Recollections of 9/11 in Washington, DC

By Rich Cooper

On the morning of 9/11 I was working at NASA Headquarters as the Senior Advisor to the NASA Administrator and the NASA Chief of Staff. It was a truly gorgeous day in the National Capital Area and I remembered as I got in my car to drive to work early that morning what a perfect day it would be to play hooky and take my wife and then two very young children to a park and play that day but I had a desk full of actions to deal with so I went to work like everybody else.

It was shortly after the 8:30 AM senior staff meeting that I exited the Administrator’s conference room and saw on the TV by the Administrator’s Secretary smoke pouring from the top of one of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers. I asked her what happened and she said news reports were talking about a commuter plane had struck the tower. I looked at her strangely as you could see there was no fog or low cloud cover in NYC that could obscure the view of a plane. Furthermore the hole in the side of the tower did not seem like a commuter plane size.

I turned to our head of Public Affairs and remarked to him that we should get ready to respond to media questions about new air traffic control systems since NASA was responsible for doing a lot of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) research work. I then proceeded to walk down the hallway where my office was at and went into the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff to talk to her. I asked her if she had seen the TV and she had just turned it on to see what was happening. As we watched the television which was on NBC’s Today Show, we both talked about how strange this was and looked puzzled at the TV and unfolding images. By this time, you could see that they had begun setting up different news cameras to broadcast what was becoming very frightening.

As were talking about the event, the next thing you heard from the TV was a voice shrieking, “Oh my God there’s another!” and then a cascading ball of flame filled the one side of the other WTC Tower. I have to admit my very first thought was it was one of NY’s infamous news choppers that had collided with the building or another helicopter had crashed into each other trying to get the best shot of the fire in the first tower but as the cascading ball of flame grew larger and larger I knew that it wasn’t a helicopter crash. As the ball of flame got bigger and bigger I felt a horrible cold chill go through my body that I had never experienced before.
I looked at the Deputy Chief and said, “We’re under attack.”

“What?!” she responded to me turning in her chair looking at me. I said “We’re under attack and that’s next!” and I pointed to the US Capital dome which was directly outside of her office window.

I had no more than said those words when new NASA’s Director of Security, a recently retired US Secret Service agent that had joined the NASA Team a week before literally ran into the Administrator’s Suite and quickly catching his breath asked, “Where’s the Administrator?”
We told him the Administrator was at the Israeli Embassy meeting with their Ambassador to discuss the future mission of the first Israeli astronaut (which would be the ill-fated flight of Col. Ilan Ramon onboard the Shuttle Columbia in February 2003). He explained he “had just heard from his buddies in the Secret Service that we’re under attack.”

We stood there stunned momentarily at confirmation of the horror we had seen on TV and he quickly asked, “What do we have on the pad?” referring to the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
The initial fear was because since we didn’t know how many other planes there might be, that the terrorists might be looking to strike at any large visible targets representative of the US and its power. Needless to say Kennedy Space Center is such a site and possesses a lot of explosive gases to fuel rockets, etc. and if something were to go wrong there, it could be disastrous on several levels.

From that point on the morning is blur of activity. Shortly after the second Tower was hit I called my wife at home in Alexandria, VA and because the kids were watching their shows, she was unaware of the unfolding attacks. I told her that I would not be home anytime soon as there were actions we had to do in the building to look after the workers there; find out if we had any of our people on business travel on some of those planes but also to monitor what was happening.
She was not happy once she got the TV on and saw what was happening because she wanted me home. I told her she needed to reach out to her cousin and to find out about her cousin’s husband because he had done some work post 1993 World Trade Center attack on the WTC buildings and to see if he was safe. [She could not get through because of jammed phone lines. Her cousin’s husband had worked on the redesign of the sprinkler system of the WTC following the 1993 attacks. Needless to say nothing they could have ever built could have done anything to stop the horror unfolding in those buildings. Her cousin’s husband also was safe that day and ended up taking pictures of the WTC collapse from the rooftop of his office building. Truly chilling photos too.]

Once we understood what was happening, the Deputy Chief and I moved to an emergency call center inside the NASA Headquarters building and started to work the phones to call NASA Centers around the country to discuss emergency procedures with them. While doing that, the building had a brief shudder. That was the impact of the plane going into the Pentagon but we didn’t know that yet because we were in the interior of the building and had no windows and the news had not reported it yet.

Shortly thereafter everyone’s computers and Internet connections began to seize up because of volume of usage as people were trying to get news updates and send emails to loved ones, place calls, etc. That made getting updates to coworkers and family an issue. Additionally there started to be news reports about car bombs going off by the White House, the State Department and around DC. Once we moved back to the Administrator’s Suite, we immediately knew those reports were wrong as we could look out the windows of the top floor of NASA Headquarters towards the White House, the State Department and see that there was no billowing smoke denoting something awful had occurred. The only smoke that was visible from where we were at was coming from the Pentagon which was across the Potomac River in Virginia.

