13 Months in a Living Nightmare
9/11, Anthrax, and the D.C. Snipers
9/11 — September 11, 2001
I was in the back seat of a cab that I had hailed at the West Hyattsville Metro station. The driver asked me if I had heard what was going on. Typically I have the cable news on while I’m getting ready for work. But because I wasn’t going straight to work and had an early appointment, I hadn’t bothered to turn the news on. He explained that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in NYC. He turned the radio up as I leaned over the seat to hear. By the time he dropped me off in College Park, all hell had broken loose.
As I walked into the dentist’s office the entire staff was huddle behind the reception area hovered over a tiny black and white TV. No one was saying a word. One of them waved me over to join them. As I came around the corner I saw the second plane hit. “I guess there will be no dental work done today” and stepped away to try to call work. Lines of communication were down. I tried their landline. Same thing. So I couldn’t even call for a cab. I began walking south on Route 1 hoping I could catch a ride at some point.
Luckily a cab rolled up and picked me up. I gave him my work address. At the time I worked for the feds in the disaster response and recovery field so I knew I was about to have some very long days ahead. As we were heading up East/West Highway it was like a scene out of a movie. On the westbound side was a sedan with blacked-out windows flying and heading east instead of west. He got to the traffic light, slammed on the brakes, and whipped the car around so that it blocked traffic from going that way.
Guess I’m not going to work today either then.
I told the cabbie to get in the left lane when it was safe to do so and hang a right and take me home. I spent the next 72 hours glued to the TV and trying to get through to someone somewhere (my family is/was on the eastern shores of Delaware and Maryland) to let them know I was okay. I finally got through to a co-worker in the building where I worked. She said they had them ‘shelter in place’ which meant hiding on their desks. I don’t see how that was going to save their lives if a plane crashed into the side of it, but yeah okay.
Anthrax — September 18, 2001 — October 12, 2001
A bioterrorism attack took place on American soil one week after the 9/11 attacks which covered Washington, D.C., New York, and West Palm Beach, Florida.
Military-grade anthrax bacteria were used to kill 5 and injure 17 including at least one postal worker.
I worked in an unmarked building (we got our share of bomb threats called in believe me) and of course, I worked around the corner from our mailroom. None of my friends were thrilled about that notion. At one point I was helping out a different department so I was now on the 7th floor. And wouldn’t you know it? The Secret Service showed up on my floor and locked down the hallway directly behind me. Someone had called in a ‘white powered substance’ found in the ladies’ room. The first thing I said was that it was probably Massengils or Dr. Schol’s and I couldn’t believe someone called that in!
When one of the female agents rolled past my cubicle I stopped her and apologized for wasting her time on nonsense and then told her of my suspicions. I was correct. A completely benign powder. She said it wasn’t even the worst call she hadn’t gotten that day. An elderly woman called in to say there was anthrax in her house. It was regular plain old table sugar. I think we both rolled our eyes at that point. But because of everything that was going on in the world at that time every call had to be responded to.
Bruce Edwards Ivins, a scientist at the government’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland ended up being the culprit behind the bioterrorism. On July 29, 2008, Ivins died by suicide with an overdose of acetaminophen.
DC Sniper — February 16, 2002 — September 26, 2002 (preliminary shootings), October 2, 2002 — October 24, 2002 (sniper attacks)
Out of the three, this one scared me the most. I wasn’t all that worried about anthrax, and I felt safe enough to go back to work after 9/11, although bioterrorism in the Metro system was always on my mind. But this one? There was no ducking or dodging this one. I literally would be at the gas pump squatted down as close to the pavement as I could get to make myself as small of a target as I could. For some that turned out to not be enough.
Their crime spree, begun in February 2002, which included murders and robberies in the states of Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Washington. The killing spree took place in four locations throughout the US: Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Arizona. By the time John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were finished with the shooting spree there were:
Deaths — 17 total:
10 in the Beltway sniper attacks
7 in preliminary shootings
Injured — 10 total:
3 in the Beltway sniper attacks
7 in preliminary shootings
In total there were 15 shootings by these two in the DC, MD, and VA areas. It was the scariest time of my life. Yes, with everything I’ve been through, this is the one time I was afraid I was going to die. They were shooting random people in random places as they went about their day. To this day no one knows why they chose the victims that they did. Malvo was also responsible for the September 21 shooting at a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama.
John Allen Muhammad was executed by lethal injection at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia on November 10, 2009.
On December 18, 2003, after nearly 14 hours of deliberation, a jury convicted Malvo of both charges. On December 23, 2003, the jury recommended a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. On March 10, 2004, Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
I was never so glad to see 2001/2002 disappear. Not even 2020 outdid those 13 fateful months living in the D.C. metro area.
Originally published in Illumination August 18, 2020