9/11: A time to remember and never forget

A day when this country changed forever and we have never really recovered.
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)
A video of news clips I edited for use on the first anniversary of 9/11.

I was at the U.S. State Department, shooting a routine assignment of visiting dignatries when my Blackberry, which was then just an email device and not part of a smartphone, beeped. The message said: Explosion at the Pentagon. I excused myself, along with three other photojournalist at the ceremony and sprinted for my car, which was parked a short distance away.

The car was a Jeep Wrangler with the top down on an unusually warm day even for mid-September. I drove first to the 14th Street Bridge, which is Interstate 395 that runs from the Beltway into downtown Wahington, and found police blocking the road. I could see smoke rising from the Pentagon.

I headed East along the river to where I could cross a bridge that connects to spur I-295 and was sitting at a stoplight and looked over to see a lot of unusual military activity at the Navy Yard. They had closed it down. I raised one of my cameras and shot off a handful of photos before the light changed and I was onto to 295 for a 15-minute drive to the Beltway in Maryland, which took me to 395 and nouth towards the Pentagon.

Parking on the grass along Columbia Pike, which goes by the Pentagon, I sprinted to the top of a bank and joined several other photographers. We had a horrifying look at the large, gaping hole on the building whre fire belched black smoke that rose into the sky.

My images and recollections of that day at the Pentagon.

“Commercial airliner rammed into the side,” said a Pentagon Police officer who wamined my press pass and let me pass. “If another plane approaches and we tell you to run, don’t hesitate!”

As he said that, an F-15 Air Force fighter jet screamed overhead, close to the ground. Until I had arrived at the Pentagon, I knew nothing about what was happening with the World Trade Center towers in New York.

I spent the next 18 hours at or around htat spot on the Pike, filling mutlile Compace Flash Cards on my two digital cameras, capturing both the horror of the attack and heroism of the first responders and emergency workers.

The telephone lines were overloaded. I tired severl times to call out on my cell but it woulnd’t connect to anything. About four hours into the day, my BlackBerry beeped with a message from my wife: “I know you are at the Pentagon,” he read. “Please be careful.” The BlackBerry’s message system was still working.

“I will be careful,” I messaged back. “See you when I can.”

I would be a little afer 4 a.m. on Sept. 12 before I dropped my cameras into the passenger seat of my Wrangler and drove to our condo, which was less than three miles form the Pentagon. Traffic was still heavy.

At the door, a card was sticking the in crack. It was from Special Agent John Ryan of the Navy’s Criminal Investigative Service, asking me to call. This had to be a joke, I thought. The given name of Jack Ryan of the Tom Clancy books, was John but he worked at Langley, home of the CIA and was a fictional character.

After a shower and some breakfast, the sun was rising and I called the number . The man who answered said “CIS, this is Ryan.”

I had to ask: “Do you go by Jack?”

“No,” he saidl

He wanted to kjow if I was in the vicinity of the Navy Yard on the morning of Sept. 11.

“Yes,I was,,” I said. “I was waiting for the light to change so I could cross the river and hook up with 295 so I could get to the Pentagon.”

“Why were you shooting photos?”

“I’m a news photographer. It’s what I do.”

“Is there anyone who can verify that?”

“If you check with DoD, you will find that I have a press pass for admission to the Pentagon and other military installations,” I said. “And, if you look inside today’s Post, you will find some of the photos I shot at the Navy Yard and at the Pentagon.”

I heard his rustled some paper and he came back on the line and said: “I can see that,” then asked: “What is yur political persuasion?”

“None,” I said. “I’m a political agnostic.”

He asked a few questions and then said he was satisfied and told me that the file on my presence at the Navy Yard that day would be closed.

I’m glad. Sept. 11, 2001, was one day where I never, ever, wanted to be a “person of interest” to any law enforcement agency.

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