Losing the blue sky

My 9-11 Remembrance

Driving to work in Rosslyn, Va., I remember thinking the day was perfection. The sky was a color of blue I only later learned from my artist mother should be called cerulean. The temperature was in the high 70s and there was a crispness in the air that marks those early fall days that hint ever so gently at the chill to come.

Uneventfully, I parked my car in the basement of the Gannett tower that looms over the Potomac and overlooks The Pentagon.

I never even got to my office. I was distracted by the crowd in the conference room watching CNN.

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Watching as smoke billowed from the North tower. No one really knew what had happened. we thought a small plane had hit the building. Maybe the pilot had had a heart attack.

That speculation ended as we watched the second plane make that wide and deliberate turn. Oh my God, that can't be. What is he doing? The concept was so impossible, even watching it, I couldn't process the truth of it.

Until I heard the scream.

Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the country whose flagship is USA TODAY, was headquartered in two towers in Rosslyn. Side by side, they marked the skyline of Northern Virginia as you leave Washington, DC. We could - and often did - walk across the Key Bridge to go to lunch or happy hour in Georgetown. One side of the elliptical-shaped building overlooked the district - the Jefferson Memorial, the Kennedy Center. The other looked down at the Pentagon and Arlington.

On the 26th floor of this building, the headquarters of an icon of American journalism and media, we stood watching the TV, not the window.

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The 9-11 Memorial at The PentagonAnd then the scream. American flight 77 had just struck the Pentagon, the explosion rocked us and then panic grabbed us. People do really stupid things when they are terrified. One person started down the stairs only to run back to get her purse; another wanted to make sure they shut down their computer properly in case we lost power.

But most of us ran. My friend Val was pregnant and we went down the stairs together buffeted by those who thought we weren't moving fast enough. The rest of the day is a blur to me. Traffic like something out of a disaster movie as the thousands of people tried to leave Washington and get to the safety of Vienna, Oakton, Fairfax and Ashburn. Reaching the safety of home only to realize I - or at least the person I thought I was - should have stayed and tried to do something as USA TODAY scrambled to report the biggest story of our times. I tried to go back - no traffic that way - only to be turned back by police. All roads to the district were closed.

So many people were substantively changed by 9-11, many by crushing loss, others, including myself, by a deeper understanding of our core values. But for many, there are odd losses that may both lack significance and speak volumes at the same time.

On beautiful fall mornings like today, I walk outside and look up at the cloudless cerulean sky, I feel the hint of a breeze that promises a fall chill will come and I think unbidden: it was just like this on 9-11.