Unknown motorcycylist passes a movie theater in Falls Church, VA, a few days after the 9/11 attack on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photos by Doug Thompson)

9/11: The day that foreign terrorism hit America

In a career of photographing trouble spots around the world, the one I covered at home is the most vivid and harrowing.
The Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the day of horror now remembered as “9/11.”

When one commits to covering news, it also means reporting both the good and the bad of what happens around us and in the world. As I look back at stories and events covered around the world, 9/11 is always at the top of the list.

I’ve reported on and photographed conflicts in many parts of the globe but one of the most horrific took place on what was then our home turf in Washington, DC, on Sept. 11, 2001.

Exhausted worker on 9/11.

Most of that day was spent on a bank on Columbia Pike that overlooked the Pentagon while part of it burned after a jetliner crashed into it as part of the terrorist attacks that brought terror and more than 3,000 deaths on what had been a pleasant Fall morning in Washington, New York City and a field in Pennsylvania where passengers took control of one of the four planes away from its hijackers and crashed it rather than attack another target in Washington.

When I arrived at the Pentagon that day, one of the first things I saw was a taxicab with a light pole that had hit it and caved in the hood. The driver sat on the ground nearby and was stunned.

During the day, runners brought photographers fresh battery packs and compact flash cards. It was the first major news event I covered with digital cameras (a Nikon D-1 in those days).

At one point, Larry Dowling of Reuters said: “America will never be the same.” He was right. That day brought international terrorism to our nation and America changed.

In 50+ years of photographing images for newspapers, magazines, television, and online outlets, I have covered trouble spots all over the world but none were more horrible than what we saw on that day in September of 2001 in America. I had been at the State Department that morning, photographing a visiting official from another country when my Blackberry beeped with the text message: “Explosion. Pentagon.”

Smoke from the Pentagon could be seen from miles away.

I saw the smoke at the Pentagon when I loaded my cameras into the car but the 14th Street bridge was closed, so I had to drive down to another bridge that connected with I-295. While stopped at the stoplight near the Navy Yard, I saw the base was locked down and I raised my camera and snapped a few photos before the light changed.

Well after midnight, after getting back to our condo in Arlington, not far from the Pentagon, there was a card taped to the door from “Agent John Ryan” from Navy Criminal Investigative Service, asking me to call.

On guard at the Navy Yard

At first, I thought it was a joke. John Ryan is the proper name of “Jack Ryan,” the main character in Tom Clancy novels but when I called the voice that answered said “CIS, Ryan.” He wanted to know if I was at the Navy Yard the day before and, if so, what I was doing there. I told him that I was and noted that I had a Pentagon press pass on file and pointed him to one of the photos I shot that was in the morning’s Washington Post.

When he confirmed the information, I said: “That’s all I need to know. Thank you. ” I figure my name is on file somewhere with that agency, saying was a person of interest for a day or two but nothing ever came up about it in the years that followed. Three years after 9/11, I returned from an assignment in Afghanistan and chose to retire and we moved to Floyd County.

Retirement was not in the cards. I continued to get calls for photo needs in Southwestern Virginia, including the one that led to several days at Virginia Tech for the massacre by a student that killed and wounded far too many students and instructors.

The flag and the night.

For me, 9/11 remains a vivid memory. One of the most memorable images I captured from that event and the days that followed was of a motorcycle rider with a tattered American flag who rode by a movie theater in Falls Church, Virginia. That photo is a the top of this story. It was a grab shot. I had dropped my wife off at a medical facility and had just parked the car and was walking towards a movie theater that had a message on the attacks on the marquee and was planning to shoot photos of it when the motorcyclist came by. He kept going and I never had a chance to get his name.

The fire and destruction shortly after the jet hit the Pentagon.

It’s been 21 years since 9/11 and the days that followed brought America together as it has not been for many years. Partisanships faded as the national unity drove the investigation of who was responsible and what needed to be done.

The trail led to Afghanistan, American troops went in to track down, capture and, if necessary, kill those responsible. Many of us who cover the news found ourselves in that war-torn land trying to report the fight. On one of my trips there, I met a young Marine, Austin Tice, who was there to serve his country but also wanted to do more.

Austin told me he wanted to return to the region after his Marine service ended to report on what he could about the struggles there as a combat photojournalist and reporter. Several of us worked to help him to learn the trade and he went back, doing a good job until he was captured in Syria a little over 10 years ago.

Remembering and mourning.

Many of us now continue to work to help get him free, hoping he is still alive but we see too many Americans now more divided than ever in a nation that is split along bitter, partisan lines driven by hate, intolerance, and bigotry. Today, we have a disgraced and dishonest former president who is under criminal investigation for violating the federal Espionage Act, obstruction of justice, and illegal use of classified information. He is also facing grand juries for fraud in fundraising, fragrant attempts to seize control of the government, and outright treason.

Donald Trump’s efforts make it easier for another 9/11 to happen and give comfort to our enemies. Why did this happen? Why and what haven’t we learned?

When terrorists are among us, we can never be safe.

© 2004-2022 Blue Ridge Muse

© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse