Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Shawn L. Cahill, 26, was born in Terra Haute, Indiana, and today lives in Lebanon, Indiana, with his wife, Amy. Shawn works as a financial analyst at the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute. His passions include reading, scuba diving, bike riding and hiking. Shawn has traveled throughout the eastern half of the United States, along with Texas and Canada. Additionally, Shawn won a trip to Hawaii several years ago, which included a stop in California. On Sept. 11, Shawn and his wife were camping in Michigan. He wrote his essay around mid-November. It’s titled, “I Was on Vacation When I Found Out.”
September 11, 2001, started slowly camping on the west coast of Michigan. I was told by someone I thought had smoked a little to much “happy grass” that terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. When I learned he wasn’t just high, the first thing I thought was, “What is happening at work?” Why? While it is true that I work in the middle of a cornfield in Indiana with the nearest good-size city 35 miles away, I also work for the government at a chemical weapon destruction facility.
When I attempted to call into work to find out if anyone we worked with was at the Pentagon that day, no one answered the phones. Lunch, I thought. But there was still no answer after lunch. Everyone had been evacuated based on the threat. You see the worst-case scenario for us is that a 747 will crash land into the middle of the storage building.
I returned to work on the Monday following the attacks. Big yellow plastic barricades filled with sand had grown in front of the gates. Cars were being searched at random. Badges had to be given to the security guards, not just shown. And, “Oh by the way, don’t pay any attention to the helicopters coming and going. They are here to meet with the base commander.”
A few days later everyone was told that military personnel would be coming to help the current security. No big deal, just some more people with guns running around the base. At least I knew they had training on using the guns slung over their shoulders. Men and women from the 101st Airborne had come to Newport. It wasn’t until the day after they arrived that I felt a little dread. My car pool partner was driving, and I awoke in the front passenger’s seat to find a fifty-five-caliber machine gun complete with operator watching me through the gate.
True, I work at a location that needs high security. I have not figured out yet what everyone is attempting to prevent, someone entering or someone leaving. When the nerve agent was manufactured and shipped all over the country in the ’50s and ’60s, the leak detection system was a chicken and a rabbit. Not a single person was killed because of exposure to the agent in that entire time. So sometimes it’s hard to take all this fuss seriously. I would hate to think that people are actually stupid enough to use this chemical, but then again, I chuckled at Tom Clancy flying a plane into the Capitol building in his book, “Debt of Honor.” “That could never happen, right?”