The Experience of a Lifetime, a 9/11 Remembrance

Bruce Bialosky

9/5/2011 12:01:00 AM - Bruce Bialosky

I knew this was going to happen. I had been told and warned it was only a matter of time. I never expected to be part of history in this manner. I certainly did not know it was going to occur on this day, at this time.

I came to Washington with a group of Los Angelenos as part of a tour tied to the national quarterly meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. We had arrived on Saturday, September 8th, and began what most political junkies would perceive as a dream five days. We had lined up members of the cabinet, the Chief Justice, and others. We had political leaders and policy wonks scheduled higher than the corn in Kansas.

As fate would have it, Monday, the 10th, was our foreign policy day. We started with a briefing by the Israeli Ambassador and his staff and followed that with a briefing from the #2 person at the Jordanian Embassy. We went next to lunch. At the time, I characterized this meeting as one of the high points of the trip.

At lunch we had both Frank Gaffney and Steven Emerson speak to us. Mr. Gaffney is a top expert on missile defense and Mr. Emerson is the preeminent expert on Islamic Terrorism. Anyone would have walked out of the room trembling after hearing their insights. These are the same messages that they have been delivering for years. None of us had the premonition of what was soon to happen.

We went from lunch to a tour of the Pentagon. We entered the building in the area that would soon be destroyed. A tour guide from the army met us; a nice young man hoping to be made a sergeant soon. He was proud of how he had mastered walking backwards and talking to groups. We don’t know whether he is with us today.

Torie Clarke, from the public affairs division, briefed us followed by Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld’s chief deputy. We left with a much greater understanding of the world facing us. We exited the Pentagon with no thought that in 17 fateful hours the area we were leaving would be a fiery deathtrap.

We capped this wonderfully, enlightening day with a private meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft. The meeting was held in the office of the Solicitor General, Ted Olson. The same man whose wife would call him from the plane that attacked the Pentagon.

By the end of the day, we were worn, but exhilarated.

The next day, Tuesday, we loaded our bus to go to the Capitol. Our plan was a guided tour of the Capitol by a couple of friendly Congressmen, followed by lunch at the Capitol with visits from Senators and other Congressmen. This was to be capped with the highlight of our trip, a guided tour of the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Rehnquist.

We were nearly giddy with anticipation as we were dropped off. On our left was our afternoon destination, the Supreme Court building. On our right was the seat of the free world, the Capitol building. It was just as magnificent as I left it on Inauguration Day.

As we passed through security to begin our tour, a cell phone rang. One of the members of our tour was being notified that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We proceeded to a small star-like emblem on the floor of the Capitol under the dome. It is recognized as the center point of Washington DC. It was a fateful place to be when you become aware of the most infamous day in American history.

We noted a quickened pace in the steps of the staffers passing us. Some began to move in a trot or near running pass. My wife, showing worry, questioned the guide as to whether this behavior was unusual. The guide, a long-time Capitol staffer, stated in a calming way, “No.” It was only appropriate to say that at this point that all hell broke loose.

A lady officer started running at me screaming “Get out of here.” It is an image burned into my mind forever. As leader of the group, I turned just like a father would to start to get our group out of the building. Before I could take a full step, the same officer yelled, “started running NOW!”

I quickly turned back the other way and made the 75 feet to the door out in a mere moment. I ran down the Capitol steps and kept running until I was out of the line of the building where I turned to start gathering the troops.

That was the instance in time when the severity of what we faced began to become reality. Off behind the Capitol, beyond its flag, we saw a plume of smoke rising from the plane crash into the Pentagon.

We gathered our group and moved them out toward the sidewalk. We faced our now cancelled destination, the Supreme Court building. Guards ringed the steps of the Supreme Court with an ominous officer standing at the pinnacle of the facing.

Gathering our group in a shady place on the grounds of the Capitol we began to assess our situation. The magnitude of what was happening began to come into focus. We now knew both World Trade Center Towers had been hit in addition to the Pentagon. Our staff people were anxiously trying to contact our bus driver with no luck as everyone on the street was attempting to use their cell phones.

We huddled our group to inform them of the facts we had in hand and what we were planning from this point. As I began to explain our challenges ahead, I broke down momentarily. Tears started flowing, as I could not speak of the horrible loss of life I knew we were facing and the huge challenge to our way of life.

This was the moment that I realized that these sick, demented people had achieved their goal. They wanted to disrupt our way of life and they had. I had a premonition of what was to come.

Our group in synchronized steps moved down the street trying to connect with our bus driver. The streets began to fill with traffic as policemen began to redirect vehicles. It was quite amazing how quickly the entire security plan fell into place. It gave everyone on the streets a sense on calm. Though no one knew if they were safe, they felt safe. People walked in a calm manner and no driver pulled any stunts like driving on the sidewalk.

