‘A total feeling of helplessness, almost hopelessness’

I had just transferred to Charlotte, North Carolina from Dallas in July of 2001 so I was still getting acclimated to the commute and the office. I worked for the Department of the Treasury back then and had a very small TV in my office.

Every morning at 7:30, my manager, who sat at 9th and K in DC, would call to go over our to-do list. We were still talking when the first reports started to come in. It was surreal, unbelievable, perplexing… commercial planes just didn’t fly into buildings! We hung up so that we could both focus on the news footage and whereabouts of the rest of our team. We had a lot of EEO investigators that traveled so we were all concerned with their safety so I started paging people (yes, pagers back then!) to check on their whereabouts.

I was the only one in my group that sat in Charlotte, but soon others in the office that worked for IRS started to hear rumors and I quickly found myself surrounded, everyone vying for an opportunity to catch a glimpse of what was happening on my 3.5” black & white TV screen. My phone was ringing off the hook, chaos was everywhere, and then we watched as the second plane hit.

I cannot describe that feeling, the sickness I felt in my stomach. Everyone was in shock because then we all realized what was happening, we were being attacked! Who was going to be next? Rumors were rampant, panic was everywhere, people were crying and running back and forth trying to find anyone who could explain what they were seeing and what was going on. I was glued to the TV; I couldn’t stop watching as the local news station showed the second plane hitting the tower over and over and over… How can this happen? Who did this? There were so many questions and no answers.

It was a total feeling of helplessness, almost hopelessness, a feeling I have never felt before. I can’t remember who decided, but someone decided that all federal employees needed to be as far away from their offices as they could get so we left shortly before noon.

On the way home, I stopped at the daycare and picked up my son, I needed to hold him, to make sure he was safe, to keep him close. When I arrived home, flipping on the news, the magnitude of what had really happened was overwhelming. There was a huge difference from what we were seeing on a 3.5” B&W screen and what I saw on a 36” color TV. We saw people hanging out of windows, jumping to escape the flames and smoke, jumping for their life, chaos, then it happened, the first tower started to crumble and fall, then followed shortly by the second one and you just knew, you knew how many people had died, how many were trapped on the upper floors, you knew how many people on the ground were injured, you just knew that you were witnessing something that no one could have imagined would have ever happened on American soil.

My little one kept asking what was happening. Why did the plane run into the building? Why are you crying Mommy? How do you explain something like that to a 3-year-old? How do you explain about the bad people that want to hurt us? How can you reassure a child when honestly you aren’t even sure yourself? Would there be more attacks? Yes, two more. I remember the black smoke billowing out of the Pentagon, a place I had passed numerous times, the scorched earth and debris in Philadelphia, the audio of loved ones calling home that kept running over and over, the words “let’s roll.” I worked at home the rest of the week.

That 3-year-old is now an 18-year-old who will be voting for the first time this year. I pray that my kids never experience anything like the events that took place on September 11 again. So as I sit in my home office today with tears rolling down my cheeks, a knot in my stomach, I remember that day like it was yesterday.

Sharon Waller, IRS employee


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