I drive past T.C. Williams High School on my way to work every morning. Yesterday, I noticed the cluster of flags on the front lawn, which reminded me that September 11 is this weekend.
Once I got to work, I watched a new 9/11 Tribute on the NASA website, featuring former Astronaut Frank Culbertson, Expedition 3 Commander on the Space Station at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He was the only American off the planet with eyes to see the devastation from 220 miles up. I was really taken aback by my emotional response to the video.
My daughter Steph came by the office yesterday afternoon. It was her first day of classes in the International Psychology PhD program at the D.C. campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. I went outside the building to welcome her, and happened to see Frank Culbertson walk past. I stopped him to thank him for his moving tribute and introduced him to Steph. We chatted a bit about his experience. Here’s a letter Frank wrote while in space.
I know everyone is writing about their experiences, and you’ve probably read one too many. I just need to get this out. Feel free to jump to the bottom.
I was working in the Administrator’s Office at NASA Headquarters, which meant my office had a very large TV that I never turned on. The morning of September 11, I turned on the TV. Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America reported a plane hit one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center. I was frozen to the screen, assuming it was pilot error. When the second plane hit, I knew: terrorism. [I worked as a CIA Fellow on the very first Terrorism Analysis team in the mid-1980's.]
Then the third plane hit the Pentagon. My sister called from Texas with a very clear message. “You have two daughters. Get out of there.” I put down the phone. Turned off the TV. Picked up my purse and left the building. I didn’t ask. I didn’t wait for instructions. I simply left. Motherhood instincts kicked in.
I pulled out of the NASA garage to the sound of sirens everywhere. Police cars zoomed past, though the streets seemed strangely empty. I drove South on 395, the highway that curls around the Pentagon. Black smoke blocked my path, belching from the fires at the Pentagon. The image haunts me even today. I drove into the thick blackness, sobbing uncontrollably. On the other side of the smoke, police blocked the North-bound route. I was one of the few cars that made it south before they closed the highway completely. My mission: get to Steph. She was a student at T.C. Williams at the time. My daughter Carol was in New York, attending Syracuse University.
I passed the high school with the intent to get off the roads, park at home, and walk back to the school. I opened the my front door just as a second explosion rocked my house. I had no idea what caused it. I just knew I needed to get to the school to make sure Steph was safe. (I assume the second blast was the fuel depot for the Pentagon helicopters.) I rushed to TC to get Steph, as well as Paolo, a Brazilian student who had come to live with us to study English. As we walked home, we watched fighter pilots fly over us. We were safe. Parents of other TC students weren’t. They worked in the Pentagon.
Note: I accompanied my daughter Carol and her team from Syracuse to work with the Red Cross at the recovery site in NYC after 9/11. For eight hours a day, we sat with the Ground Zero workers during their breaks, listened to their stories, served food, cleaned the tables and floors, and did whatever was needed. Our experience included housing at the YMCA, where my daughter and I shared a set of bunk beds with a couple of mice who chewed through my clothes. Not hers. Only mine. But all for a worthy cause. I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to serve, even in such a small way.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of September 11 tomorrow, my thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost their lives, as well as the military families who’ve suffered loss.
Human hatred and the outward expression it evokes, for whatever reason or provocation, is simply heartbreaking. We have the power within us to learn how to overcome differences and find common ground. We are, indeed, a global community — as we model every day on Space Station.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11