Westmont Magazine Is This Real?
By Jonathan Eshleman ’99
At 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, I was taking a private tour of the U.S. Capitol building with two friends. Andrea, our tour guide and good friend, led the three of us through the different corridors and chambers of this magnificent building.
As we sat in the gallery above the floor of the House of Representatives, thoughts of war and suffering were far from our heads. Our conversation revolved around whether or not we could hold up signs that read “John 3:16” while Congress was in session.
Not long after we had settled into our seats, waiting for the representatives to file back into the room after their recess, two men in black suits greeted us. Both had solemn looks and ear pieces with curly wires that disappeared into the back of their coats.
“Ladies and gentleman,” one said, “You may want to consider leaving this building. The Pentagon has just been attacked. There has been no word of official evacuation, but you may want to consider leaving at this time.”
I look at my friends and to Andrea. Is this real? I’m smiling at this moment because I feel like I am part of a game. This is the part where we play like we are going to be bombed and attacked. This only happens in the movies, in video games, not in real life. This is funny and exciting — right?
We talk it over for about three seconds and decide that we don’t feel safe and proceed to head up the steps and back into the hallway.
“What do you mean by ‘attacked?’” I ask the secret serviceman. “Explosions,” was his one-word answer to my mocking question.
Eight seconds later when we had reached the hallway, the situation had clearly escalated. Guards began to motion to us frantically, and we were told to get out fast. As we are rushing down the stairs, Andrea’s boss cuts in front of us, coming out of a doorway in the hall.
“There’s my boss,” yells Andrea. The congressman from Illinois is spilling coffee all over his hand as he is racing down the stairs in front of us. Many more are starting to join our mob. Voices are calling out and guards are continuing to motion frantically to everyone.
I burst through the door at the bottom. My friends and Andrea are close behind. “Everybody out! Run as far from this building as you can! Run! Run!” policemen are yelling. I’m starting to break into a full sprint, but hold back and turn to find Andrea and my two friends. I don’t want to leave them behind.
Nearby a women is on her knees crying out to Jesus. “Oh yeah, pray, that’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s a great idea,” I think to myself. “God help us. Where’s Nick and Jessica? Where’s Andrea?”
We all catch up to one another and begin to feel safe as we’re now a few blocks from the Capitol. We could see clearly as we exited the building that the Pentagon was on fire. Huge clouds of smoke came billowing from the roof.
It’s surreal enough on a normal day to be down at Potomac Park playing a round of golf and to look up and see the Washington Monument or the Capitol. But it surpasses comprehension when you are running for your life because you think you are in danger of being attacked by planes. You glance over your shoulder as you’re running and see that a building has already been hit.
Can this be real or are they shooting a movie? Keep the cameras rolling, this is great stuff. It doesn’t get any better than this. It’s the real thing. Sadly, if this were a movie, I’m sure there would be more carnage and destruction. One blown-up building is boring, right? We’ve got to see lots of explosions.
Standing on the corner, I reach into my pocket for my cell phone. I dial a number, but the answering machine responds, “You’ve reached the Eshlemans, please . . . ” click. Redial. “Hello?” “Hey mom. You might want to turn on the T.V. We’re under attack.”
My cell phone dies. Redial. System busy. Redial. System busy.
Ten minutes later I am in my car, and we are headed to safety. I’ll try the phone one more time.
“Mom?” “Jon!” my mom cries. “Oh Jon, I’m so worried. I wish you weren’t there.” She breaks into sobbing.
“I’m OK, mom. I’m out of the Capitol, and I’m on my way home.” “Are you sure you’re OK?” “Yes, I’m fine.” For the next few minutes, I continue to talk to my mom and assure her that I am alive and well. Toward the end of the conversation her fears are alleviated and we say our “goodbyes” and “I love yous.”
As I sat in front of my TV and watched the awesome horrifying spectacle, I couldn’t help but think that I was only a mile away from it. What if that plane had chosen the Capitol rather than the Pentagon? Is this real? This box made of plastic, metal and glass is showing me some pictures of things, but is it real? How many of us can smell the smoke and the blood? How many of us know what it’s like to be running for our lives? How many of us have carried injured people, dying people, in our arms?
This is real, my friends. This isn’t a news report, this isn’t a breaking story, this isn’t a movie or entertainment. This is the loss of life. Suffering. Pain. Anguish. Hurt that goes so deep that we wonder how it’s possible to hit rock bottom in what seems like a bottomless pit.