THE FAIRFAX COUNTY
Public Schools’ leadership team always met on Tuesday mornings. On Sept. 11, 2001, my administrative assistant walked into the meeting room to place a note in front of me. It read: “The North Tower of the World Trade Center has been hit by an airplane.” She did so because she knew that, as a New Yorker, I would be interested.
Initially, I assumed the pilot of a small plane, blinded by sunlight, had crashed into the building. Half an hour later she came back to inform me another airplane had crashed into the South Tower. Recognizing this as an improbable coincidence, I dismissed the meeting and requested everyone return to their posts. I had barely reached my office when the report came in that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.
Fairfax County, where I was the superintendent, not only is located in proximity to the Pentagon, but it also is home to CIA headquarters, the National Reconnaissance Center and Fort Belvoir, all major military and intelligence operations. When my phone rang, an agent from one of the federal agencies informed me of the likelihood we were under attack and that additional planes were in the air with targets unknown, but certainly in our area.
We had to mobilize quickly. Every September, our district sends all of its 5th graders — about 13,000 — to the Wolf Trap International Children’s Festival. It’s a special, youth-oriented cultural affair dedicated to the performing, visual and interactive arts. Because Wolf Trap is located eight miles from CIA headquarters, I realized our students were on buses that were near a potential target. I immediately called my transportation director and instructed him to contact all the buses and have them return the children to their respective schools — 140 elementary schools spread across the county.
Television news then flashed the bulletin that another plane had crashed in western Pennsylvania. The possibility that we were under attack was credible. Panic and chaos quickly spread throughout the Washington, D.C., region. I sent a message to all 190 schools and centers that they were now on lockdown. Not knowing how long the situation would last, the directive was that no child would be allowed to leave school unless picked up by an authorized adult. Similarly, all staff were directed to remain at their posts until further notice. At that point, the overwhelmed communication systems crashed, and we were all in the dark, waiting for the next explosion, the next attack.
Hours passed without any additional incidents, but the escape out of the D.C. area created massive traffic jams. Many parents were unable to retrieve their children until late that evening. They were appreciative that the schools had kept them in a safe environment rather than dismissing them into a potential war zone. I was incredibly proud of our staff who, to an individual, remained at their posts until the last child was retrieved. Many had friends and relatives at the Pentagon and were aware of the assault on that facility, but they stayed to protect the children under their care.
After the smoke cleared and search and rescue operations were completed at the Pentagon, we learned more than 200 had lost their lives there, many of them the spouses, relatives and friends of our staff.
As a former New Yorker, I hold many memories of the World Trade Center. The New York State Education Department had offices in the building, where I attended many meetings. I had been part of many conferences at the hotel in the building complex, as well as dinners at Windows on the World atop the North Tower.
The New York City Education Department also had offices at the World Trade Center, and it was there in 1995 that the city’s board of education voted unanimously to name me its chancellor of schools, an appointment that lasted only 24 hours, but that’s another story.
I had consciously avoided visiting the 911 Memorial & Museum. I was not sure I could handle the memories it would evoke. I recently made the trip, 17 years later. I am glad I did because it will forever be a reminder of the 2,996 lives lost and the more than 6,000 people injured by an attack on our country’s mainland. I found it’s also a good reminder of how important it is that we remain a United States of America.