On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at the State Department in Washington, D.C., waiting to photograph a function when my Blackberry began to vibrate.
Blackberries were just a monochrome screen just displayed email in 2001. The message was short : “Explosion at the Pentagon”.
I sprinted to my Jeep Wrangler parked nearby on the street. A warmer than normal day so the top was down and I dropped my two Nikon D2s into the passenger seat and headed for the Pentagon, normally a short hop across the 14th Street Bridge. I could see smoke rising from the Pentagon area but District of Columbia police traffic blocked entering the bridge so I headed East along the expressway down to the Washington Navy Yard, where another bridge could connect me to I-295 then over to the headquarters of the nation’s defenses.
At that point, I didn’t have any idea of any of the happenings in New York . While stopped at the light to enter the ramp to the bridge, I saw Marines standing post at the entrance to the Navy Yard, locking down the facility.
One of the Marines was a short woman in full utilities with an M-16 that, with a bayonet attached, was taller than her. I shot about a half-dozen photos before the light changed and I was in traffic headed across the river.
Arriving at the Pentagon, I found all entrances to the parking lot of the facility blocked, so I pulled the Wrangler onto the grass along Columbia Pike, grabbed my cameras and climbed up the grassy berm to see smoke pouring out of the side of the building and emergency personnel on site. I had my Department of Defense Press ID and joined Larry Dowling, a Reuters photographer who was already shooting photos.
On Columbia Pike, a cab driver shouted in a foreign tongue at no one in particular while pointing to a light pole laying across the hood of his taxi. He wasn’t hurt but seemed upset and scared. Another driver, his car stopped behind the cab, sat on the grass and looked like he was in shock.
“Plane flew over, very low, knocked the light pole down and crashed into the Pentagon,” he said. “Big plane. A big Boeing commercial airliner.”
A Pentagon guard checked my press credentials and told me to stay on top of the berm but stay away from the emergency personnel streaming into the parking area.
“What’s that smell?” The question came from Downing, the Reuters photographer. “It is not something I’ve smelled before.”
I had smelled it before. It was the acrid stink of burning aviation fuel and burning flesh.
For the next several hours, we shot photos of the attempts to put the fire out and save anyone they could. Messengers from the wire services brought in fresh compact flash (CF) cards and recharged batteries so we could concentrate on covering the madness.
At one point, guards ordered us to vacate the area. Another jet, we were told, may be coming to inflict more damage on the Pentagon or another structure in the Nation’s Capital, possibly the White House or Capitol We stood our ground.
It was after midnight and in the wee hours of the morning before I dropped my cameras back into the Wrangler and headed to our condo on North Fairfax Drive, a couple of miles from the Pentagon. By that time, we knew the World Trade Centers in New York were down, targets of a terrorist attack.
I had planned to return to the Pentagon after a few hours speech and continue to document the horrors of the attack. When I arrived home, a card from Special Agent John Ryan of Naval Intelligence Service was stuck in the door. A note on the card asked me to call. I wandered if this was a joke. John Ryan was the name of Tom Clancy’s hero in The Hunt for Red October and other books.
Reached voice mail at around 3 a.m. so I hit the showers and then bed and was pouring a cup of coffee when the phone rang. Agent Ryan responded to my voice mail message.
“Were you in the vicinity of the Navy Yard yesterday?”
“What was your purpose there?”
“I was waiting for the light to change so I could proceed up to the ramp to I-295.”
“Is that all?”
“No, I saw an interesting photo opportunity of a female Marine standing post. Her M-16 and bayonet were taller than her.”
“And what was your purpose to shoot that photograph?”
“That’s what I do for a living. I’m a photojournalist.”
“We will need to verify that.”
I suggested he check the day’s Washington Post. The photo of the young Marine was one of several I shot that day that were used by the paper. They were contract photos I shot for AFP, the French news agency.
“Just a moment,” he said. I heard the rustle of a newspaper before he came back on the line.
“Yes, I see your name on the photo caption, ” he said. He asked for details (date of birth, Social Security number and the phone number of the assignment editor, etc.) before saying “that appears to be all we need at the time.”
“As I am sure you can understand, we have to check out any activity appears suspicious,” he added.
I asked him one follow up question.
“Is your name really John Ryan?”
“Yes, but I’m not Jack Ryan (the name of the character in the Clancy novels). I get that a lot.”
In the days that followed 9/11 we saw more of “checking any activity that appears suspicious.”
Our condo building, Tower Villas, sat across Fairfax Drive from Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) offices. An Arlington Police car DoD Security cop car began sitting in front of the building 24 hours a day right after 9/11. It was not unusual to see one of the officers order a tourist to stop taking photos that may have had the building in the background.
At the Pentagon from September 11, and for more than year that followed, a Virginia State Police patrol car and a military armored vehicle with a 70-calibre machine gun sat along the road by the side of the Pentagon and near the offices of Department of Defense Secretary William Rumsfeld.
A Patriot missile operation also appeared on the Washington Mall, not far from the Washington Monument.
A lot changed on that horrible day in September 2001.