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By Phil Piemonte

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Ruminating on 9/11

Ten years ago, an acquaintance of ours, then a Marine officer, found himself booked for two meetings that took place at the same time.

Rather than go to just one of them, he decided to attend the first half of one meeting and then leave, jump in his car and race off to try to catch the second half of the other meeting.

So on the morning of the meetings, as he had planned, he sat through the first half of one meeting — at the Navy Annex in Arlington, Va. — and left to go to the other meeting.

As he steered his car southeast on Columbia Pike where it takes a long, downhill swing to the right, he had a perfect view through his windshield of American Airlines Flight 77 as it roared toward the Pentagon and smashed into the building’s E Ring — right in the part of the building where his other meeting was taking place.

Less than a minute later, inside the Pentagon, another acquaintance, a former neighbor and Defense Department employee, was being led by her boss through smoke-filled halls away from her office. Her husband, a retired NOAA oceanographer, was sitting at their home only two miles away, anxiously trying to reach her over jammed phone lines for what seemed like forever.

Following the attack, another person we know — one of those guys who owns a car with a whip antenna and amateur radio call letters on the license plate — arrived on the scene at the Pentagon. As a disaster communications specialist and former FCC engineer, he set up shop to help untangle on-site communications.

Those are just a few things that come to mind on this 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Clearly, everything changed that day. Feds and non-feds alike, especially those near the attack sites, realized how quickly the world can turn upside down and how unprepared we all had been.

And although the implications of the attacks were national and international, if one lived in New York City or the national capital area, the impact was clearly local.

People all across the Washington region realized there had been no local plans to deal with something like this — at least none that reached individuals. That’s why in the weeks after 9/11, a lot of us in the Washington area found ourselves on hastily assembled lists.

There were new lists of communications people like the fellow above (who fortunately already had been on a list). There were new lists of nurses, doctors and other medical professionals who, at the request of local and state authorities, had agreed, if needed, to assemble at a given location to conduct emergency triage and treatment.

There were even lists of parents. Some local schools sent letters home with their students, soliciting families who would agree to take in and care for the children of military service members or government employees who might have to remain on duty during an emergency.

Families and individuals threw themselves into emergency preparations as well. Suddenly there were people in the Washington area who had pick-up-and-run “go bags” full of necessities and emergency gear, just in case they had to make a break for it. And families — realizing they were separated during the day at various schools and work locations — now agreed on emergency rendezvous points and routes of escape.

It’s been 10 years now. Time has knocked the edge off a bit. But only just a bit. When the recent earthquake struck the capital region, the first thought that ran through the minds of many was not “earthquake.”

Federal agencies charged with anticipating and managing events like this have told us we are safer and more prepared than we were 10 years ago. We only hope they are right.

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Sep 09, 2011 at 12:13 PM


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