McCaslin's Beltway Beat

Posted: Sep 13, 2001 12:00 AM
Shock stirred the usually sleepy motorists waiting on Virginia's George Washington Memorial Parkway to cross the 14th Street Bridge into Washington. Car radios that had been relaying the disturbing word that a commercial jetliner had rammed the World Trade Center in New York suddenly blared the unthinkable: a second commercial jetliner, a second trade tower hit -- another suicide attack by unknown terrorists, broadcasters speculated. Just then, a bright orange-and-green America West jetliner took off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, passing directly above the vehicles waiting to cross the bridge. Washington motorists are accustomed to jets passing closely overhead and seldom pay them notice. Tuesday, however, many peered at the departing jet, following its flight path until it disappeared into the bright blue sky above the nearby Pentagon. At that precise moment, an American Airlines jet supposedly bound for Los Angeles was flying directly toward the Pentagon from the opposite direction -- the wrong direction. By the time the group of motorists, this columnist among them, crossed the 14th Street Bridge, the Pentagon had burst into flames. FEAR AND RUMORS Along the banks of the Potomac in Alexandria, St. Mary's Catholic School sits almost directly beneath the flight path of Reagan National Airport. Tuesday started there like any other school day until the principal, Kathleen Dolan, interrupted classes to announce over the public address system that a terrible tragedy had taken place in New York City. The nation, she said, needed all the prayers the students could muster. Some of St. Mary's junior high students immediately suspected another school shooting. School shootings have become all too common in this generation. Soon, though, word filtered through the classrooms and hallways that the World Trade Center, so familiar a part of the New York skyline, actually had tumbled to the ground. Then rumors began to spread that terrorist acts had occurred just across the river in Washington, where many of the students' parents were arriving for work. Teachers -- one with tears in her eyes -- tried to calm the students. However, with reports of hijacked airplanes still circling Washington, Dolan had no choice but to make another announcement: All students and faculty were to report immediately to the basement of the school's Stephen's Hall. One of the country's worst fears had come true. LOCAL NIGHTMARE I was crossing the 14th Street Bridge and speeding toward the U.S. Capitol to gather reaction from lawmakers on the terrorist acts in New York when another nightmarish bulletin came over the radio: "An explosion has just rocked the Pentagon." It seemed impossible. I had been looking at the Pentagon only minutes before. Then, as I listened to the radio in stunned silence, I saw Audrey Hudson, a congressional correspondent for The Washington Times, darting across the street in front of my car. "Have you heard what happened?" I shouted. With a worried look on her face, she nodded, "Yes," and quickly disappeared, obviously unaware that I was referring to the Pentagon. I quickly made a U-turn and within minutes was heading back across the 14th Street Bridge, where all hell was breaking lose. AT THE PENTAGON In the Pentagon office of Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Campbell, officers were glued to CNN's coverage of the unfolding terrorist acts in New York City. With all work virtually stopped, Col. Campbell took the opportunity to duck down to the Pentagon's cafeteria for a bite of breakfast. "The next thing I knew, a woman Air Force (officer) was rushing up the ramp, yelling, 'They just bombed the Pentagon,'" the colonel said. Col. Campbell and thousands of other Pentagon employees quickly were ordered to evacuate. Only when he reached the grassy surroundings of the five-sided structure did he realize the severity of the attack. Military casualties -- many dressed in crisp uniforms now stained with blood -- were being carried by fellow officers to the shade of large trees, awaiting ambulances that took far too long to arrive. Steps away, red tricycles at the Pentagon's day care center sat motionless on the playground. Fortunately, the children were spared this time. "The kids have all been taken across the parking lot," a military policeman told anxious parents who rushed to the facility. Col. Campbell tried using the lone pay phone outside the day care center but was turned away. All channels of communication had to be kept open, he was told. His personal belongings, including the keys to his car and house, were still in his office. A second, smaller explosion shook the nerve center of the nation's military, whose members stood helpless outside. Col. Campbell, searching for his fellow office workers, backed farther away from the burning building. "I have nowhere to go," he told this columnist. "I have no keys, no nothing." "You might as well come with me," I said, and the two of us -- military officer and newspaperman -- launched a horrifying 90-minute mission through virtual gridlock and chaos, rescuing my daughter from the basement of St. Mary's School.
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