Our acutely aware bus driver circled around and loaded us up for the trip to safety. Two things became our obstacles; gridlock traffic and news that our hotel had been evacuated. Our staff and I put a plan together to exit the city and head toward Rockville, Maryland. We soon decided on an appropriate place to let for a group of Jews in crisis; Bagel City.

At this point we began to settle in to the new challenges that faced us. It had become abundantly clear that our program for the next two days was canceled. We had to figure out what to do with our crew until our planned departure on Thursday morning. We were not even certain we would be able to depart then. After having lunch and calming the nerves of the queasy we reloaded onto the bus knowing that at least we could now enter our hotel and begin to reorient.

At 3:00 P.M. we arrived back at our hotel and disbursed to our rooms with strict orders from me not to go anywhere without clearance. I think everyone was too exhausted at this point to do anything, but go and lie down.

It was at this time that we saw the first visuals of the devastation. We had been keeping abreast of events via radio, but we have become a visual society. We had our first taste of the magnitude of destruction in New York and the gapping hole in the Pentagon. There was Torie Clarke, the woman who had briefed us the day before, now briefing the press on the destruction.

Over the next day and a half we planned and organized. We held everyone together for meals and tried to figure out how we were getting home. We had dinner on Tuesday night with two members of the Republican Jewish Coalition who were at the State Department in training to be Ambassadors to Italy and the Netherlands. We all shared our stories.

By Wednesday it became clear we were not getting out by plane on our regularly scheduled flight from Dulles Airport. We were able to transfer our reservations to Friday and had reached a comfort level that by that time the air system would be back in operation.

We went to dinner on Wednesday night hoping we had resolved our transportation problem and enjoyed what turned out to be our last meal together for awhile.

I awoke early Thursday morning to read in the Washington newpapers very tentative comments by Transportation Secretary Mineta about continuation of normal flights. The banners running along the news channel gave me no greater level of confidence. I decided that it was imperative that we get home to see our 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. Also, no disrespect to the Jewish Community of Washington, but I wanted to have my fanny in a seat at my Temple in Los Angeles for Rosh Hashana on Monday night.

I called Avis requesting a vehicle. They told me they had a full-size car available at Dulles Airport and we could take it to Los Angeles for some ridiculously low cost of $250 or so. There was no relocation charge and unlimited miles. I booked the car. I then sat back overwhelmed by the humanity of the company. They knew they were going to lose money on this trip as we put 2,700 miles on the car. They just figured they had become a main form of transportation for Americans and they were going to do their part and relocate all the cars later. I don’t know if the other rental car companies did the same, but this action gave me a greater appreciation for the humanity of our business leaders.

The flurry of action that ensued was blazing. While my wife packed, I contacted remaining members of our group informing them of our plans and making sure they were covered in their plans. Another couple called us back and said they wanted to join us. They too had small children, a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. I called them back and told them they could join us under the following conditions: we were driving straight through with no stops unless our assistant in Los Angeles could arrange us an air flight from a city along the way. The wife said they accepted those conditions and we hung up. She later told me she turned to her husband and asked if he thought I was going to allow bathroom breaks.

We had breakfast and started our exit from the city. While my wife got our luggage down into a cab, I ran around the corner to pick up two essential items - a road atlas and a car cell phone charger. We knew they would now be our life lines and we could not afford to run out of juice.

By 10:30 A.M. on Thursday we began our journey home. Four people in a Buick LeSabre who knew each other, but not well. Four people who had committed to spend time together in a compact space, but with a common goal – to get back to Los Angeles and to be safe at home.

We started driving on Route 40, the Southern Route. It parallels the old Route 66, which we are all familiar with from the now-famous song. We created a fast appreciation for the national highway system developed under another great American, President Dwight Eisenhower. Our choice to do the southern route became a fateful and fruitful decision.

Our path would take us across eight states, which we completed in 48 hours, including a sleep break in Kingman, Arizona. We went through Virginia, home of many of our forefathers. Having never been in Southern Virginia, I had not realized how lush and green the rolling hills were at this time of year.

By mid-afternoon we entered Tennessee. It now became abundantly clear that driving across America was the right way to get home and end this fateful trip. Seeing flags waving off of buildings and homes, people standing on bridges waving flags made it certain that we needed this experience to complete our sojourn.

We drove through Knoxville and passed by Carthage, the home of our former political adversary, Al Gore. We also passed by the home of Andy Jackson and thought about how we could use his leadership now. We forged on to Nashville, one of the centers of American life today.

