Nation's Capital in State of Shock
By Joel Achenbach
The core of the nation's capital was plunged this morning into a state of fear and confusion, with rumors of explosions all over town and thousands of people trapped in gridlocked traffic. People scanned the skies for incoming terrorist planes. There were reports sources unknown of bombs and smoke all around the federal city.
They came one after another: A car bomb at the State Department. A bomb at the Capitol. A bomb at the Old Executive Office Building. The USA Today building in Rosslyn was supposedly enveloped in smoke. Reported as fact on radio and television, the rumors were untrue. But so much had happened already, so many terrible things in New York and Washington you could see the cloud of smoke from the plane crash at the Pentagon from almost anywhere in town that anything seemed possible.
"Go!" shouted Michele Tolson, an Office of Personnel Management employee helping direct cars out of the garage. A driver was balking at the direction to turn right onto 18th Street.
"But it won't get me anywhere I want to go," the driver protested.
"But it would get you out of the building. We just got a phone call," Tolson said meaning, a bomb threat.
"They're not done yet. The object of this is to hit every major city in America," Verizon employee Carlton Jones told co-workers as they tried to hike out of the city past the gridlocked cars.
At the White House, phone bank volunteers were hearing the voices of the American people soon after the first reports of the plane crashes that demolished the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. A volunteer who asked that his name not be used said later, after being evacuated, "People calling on the phones were hysterical. They said, 'Do something now. Do it swiftly. Don't be a wuss. Don't be moderate. Get Bin Laden."
Cellphone traffic downtown became jammed for much of the morning.
"I can't call anyone. I can't do anything!" said a student at George Washington University who gave her name only as Kate. Katherine Nussbaum, another GWU student, was similarly confounded by the situation. "I'm worried that my parents are going to freak out and there's no way to call them," she said.
For the most part people were not panicking. Many stood stunned on the street corner. "Everyone seems to be very much in shock," said printing company executive Mike Poppalardo, surveying the chaos on E Street just west of the White House. Outside the evacuated Federal Reserve building, Jim Johnson, an employee of the General Services Administration, calmly sat in the shade of a pocket-park and read the financial section of the morning newspaper. People were hustling in all directions on the sidewalks nearby, but Johnson was imperturbable.
"What else you gonna do?" he said. He lives in Falls Church it seemed unlikely he would get home any time soon.
On the steps of the historic Octagon building, a block from the White House complex, Bert Stacey sat glumly, wondering how long until he could get a ride home. The cars in the street next to him had not moved for an hour, he said. He said he was disillusioned and angry.
"Disillusioned that we're brought to instant gridlock in one of the world's most powerful capitals. Disillusioned that the security net didn't preclude at least some of it. Obviously it was well-planned, well-coordinated."
Unlike, he didn't need to add, the evacuation of the federal city.
"They" the terrorists accomplished their goals," said Carlton Jones, the Verizon worker.
His co-worker Timetha Banks summed it up: "It's turmoil. Mass confusion."