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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
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WASHINGTON, D.C.

Center of government becomes a ghost town

A short time after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, a plane was flown into a section of the Pentagon in Washington. Firefighters fought all night to put the remaining fires out. (AP PHOTO)

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 9/12/2001

WASHINGTON - The nation's capital reeled yesterday from a stunning terrorist attack that forced the first-ever evacuation of both the White House and the US Capitol, the shutdown of every government agency, created midday gridlock, and shattered the bustle of normal business on a sparkling blue-sky Tuesday with the sound of sirens and the sight of police brandishing automatic weapons.

Marian Rickey of Springfield, Ill., was in line for a 9:45 a.m. White House tour when a uniformed officer ran toward the tourists, his gun cocked, and told them to run. ''He shouted, `Your life could depend on it,''' recalled Rickey, who grabbed her husband, Elmer, and hustled across the street to Lafayette Park. ''We were very frightened.''

The World Trade Center disaster in New York, quickly followed by the aircraft attack on the Pentagon and unfounded reports of an explosion at the State Department, created panic for Washingtonians, who live with the nightmare that their city is ground zero for a major terrorist attack.

By 10 a.m. emergency evacuations were well underway, and hundreds of shocked White House employees and workers from offices nearby poured onto the sidewalks, parks, and streets. They could see billowing black smoke from the Pentagon fire across the Potomac River.

Both cellphone and traffic gridlock ensued, as Washington's downtown workers tried to check on the safety of family and friends and started making their way home. Ambulances and police cars snaked through the congested streets. Sirens wailed against the pealing of church bells.

President Bush was in Florida when the attacks occurred. His wife, Laura, was on Capitol Hill preparing to testify before Congress. Vice President Dick Cheney was at the White House.

A crowd grew outside 1717 K St., the building where the US Mission of the PLO is housed. The alarm inside had gone off accidentally, and nervous security personnel were shooing officeworkers onto the street and locking the door after them.

Patty Hamel, who works at the National Crime Prevention Council in that building, was glad to leave. Her son, a high-school student in suburban Fairfax County, Va., called and said the campus was chaotic; school administrators were pulling students out of class so they could contact and locate parents at the Pentagon and other government agencies.

Many public schools in the region closed early, and most colleges in the Washington area canceled classes immediately.

Jason Buchsbaum, a senior at George Washington University, stayed in his apartment and close to the phone. His mother called with the good news that his brother, Dan, who works for a bond-trading company on the 50th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, got out of the building 10 minutes before it collapsed.

The Washington-area subway shut down briefly and reopened, but closed stations at the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport. Amtrak canceled all train service into Washington's Union Station. The local airports were evacuated and flights were not scheduled to resume until sometime today.

Lindsey Kriete, 24, of Wellesley was scheduled to leave Reagan National on a 10 a.m. flight to Boston. About 9:30 a.m., all hell broke loose, Kriete said, as airport personnel began running through the terminal, telling passengers to leave quickly. By the time Kriete had rounded up her belongings and tried to calm people who were crying, all the taxis were gone and the subway had shut down.

She walked and hitchhiked miles back into the capital, using the Washington Monument as her point of reference. The trip was surreal, Kriete said, because there were so many police on horseback, motorcycles, boats, and in helicopters, but almost no passenger cars on I-395.

''I'd been considering Washington for graduate school,'' said Kriete. ''Now I'm definitely going to put a lot of thought into that.''

Earlier, Mary Lyman, 47, of Alexandria, had been driving on the same highway, passing the Pentagon on her way to her job as a lobbyist in Washington. She witnessed the crash.

''I saw a plane coming what I thought was toward National Airport, which is very close. You see that all the time,'' said Lyman, an Andover native. ''But this one looked different. It was at a very steep angle, and going very fast.

''I had been hearing about the World Trade Center before I left, and wondered, is this part of that? Then the plane disappeared, smoke started coming up, and traffic came to a complete stop,'' Lyman said. ''We all got out of our cars. We heard another couple of explosions, and I ran and got back in my car.''

''The police came and had us drive back the wrong way on the highway.''

By midafternoon, Washington had turned into a ghost town. The sidewalks were almost empty; almost every shop was shuttered. Streets around the White House were cordoned off by yellow crime-scene tape, intersections were blocked by cars, and security men patrolled with submachine guns.

The District of Columbia declared a state of emergency and told people to stay home unless they had essential business.

''I'd like to ask you to continue to remain calm and work with us,'' District Mayor Anthony Williams said at a news conference. Responding to a question, Williams said he was investigating whether it was possible to delay or cancel the World Bank/IMF meetings scheduled for later this month. Tens of thousands of protesters have been expected at the event.

Medical units throughout the region were mobilized to treat the injured, and physicians canceled appointments to head into hospitals or board buses for the Pentagon. The National Institutes of Health announced they would stay open 24 hours to take blood donations.

Craig Jones of Oklahoma City stood outside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, reliving a nightmare. He is president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, and was in Oklahoma City on the day Timothy J. McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, killing 167 people.

''I was just getting ready to leave my room when I saw on `Headline News' the plane crash into the World Trade Center,'' Jones said. ''I tell you, I had a flashback to Oklahoma City.''

Jones's meetings of state hospitals officials was canceled after the attacks. A colleague was giving him a ride to Harrisburg, Pa., where he planned to visit relatives until he could figure out a way to fly home.

Marian Rickey's tour group from central Illinois also saw its plans abruptly changed. The Washington Hotel, two blocks from the White House, had evacuated the group, leaving 45 elderly tourists sitting at an outdoor cafe with no luggage, no room, and plenty of anxiety about their visit to Washington.

''Is this really happening to us?'' asked Ruby Amos of Peoria, Ill., who had slipped away from the cafe and into Washington's Church of the Epiphany to pray. ''We really don't feel secure in our own country.''

John Conrad, a special assistant to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, walked down an almost deserted K Street and said the day was almost too much to comprehend: One minute, he was setting up Grassley's office for a visit from Mike Wallace and a crew from ''60 Minutes''; the next, he was locking down the office and evacuating the Capitol.

''This is the current equivalent of Pearl Harbor,'' said Conrad, who said he has lived and worked in Washington since 1979 and never experienced anything like this. ''This day will live in infamy.''

Globe reporters Sue Kirchhoff and Raphael Lewis contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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