By this time we were using our cell phones at a furious pace. We had dozens of people following our trek. We spoke with one friend and told her we needed to find the best barbecue in Nashville. If we were going to suffer, we were going to suffer in style. She found Jack’s Bar-b-que on Broadway in the heart of Nashville. We landed there at about 8:00 P.M.

After a sumptuous meal of ribs, beans and potato salad, I went over to thank the manager, Tonia Saxon, a woman in her mid-20’s, who was doing what everyone had been doing the last couple of days, watching the news updates on TV. We engaged in a conversation about our new realities. She informed me her younger brother was in the Marines. I said that he might die because of what we faced. As we both began to tear up, she told me she had just spoken to him.

Her brother said to her “When I joined the Marines I knew this could happen. I know what is facing me. If I die, I know I will have died for my country.” She told me she said to him “Brother, I was proud of you when you became a corporal, I was even more proud when you became a sergeant and I have never been prouder of you because you have now become a man.”

As we left Jack’s we started to walk down Broadway. We stood there listening to three Nashville Cats wailin’ out a country and western standard in the bar next store. I began to think of why these people would want to destroy us. After all, nothing has really changed in America since the 1920’s when President Calvin Coolidge said “The business of America is business.”

All Americans want to do is make some dough, raise their kids, go to church, see a play, watch a baseball game, play bingo on Tuesday night or go to a honky tonk bar. Why don’t they just leave us alone?

But through the sadness, this may be good for America. We have been bickering for the last 35 years, quite often over minutiae. We argue over spending a surplus and whose surplus it is, chads, sexual peccadilloes and such. But for now the arguing is over. We look at each other differently. We will not soon be hearing about Asian Americans, African Americans or Hispanic Americans. We are once again just Americans.

Back in the car we headed toward Memphis, the home of the King. I thought our enemies must really hate him. I wished he was around to shake his hips in the ultimate act of defiance against these culture madmen. We passed through Memphis and then crossed one of the symbols of American greatness, the Mississippi.

We continued on through the night driving across Arkansas because we had a new destination. We had figured out that we were heading straight for Oklahoma City. The President had named Friday a day of remembrance. What more appropriate place to be at day break than at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, formerly the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

We arrived at the memorial at 7:30 A.M. having now completed one-half of our journey home. We went directly to the site. It was listed in their now-outdated brochure as the site of the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

It was truly an emotionally overwhelming experience particularly in light of the events of the past Tuesday. They had chairs for each one of the dead, smaller ones for the children. There were mementos hung on the wall. The national park service had truly done a classy job.

An old boy in a cowboy hat walked over to us and handed us brochures about the park. We chatted a little and then he pointed over our shoulders. He said “See that lady over there? Her daughter died in the blast.” We walked over to Doris Jones, a slight woman all of 5’ 3”. I stood there and hugged her and managed to get out “I’m Sorry” through the tears.

We continued on to a local Westin hotel where the staff could not have been nicer. We met a gentleman from Sherman Oaks, California who was doing the same thing we were doing, driving back to Los Angeles. We cleaned up and hopped in the car for the second half of our tour of America.

We had a new purpose. Three members of our group had left on a train the day before and we had a new mission – to beat them home. As it turns out our group ended up getting home in all fashions -- trains, planes and automobiles. One couple even came home by truck as their son, a trucker, picked them up and brought them back home.

We headed off leaving Oklahoma and entering Texas. We stopped in Amarillo for a short lunch of Tex-Mex and were greeted by streets with homes all with American Flags in front. It really made you think about why these schmucks thought that they were going to divide us. It was apparent we were never as united as Americans in my lifetime.

We launched on through Texas and into New Mexico. New Mexico is overwhelmingly beautiful. Just as Virginia and Tennessee are gorgeous in their way, so is New Mexico. We continued though New Mexico to stop for dinner in Flagstaff, Arizona. We were only one state from home.

At midnight on Friday night we finally took a break. We stopped at an inn for five hours of sleep and then up again, shower and on the road. We had breakfast in Barstow at the local IHOP. It felt great to be back in California. Three hours later we exited the 10 freeway and started driving toward our office. There we saw Wilshire Boulevard lined with American flags and we felt proud of our city. In a short time, we were home hugging our children and hanging our own American flags.

I cannot tell you how many times I have cried since Tuesday. I have cried for my country. I cried for the sons and daughters we have lost and the sons and daughters we will lose. But we will prevail.

I keep harking back to what Ronald Reagan said in 1977 about Communism. It is so appropriate about what we face today. Reagan said and I paraphrase “My idea of American policy toward Muslim Extremists is simple, some would say simplistic. It is this: ‘We win and they lose.’ What do you think of that?”