WASHINGTON – Hours after attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, FBI employee Linda headed to her suburban Maryland home to wait for word of the investigation and her husband, a member of the FBI’s terrorist response unit.
“It doesn’t help him for me to panic,” said the Laurel resident, who did not give her last name. “I just have to panic on the inside.”
Not everyone in Washington was able to maintain their composure as well.
“We don’t know what to do, where to go,” said Adam Smyth, a visiting British researcher, echoing the worries of many evacuated men and women who wandered distractedly around Washington’s streets, wondering if there was any safe place left to hide.
Across downtown Washington, people were forced out of offices and then left to fend for themselves, as cars were sealed into garages or blocked by emergency vehicles. Rumors flew along the street about the availability — or safety — of subway trains.
As word of the attacks spread, security at the Capitol became visibly tighter, with guards manning unused metal detectors and patrolling halls that minutes before had been empty.
People poured out of the Capitol just before 10 a.m., grabbing those in the halls by the arms and pulling them outdoors to the lawns surrounding the building. Senators paced the grass with staff and the press, as black smoke rose into the sky from the Pentagon.
“There wasn’t a sense of imminent danger,” said Daron Roberts, a staff member who had been running errands for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., when evacuation began. “But when I came down the steps and saw the staffers running, that’s when it hit me.”
Outside the Capitol, people began to panic as security officials pushed them farther from the building, and became visibly upset when planes passed overhead.
For two hours, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon watched as the crowds poured out of the Capitol and up the street in front of his home. He ministered to the frightened until his wife called from California and ordered him to leave the house.
“This is Pearl Harbor all over again,” he said. “We are in a reign of terror.”
The Pentagon tragedy also reminded Mount Rainier resident Blanche Lee of the Pearl Harbor attack. Lee was at work at the Bath Iron Works ship building company in Crystal City, Va., at the time of the attack.
“This whole thing is so unreal,” she said. “I was around December 7 (1941) when the Japanese did this kamikaze thing. This brought that back to my mind.”
Steve, a Gaithersburg resident who asked that his last name be withheld, was working just up the hill from the Pentagon when a plane slammed into the building. An employee of the Old Navy Annex, Steve said that he heard the plane fly overhead followed by a smash.
“This very thing has been going on around the world, and it’s time it came home,” he said. “Nobody should be that surprised about it. It’s just the cleverness of it, and the execution.”
At noon, a single cloud hung over the dome of the Capitol building, defying the otherwise bright blue sky. Police and emergency personnel blocked all entrances to the Hill and surrounding buildings, while pedestrians clad in high heels and business suits walked around the massive detour.
Richard Chriss had managed to sneak back into the Dirksen Senate Office Building to collect his workout clothes from his office earlier in the morning. In the face of reports of closed Metro lines and backed-up traffic, Chriss and his wife, Sherry, decided the two-hour walk home to Arlington, Va., would be their best option.
Sherry Chriss, equipped only with her dress shoes and business clothes, said she was not worried about her safety on the way home. For the 18 years she has worked on the Hill, however, she has been conscious of the vulnerability of the capital.
“When I found out about the Pentagon, I thought we’re really sitting ducks,” she said.
Down the street, others said they had nothing better to do than sit and wait. Visiting British researchers sat down to a picnic of Mountain Dew and chocolate chip cookies on the Folger Shakespeare Library steps, watching for any developments at the Capitol just blocks away.
The group of assistant professors is studying in America just for the summer, and most planned to return home by the end of the month. Jerome Degroot, was supposed to travel to New York on Friday for a flight home, but he and the others wondered when anyone would have the chance to leave after Tuesday’s events.
Much of the group lives just a few blocks from the Folger, and could not find much difference between going home and staying at work. From their perch on the steps, they watched police dogs sniff at the only car on the street that had no immediately identifiable owner.
“It seems to be orchestrated,” Smyth said. “That’s why it’s so frightening. You can handle a kind of lone nutter.”
Mary Leonard, a tourist from Turlock, Calif., who was waiting in line at the White House when a plane hit the Pentagon.
“We were here on Sunday and everything seemed so safe,” Leonard said. “What a mess.”
— CNS reporters Carolyn Taschner and Kristyn Peck contributed to this report.