Washingtonians wary but resolute in solidarity

Ceremonies abound

apprehension prompts some to stay at home

2001 9/11 2002

One Year

September 12, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The nation's capital spent much of yesterday looking over its shoulder and scanning the skies overhead.

In a city that escaped last Sept. 11 without the devastation that was perhaps intended for it, anxiety and caution abounded. Even as Washington carried on business as usual, any sudden move or unexpected sound jangled a multitude of nerves.

James O'Neill flinched when the whine of a low-flying aircraft bounced off the walls of the Lincoln Memorial. "What's that?" asked O'Neill, a businessman from Appleton, Wis. "It's eerie," he said. Soon he realized it was just an ordinary plane, not a threat. But only when the sound faded completely did he relax.

Anti-aircraft missiles mounted on military jeeps were stationed at points around Washington. City streets were unusually light on weekday traffic, but heavy on police cruisers and motorcades. Fighter jets patrolled the skies. And, all through the day, Washingtonians jumped at sirens and watched their town through wary eyes.

"What's so scary is that I don't think it's going to be another airplane - next time, it's going to happen when you're standing in a Starbucks," said Maria Sayers, a fund-raiser heading to her downtown office. "That kind of terrorism could be next."

Tuesday's heightened terror alert, combined with memories of the panicky evacuation of the capital a year ago, added to the unease here. Last year, about 180,000 federal employees clogged the streets with cars as they all tried to flee at once.

Some were preparing themselves for future attacks.

"We're going to get hit again - there's not a doubt about it," said Bruce Wallace, a State Department security guard who heard the thunderous boom when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon just across the river. "There's always a weak link. They've just got to find it."

Solidarity

Despite the wariness yesterday, a sense of resolve carried the day. Washingtonians gathered to show solidarity in the fight against terrorism and to honor the thousands killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

About two-dozen religious leaders from different faiths held services at National Cathedral. At the Washington Monument, hundreds of pilots, flight attendants and other airline workers assembled to remember the 33 American Airlines and United Airlines crew members killed after their planes were hijacked.

Many memorial services had an impromptu feel. Hill workers spilled out of their offices for a lunchtime concert. Motorcyclists roared up to the Capitol at the close of a fund-raising ride.

At the National Academy of Sciences, about 30 staffers gathered in a hallway while a co-worker read an Israeli poem about loss.

At the Bureau of Prisons, crisis counselors were on hand for distraught employees. Outside the Department of Labor, not far from the U.S. Capitol, workers gathered for a solemn flag ceremony.

Others marked the day by holding their loved ones closer. Dianne Ferro Mesarch, after praying at a downtown church, grasped her husband's hand, called him "lovebug," and swore she'd never again take anything for granted.

"You realize you can't protect everything," said her husband, Tim. "You try not to get too complacent in your life."

Despite a continuing review of the region's emergency response last Sept. 11, the capital area has not put together a coordinated evacuation plan.

Fewer at work

Meanwhile, many Washingtonians believe more violence is coming. In a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 69 percent of Washingtonians said they live or work where another terrorist attack is likely, compared with 42 percent in New York and 32 percent nationwide.

Yesterday, that sense of insecurity prompted some workers to stay home. Though some federal agencies said their workplaces were mostly full, the streets, buses and subways were not crowded.

"There were about 50 percent fewer people in my office today than usual," said Patrick Harvey, an analyst at the Labor Department. "It was subdued."

Some workers reported for duty for symbolic reasons.

Brian Shaffer, an agent for the U.S. courts, said he felt the same sense of obligation as he did when he came to work last Sept. 12. "A lot of us were just naturally drawn here," he said.

But some workers still found the day hard to deal with.

"It's still early for a remembrance," said lobbyist Kyle O'Dowd. "Most of us are still living with it day in and day out."

Last Sept. 11, O'Dowd ran from a senator's office as rumor spread that a plane was heading for the Capitol - a possible target of the fourth hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

"I just remember thinking about my kids who are in day care, and how I was going to get to them," said O'Dowd, who spent three hours that day trying to make it to the day care center across town.

Traffic was so bad that his wife, who was walking about the same distance from another direction, beat him there on foot.

"I've been trying to block this day out, which I feel guilty about," he said, as music played on his headphones. "I'll be happy when this day is over."

`Feeling of closeness'

Still, to many others, the day of remembrance was necessary, and even more powerful in the nation's capital. Becky Burkholder left Little Rock, Ark., a few days early for a business meeting in Roanoke, Va., in order to be here yesterday.

"There's just a feeling of closeness here," she said. "Everyone you see here knows what today is. It all just heightens your sense of patriotism and unity."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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