By this time you started to see military fighters flying over Washington ready to shoot down anything that might be making an approach towards DC. The Capital dome was by far the most visible target and against a crystal clear blue sky, you could not miss it.

It was a fearful chaos of emotion, confusion, anger and so much more that was unfolding. People in the building were visibly and understandably upset because you didn’t know what was happening at any time. You could see the carnage on TV but you knew it was right across the river at the Pentagon and you didn’t know if there was something other than suicide planes that might happen next.

People who had driven to work that day got in their cars to drive home. In truth they couldn’t go anywhere because the streets were blocked and clogged with traffic of people in their cars trying to get out of the city (on top of emergency vehicles trying to get to the Pentagon to help with the raging fire). As a result, hundreds of cars had their engines running in our three level parking garage and because the streets were blocked and cars were sitting there idling, we had to tell people to turn their cars off because we feared the garage might fill up with carbon monoxide causing even more havoc and tragedy on an uncontrollable day.

Since people couldn’t get out with their cars, or dial out because the cell phones and regular phone lines were overwhelmed, this became especially problematic. Buildings around the city, as well schools in the area were all closing early and letting people out to get out of the city.
Many took the Metro (DC’s Subway system) but more than anything you saw people begin to walk towards home. You literally saw thousands of people take to the sidewalks, bike paths, etc. just to get out of town. My wife ended up being angry with me that I was not one of those walking home but I made the decision to stay at work which was my job and do whatever I could to aid the Agency’s leadership (and the country’s) that day. I was able to call her and my parents at some point in the afternoon after many tries of not being able to get the phones to work to let them know I was OK but for me staying put was the best thing for me to do that day.

I’ve got a notebook in my basement that chronicles everything that happened day. It served as my daily notebook for work actions and “To Do’s.” I honestly haven’t looked at those pages since probably the week of September 11th, 2001. With that particular notebook I knew I just wanted to put it away to reflect on the events at some later date. It’s something I really need to do but the memories, images and emotions are still so raw from that time period that I don’t need to open that green notebook to know what happened or what I felt.

It was awful and it’s emotional to recall all of this stuff even as I type this out now but it’s a great exercise to share with people like you and my own kids about what it was like. I’ve got a 11th grader, 8th grader and 6th grader at home and they’ve often asked questions about that day and what I was doing. I’m sure I’ll be sharing the notes from that green notebook with them at some point but for now it remains in a box in the basement. Whatever those notes say, my memories remain very clear…

There are four other memories that I will quickly share. The first was watching on TV as the WTC Towers fell. There were audible shrieks and cries by men and women in the lobby area where a big television was in the front foyer of NASA Administrator’s suite. I will never forget the face of the Associate Administrator for Space Flight (meaning he was the boss of the Shuttle and International Space Station programs) turn ashen and covering his face in horror. He then looked at me and others in the space and said something to the effect of, “worse than Pearl Harbor… worse than Pearl Harbor…”

The second was late that afternoon walking up to the US Capital where those of us left in the building (and in town) made what seemed to be a pilgrimage walk of sorts up to the symbol of our democracy that was still standing. The NASA Chief of Staff and a couple of other senior NASA folks and I went up there around 6PM or so and there were a couple hundred people — Congressional staffers, Government employees, business people, etc. that stood at the West Front of the Capital (that overlooks the Washington Mall). People were milling about in state of shock with lots tear streamed faces and then people began to sing the National Anthem, God Bless America and other patriot songs. I remember it was very uplifting at that moment but also very heartbreaking too.
It was certainly uplifting to be a part of that but surrounding the area you could see US Capital Police, DC police and US Park Police all holding weaponry in their hands that you had never seen put on public display before. On top of that you had military aircraft of all variety flying fairly low all over the area. Since living in the DC area for nearly thirty years, I’ve attended several Presidential Inaugurations and other major events in DC that had maximum security but what you were seeing this time was truly unprecedented an unsettling.

The third was driving home that night around Midnight and crossing the 14th Street Bridge and seeing all of the lights from the fire and emergency rescue vehicles flashing with remnant smoke still coming from the shattered Pentagon. While the fires were mostly out, there was still smoldering ruin that you could see and smell in the air. I couldn’t help but think that I had several friends who worked there and I honestly did not know if any of them were alive or dead. [They all got out OK.]

Driving home through Old Town Alexandria towards my home (near Mount Vernon), the car radio was on and was replaying the President’s Oval Office speech which was followed by reporters trying to piece together the who, what and why of what we had just experienced.

That leads to that final fourth memory. That was walking into my home very late that night, seeing my wife waiting at the kitchen table for me, holding her tightly and then completely losing all composure and just crying. All the emotion that I had to put in check to do my job(s) that day came pouring out. I then walked upstairs to see my then two kids sleeping soundly in their beds who literally knew nothing of the events of that day and I couldn’t help but think the big tough world that they had been born into had become a whole lot uglier and terrifying than it was when I had left them earlier that morning.

I then tried to go to sleep – maybe got three hours if I was lucky and went to work the next morning arriving very early to begin the “day after.”