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.
The ambitious Sheila R. McCoy, 22, was born in Merill, Iowa, and today lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. Sheila, a Truman Fellow for the National Rural Development Partnership, works in the United States Department of Labor and Department of Agriculture. Her interests include writing, reading, languages and travel. She has visited places such as Nicaragua, Cuba, France and Ireland. She is Lutheran. During the Sept. 11 attack, Sheila was in her office at the Department of Labor. The next day, she sent the following letter to family and friends concerned about her well-being.
The mood in the office this morning is quiet and contemplative. We each sit in our cubicles, ears trained to radios we’ve always had, or radios we brought with us this morning so the story couldn’t develop any further without keeping us informed. I know from speaking with many of my co-workers that they are suffering from the same problem I’ve found myself plagued with. We don’t know how to work any more. We don’t know what to do – how to do it – and at times I think we’ve even begun to wonder why it is we do anything we do. I’m sure this feeling will subside in due time, but it just seems like it is too soon to be here again. We all need a little more time to let the reality of all of this settle in.
I arrived at the office yesterday morning minutes after the first plane struck the WTC. A Truman Fellow who works for Veterans’ Affairs called me in a panic. The attack made her nervous and distraught. I calmed her as best I could, and when I hung up the phone, I wondered to myself how anyone could become so upset by the event. Granted, I knew that something terrible had happened. But we didn’t know yet that it had been intentional – or that there would be more to come. I felt sick to my stomach when the second report came in. I tried to call her back, but she didn’t answer her phone. She had left already, I assume – flustered and upset by what must have been to her devastating news.
By the time the news about the Pentagon was released, tensions were running high. Everyone in my fifth floor office gathered at the windows because the side of the building we’re on faces the Pentagon. We watched the smoke billow out and spread low, thick, and black across the sky. The woman to my left let out a shriek: “My cousin works in the Pentagon!” The thought hadn’t occurred to her before, but her realization set to work a chain reaction. All around me, I could hear voices clamoring – “My aunt works there, too!” “So does my friend!” Everyone fled to their desks and began dialing, but not a single call would go through. There were some tears shed, but for the most part we all just stood silent, listening to the hum of sirens over the buzz of our radios.
It occurred to us then that we could become a target because of our prime location directly between the White House and the Capitol. In fact, a tunnel system under the city connects the two buildings, and its path falls under our building. Already, we could see people fleeing from the exit below us. Many had gone down to the daycare center on the first floor to get their children, who they carried or pulled hurriedly behind them. I made a quick call to my mother, and as we spoke, the alarm sounded and we were told to evacuate the building immediately. The stairwells were packed with people all wanting to get out of the building as quickly as possible, but for the most part, folks remained calm and at the landing for each new floor, a gap would open to swallow the people who were fighting to get out. When we stepped into the day, people began commenting on the scorched smell of the air. I don’t know if it was real, but we could all smell it.
I didn’t waste a single minute contemplating my next step. We hadn’t yet been given permission to go home, but I ran to the subway and took the short ride to my boyfriend, Dan’s, law school. When I entered the building, I found all of the students gathered in an open area around a television that was too small. For the first time, I saw the images of the Towers and the crash of the plane into the side of the second. We were all there when the first tower collapsed, and we didn’t think the situation could get any worse. Then we heard about the crash in Pennsylvania. Next came the news of the second tower collapsing. We all wore looks on our faces that suggested none of us thought it was over. Quick hugs and smiles were exchanged and we all left for our separate ways. Never before had the thought of going home sounded so good.
On the ride home I thought to myself how quickly rumors spread when something terrible like this happens. I remembered the explosion I had heard as I got on the train when I left work. I thought of the people in my office who would share news of even more disasters: “They’ve hit the west wing.”; “The old executive office building is on fire.”; “USA Today has been bombed.”; “The mall is burning.” No one knew what to believe, but given the gravity of the situation, we felt we had no other choice than to believe it all.
I don’t know what more to say. We got home shortly before noon and spent the entire day and all evening in front of the television. Our apartment has wide windows that face the south, so we could watch from Maryland as the smoke continued to pour from the Pentagon. We got out our binoculars, and every time we heard the slightest hint of a plane overhead, we would scurry to the window to see if it was a fighter jet, the President’s plane, or another hijacked commercial airplane. We shuddered when we heard that the District, Maryland, and Virginia had all declared a state of emergency, and we dreaded most the moment at which they would announce the Maryland National Guard had been called up for duty. Dan belongs to the Maryland Guard. He just transferred here from the Ohio Unit.
Our phones rang all day as folks at home tried frantically to reach us. The more we talked about it, the less real it all seemed. It hasn’t sunk in completely yet, and I’m not altogether certain it ever will. We made one trip out for groceries and found the store packed with people, each person showing more signs of stress than the last. We waited in line to pay for more than an hour, so we had plenty of time to watch as carts loaded with bottled water and canned goods hurried up and down the aisles. We hadn’t thought to buy those things. We just needed groceries.
Thankfully, we do not know anyone who was injured or killed in either New York City or Washington, D.C. Our prayers go out to all of the friends and family who have lost loved ones, as they also go out to Arab Americans and Palestinians who stand to become the victims of vicious attacks, both physical and verbal, from those without the sense to know any better. And we continue to hope that the government will respond in a way that does not exacerbate our suffering or create new suffering or pain for innocent victims anywhere else in the world.