Where were you on Sept. 11? Question brings back vivid memories

Michelle Henshaw worked across the river from the Pentagon. Through a coworker's window, she could see the black smoke rising from the building. (Photo: Jessica Binsch)

About 200 people were crowded into an electronics store in Reston, eyes fixated on the TV screen set up for display. The store’s manager, Dennis Kregel, had switched all screens to news programming from the stock DVD the store usually plays.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, people were watching events incomprehensible before that September day: Planes, apparently hijacked, had crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center.

“The most surreal moment I remember in my lifetime was when the first tower fell,” Kregel said. “There was nothing. With that many people, you could just hear a pin drop. And then you started to hear just people sobbing.”

Like Kregel, many people around the country were at work when they heard about what seemed like a plane crash in New York. Others were at schools, in cars, at hospitals. Ask any person, and it’s likely they vividly remember where they were.

“I will never forget where I was when I heard about 9/11,” said Jennifer, an elementary school librarian at one of the region’s military bases. “I can picture it.”

Ten years later, those memories bring back the confusion, shock and disbelief of a day that continues to deeply impact the nation.

Jennifer was getting ready for her first class of the day when a parent told her about a radio report. (Her husband continues to serve in the military and she asked WJLA not to publish her last name.)

It was just past 9 a.m. when she turned on the small television in a back room of the library. Within minutes, she saw a plane crashing into the World Trade Center’s second tower.

She immediately tried to reach her husband, but was unsuccessful. Students were arriving for the day’s first class. Determined not to let her fear show, she continued the school day. “We were not going to let these kids know,” she said.

Teachers walked into the back room from time to time to watch. “The door was always closed and the volume was very low,” she said. “I protected those kids.”

Around the same time, Michelle Henshaw was also staring at television images. Coworkers were crowded into her cubicle at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at 14th and C Streets in Southeast Washington, just across the river from Arlington.

“That’s not an accident,” she remembers thinking when the second plane hit the World Trade Center’s south tower.

Then the building shook. The windows rattled. Henshaw hear a loud bang. Then a woman across the hallway screamed. When Henshaw went into her office, the woman could only stammer one word: “plane.” Over her shoulder, Henshaw looked out of the window across the river at the Pentagon. It was shrouded in black smoke.

The plane crashed into the building close to Sylvia Perry’s office. Perry had been an administrative assistant with the Pentagon’s chaplain’s office for 10 years. It was constantly busy, but she loved working there and had many close friends among her four dozen coworkers.

That September day, she was scheduled to have knee surgery at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg. She had just arrived when she saw the images.

“I knew the window. I knew exactly where it was because I looked at the windows so many times,” she said. “That’s what frightened me so badly, because I knew I had just lost some good friends.”

Five colleagues died in the attacks.

“I just feel like maybe God wasn’t finished with me yet,” Perry said. “He had other means for me.” She is now caring for her husband, who has dementia and suffered multiple strokes.

Henshaw’s plan was clear: After seeing the burning Pentagon from across the river, she told her supervisor she would be going home. “I just needed to be with my family,” the 46-year-old said.

The 14th Street Bridge had just been reopened when she reached it by car. It was eerily empty. Driving across, she could smell the smoke through the closed windows of the car.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I’ve never smelled anything like that.”

Her passengers kept dialing the numbers of loved ones. Phone lines were jammed with people trying to reach family and friends, and like many, they had trouble getting through.

The phones would keep ringing at Terry Navarro’s office for months. Working at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she helped survivors file claims with the federal government to replace property or cover funeral costs.

“It was just phone call after phone call after phone call,” Navarro said. “We didn’t really have time to think about it, we didn’t have time to grieve. We had work to do.”

Faced with losing their homes, jobs and loved ones, the breadth of the tragedy overwhelmed some callers.

“They had given us 8.5x11 pieces of paper that just had the word ‘suicide’ on them,” Navarro remembers. “We were instructed if we are (receiving) a suicide call, to hold up that piece of paper and wave it until somebody saw it.”

A supervisor would listen in and pull up case notes so that another could contact the local police department. “It was my job to keep them on the phone until the police got there,” Navarro said.

During one particular shift, Navarro received three suicide calls, one of them from a man in Manhattan who told the woman he had lost everything and had a handgun. That call was the hardest.

“What are the odds of one person getting three of those phone calls?” Navarro asked. “That meant a lot of people were getting a lot of those phone calls.”

In the years since, Navarro hasn’t watched any of the special reports about the attacks. “I’ll try to watch it and start to cry and… I have to turn it off and do something else,” the 48-year-old said.

Others, too, find watching the images difficult, and many said they lack the sense of safety they had prior to the attacks.

“I lost a lot of good friends, a lot of families were destroyed – for what? It was just devastating. It was so uncalled for. And you think we’re so secure here, but we’re not,” now 67-year-old Perry said.

She had planned to return to work after her surgery, but was too distraught to continue working at the Pentagon.

“It was too devastating for me, I just couldn’t go back in there,” she said. “There was nothing to go back to.” It still bothers her to talk about that day. She retired at the end of 2001. Every year, the anniversary of the attacks brings back the memories.

Jennifer, the base school librarian, also remembers those who were lost that day, including a friend’s husband. “I haven’t missed a calling of the names,” she said. “This year will probably be the hardest.”

To her, it doesn’t feel like 10 years have passed since then. “The only way for me to tell is by the ages of my children,” she said.

She has told her daughters, now eight and 11 years old, about the attacks, but is wary they don’t watch the most gruesome TV images. Her family went to the Pentagon memorial for the first time this summer.

“If we don’t remember this, if we don’t remember those that sacrificed and those that died for this, we are doomed to repeat it,” she said.

Many of the dozen people interviewed expressed gratitude to the men and women who rushed to the aid of others, from first responders to the passengers of Flight 93 who tried to regain control from their hijackers and were killed when their plane crashed near Shanksville, Pa.

The events are burnt into the memory of a whole generation.

“In my grandparent’s generation, (people asked) ‘where were you when Pearl Harbor happened?’ and in my parent’s generation, it was ‘where were you when JFK got shot?’” the now retired store manager Kregel said. “Not to make light of it, but I think for our generation now, it’s ‘where were you on 9/11’ … I think it’s ingrained in everybody’s mind.”

Where were you on Sept. 11? Share your memories on the map below.

1) Follow this link to our interactive map.

2) Click on the "Edit" button directly above the description.

3) In the upper-left hand corner of the map, click on the button with the blue pin.

4) Click on the location to place the pinpoint. It's fine if you don't know the exact location.{ }

5) Put the location's name as the title. It doesn't have to be specific - you can say "at a store" or "at home." Fill out the description with as much information as you'd like to share.

6) Click "OK" to finalize the submission.