We heard the sounds of silence today, 9/11/2006, on the White House South Lawn... a marked contrast to the cacophony here five years ago. On that day, cooks, policy makers and grounds keepers were streaming away from the White House as fast as possible because they knew that the evacuation was for real. Not only had two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, but another had hit the Pentagon... and there were rumors that a fourth was heading for Washington and the White House might be the target.
For those of us at the White House that day who remember every millisecond of what occurred, today's dreary Monday in Washington has a special poignancy. In 2001, as we moved with warp speed off the White House grounds, I looked airborne and above the White House no higher than a couple of thousand feet was an unmarked 747 jumbo jet making lazy circles. Many of us on the ground feared the worst; that this might be another plane ready to attack, but it turned out it was an Air Force command and control plane sent into the sky to monitor conditions.
We were quickly ushered into the streets. Trying to cover the story -- becoming a part of the chaotic scene -- was like something right out of a science fiction movie. In the midst of the madness, I ran into a close friend who was a reporter for Knight Ridder. We embraced, talked about our sons and for a moment forgot that we were journalists and remembered we were soccer dads with families.
Other vivid memories of that day five years ago: An angry crowd's confrontation with a bicycle courier who was praising the attacks; walking for blocks from a temporary press operation to yet another set up a distance away at FBI headquarters. By then the streets were empty -- nothing except for an occasional wisp of wind blowing paper down the middle of the street. By evening, with President Bush back in Washington, we were allowed back inside the White House. As we waited for the president to speak, there was a press briefing in the office of Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. I peered out a side door and saw an ashen-faced Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta talking on the telephone. He had already ordered all commercial air traffic grounded.
Today, Vice President Dick Cheney, along with current and former cabinet officials who were here five years ago, stood together with heads bowed in silence as Taps were played by a lone Marine bugler. Like a perfect coda to the bugler, the next sound we heard was a commercial jet flying from nearby Reagan National Airport through the low clouds to some distant location -- a reminder that as we seek normalcy in the post 9/11 world, the very word normalcy means something far different than it did five years ago.