety device, like an automatic garage door opener, that keeps them from closing when someone’s in the way. Anyway, at each stop we came to, still more people crammed in.”
“Good grief!” Kristen exclaimed. “But, where?”
“I only know they pushed me until I was nearly on a woman’s lap.” She giggled. “I think she was a tourist.”
Kristen laughed with her.
“Finally, we made it under the river and into Rosslyn,” Elaine went on. “I thought we had it made. I had no idea that, right down the Blue Line, the Pentagon was on fire.”
“That’s right, isn’t it? They’d told you there was a fire behind the White House,” Kristen recalled.
“I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know. When we came into Rosslyn, one woman breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘Well, we’ve made it over the first hurdle. We’re out of DC.’ But we weren’t really out of danger.”
“That must have been terrible!”
“Well, it got better after that. People were getting off at each stop, especially after we got to Ballston. I could at least breathe! Even so, the train was still full when we got out to Vienna, but at least it was down to a normal rush-hour load.
“Well, that’s bad enough!” Kristen pointed out.
“Yes, but, then, there was no way to get out from Vienna. There are very few midday buses, and then, the stationmaster told me that the Manassas busses leave from West Falls Church, not Vienna. That had changed from the last time I’d taken the bus in. He said I’d have to take the Metro back in as far as West Falls Church.”
“I wouldn’t have gone back in,” Kristen said.
“Kris, nothing could have made me go back in, not even as far as West Falls Church! So, then, it turned out that the phones weren’t working properly. You could call some areas in town but not others. The circuits were overloaded with so many people trying to make calls.”
“I’m sure! What did you do?”
“Well, I found myself in line, behind a woman, who was going to make her call go through if she had to keep us standing there all day and half the night. Finally, I was able to use another phone, and I called Bob. He wasn’t in his office, but I was able to leave a message for him on his voicemail. I told him I’d be waiting in one of the bus kiosks on the south side of the station. I thought surely I’d have to sit out there all afternoon, but a half-hour later, he drove up! He’d gotten back to his office and heard my message almost as soon as I’d called.”
“Good timing!” Kristen agreed. She felt like she was offering empty platitudes, yet she could hear how upset Elaine was and felt she needed to say something.
“Never was I so glad to see that man’s old blue tank pull up!”
“Blue tank?” Kristen asked, laughing.
“You remember his old blue Buick! It has so many miles on it that Volvo should send him a medallion for the front grill.”
Kristen laughed. “I do remember that car!”
“I heard that!” Bob Gardiner’s voice called.
“Good! You should know what I think of that wreck!” Elaine retorted.
Bob chuckled. “Did you reach Kristen?”
“Yes. She’s trying to drive back from California. Her flight was cancelled.”
“She’s lucky she wasn’t stranded at National Airport. No one had any way to get anywhere.”
“No? Why not?” Kristen asked.
“Because the Pentagon was on fire, they stopped Metro service there. All those people could do was just stand in shock and watch the smoke rise from the Pentagon, maybe a dozen blocks away,” Elaine explained.
“People were standing in shock at Vienna Metro station, too, when I drove up,” Bob said. “I’ve never seen such haunted expressions. They seemed desperate for the sight of a familiar face – or a familiar car.”
“I’m sure!” Kristen replied. “That’s why we’re all traveling together – my colleagues and I. We just have this incredible need to stick together.”
“Do that! It’s essential,” Bob agreed.
“I heard on the news earlier that no traffic was being allowed into DC,” Kristen said.
“None at all,” Bob confirmed. “Police stopped traffic on all the ingoing arteries. I suppose everyone eventually got off at the various exit ramps and made their way home, but traffic’s been snarled all day long!”
“I-66 wasn’t backed up when we went out,” Elaine declared.
“We were outbound,” Bob reminded her. “Inbound was a different matter. Also, we got out early. An hour later, it was a parking lot.”
“True. Anyway, we tooled on out! It was incredible, except that we were too upset to enjoy it.”
“I’m sure,” Kristen agreed.
“When we got home, we just sat together for about an hour,” Elaine explained. “At first, we didn’t even watch the reports on television. Later, we learned the truth about what had really happened. Neither of us knew what to say. We couldn’t believe this was happening.”
“We can’t, either,” Kristen told her. “I mean, we’re so stunned we just sit, staring down the highway and forging ahead as though the only way the nightmare’s going to end is to get home.”
“It’s surreal,” Elaine agreed. “The phone wasn’t ringing. Normally, the phone would have been ringing non-stop, but the phones were out. We didn’t hear from my parents until dinnertime tonight, and we still haven’t heard from Bob’s family. They were in New York. They flew up over the weekend to catch a Broadway play and weren’t due back until tomorrow.”
“I’m sure they’re all right. They probably can’t get a call through, either.”
“That’s what I told Bob, but he hasn’t stopped pacing. I’m taking my frustration out on the telephone. Finally, I got this call through to you.”
“I’m glad you did. Now, just relax.”
"Oh, wait! Bob! We have to go to the train station to pick up my car!" Elaine exclaimed.
"We picked it up on the way in."
"We did? I don't remember," Elaine said in barely more than a whisper.
Copyright (c) 2011, Virginia Tolles. All rights reserved.