Since Sept. 11, 2001, I can never again awaken to a remarkably beautiful, clear, sunny day without some trepidation. That was how the day started.
I was scheduled to give a keynote address at the SIU annual convention at the Center for Maritime Training and Education in Piney Point, Maryland — about a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C. I got to the office around 7 a.m. to put the finishing touches on my remarks and my legislative director, Brian Modeste, and I headed out around 7:45 a.m.
My daughter, Karida, called just before 9 a.m. to tell me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. She wasn’t specific, so I thought a small plane had accidentally hit it, but when she called me a little later to tell me about the second plane, the horrific reality hit us. Brian and I decided to turn around and head back to D.C.
As we approached, we saw the smoke coming from the Pentagon. Brian was able to get me home, but not being able to get his car from the Capitol, he drove mine home to Maryland. The next hours were spent frantically trying to reach my children to tell them — Karida at Howard University and Rabiah teaching at an elementary school higher up in Northwest Washington, D.C. — not to come home right away, but to wait until it was safer. I couldn’t reach them and they — thinking I might have been on the Hill — could not reach me. It was much later in the day when they got to our apartment. Everyone was shaken by the horror of what had happened, thinking about those who were killed and not knowing if it was over.
No, I was not on the Capitol steps that evening when congressional members gathered and sang “God Bless America.” At that time, pagers were used to summon members for votes. Although I had one — and not being a voting member — it was not charged, so I never got the message. I, who was always there for any significant event — vote or not — was very disappointed to have missed that unifying and reassuring moment with my colleagues.
The time immediately following the terrorist attack remained one of concern and uncertainty, but I was there for all other meetings and events.
I remember a time when we were all on the House Floor and got an emergency order to evacuate immediately. No one asked a question and we immediately moved to go down the East steps.
I held back a few minutes because I was near one of my classmates who was in a wheelchair and with elevators supposedly shut down, some of us were worried about how he would get out. His aides quickly moved to get it done, and I went out, only to get frantic messages from my children asking where I was when they saw everyone else on CNN coming out right away, but me!
Congressional visits later followed to Ground Zero and to meet with the city’s and state’s elected officials and first responders. As Congress formulated our response, it became one of the highest honors of my congressional tenure to be appointed to serve on the Select Committee on Homeland Security that worked with the commission and eventually created the department — and then to serve on the newly established Standing Committee that was formed after.
No part of our country, and not many parts of the world, escaped the impact of that “Day of Infamy!” Many of us know Staff Sergeant Maudlyn A. White, who as chief of staff to General Shinseki and was killed at the Pentagon, but there was also Felix “Bobby” Calixte, Claudia Sutton, William “Buddy” Henry Jr., Christian Maltby, Chris M. Kirby and Celeste Torres Victoria — who I just learned about. I was honored to be able to attend Staff Sgt. White’s memorial service and her interment at Arlington Cemetery.
Finally, no recanting of that fateful time would be complete without recalling how the Virgin Islands reached out to the first responders who had labored at Ground Zero. Our Fire Service raised funds, and some volunteered in NYC. We were proud of them and also of how our Hotel Association, the Chamber of Commerce and Christiansted Restaurant and Retail Association — supported by local volunteers — opened our doors to the beleaguered first responders as a place of respite, solace and renewal. They came, they cried, they healed and left here, forever grateful, on their way to becoming whole again!
— Donna Christensen, St. Croix, is a former V.I. Delegate to Congress.