9-11: One More Thing We Could Learn

Another September 11. Another opportunity to reflect upon that tragic day, and the turbulent time since.

I do not directly know of anyone who died in WTC on that day in 2001. But I did have a former classmate who told me a harrowing tale about evacuating from another WTC building that day and walking miles to safety. And I had a neighbor who was serving on FDNY and missed worked that day due to family reasons, which could very well have saved his life.

But here I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about the safety of the rest of us. This is triggered by the story of Rick Rescorla and Daniel Hill. Somehow the two of them foresaw the terrorist attacks on WTC, both by truck bomb and, later, by airplane. The key is to see things from a terrorist’s eye. Somehow I missed these stories until today. And I only got to hear them through WeChat, a Chinese social media app.

Something I felt deeply years ago came back to me. Something similar to what Rescorla and Hill felt. That sense of knowing that there is something we know the terrorists would do. That sense of knowing that there are things we can use to protect us. And that sense of helplessness when our government is not doing enough to protect us.

It was Independence Day, 2005. We were celebrating on the National Mall, with a gazillion people. Security was tight, this being only a few years after 9-11. We got into the security perimeter in the morning, with bags checked and people scanned. The security perimeter was large, enclosing the entirety of the Mall, including the Smithsonian building, Natural History Museum, etc. The traffic patterns were changed, with no street parking nearby. And the nearby subway stations, such as those at Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, National Archive etc., were all closed. People trickled in all day, through early evening.2005-july-dc-wait-for-fireworks

We had a good time. The music was great. The fireworks started and ended at the precise hours and minutes as scheduled and published in the newspapers. Then the mass exodus from the Mall started. Remember, there was no bus, no cars, and no subway near the Mall.

We walked to the nearest subway station that was open, possibly Waterfront. It was the most crowded place we’ve ever been to in the US. People were packed standing on the platforms.

Right then and there I realized that were I a terrorist, I could simply make some big noise, or smoke, or some other commotion, and a pandemonium would ensue. Especially if I timed it with the coming of a train.

And worse yet, I could have with me a gun, or a bomb. Not only the station itself was outside the security perimeter, the trains were all coming from unsecured stations.

What we observed:

  • People arrive at very different times. But most leave at the same time.
  • It’s hard to mount an attack inside the security perimeter, but it’s very easy to do so outside of it. And the crowded Metro stations were perfect locations for it.
  • And from the terrorist’s point of view, it’s easy to plan. The schedule was public info, and its adherence was perfect.

What we decided to do as a family:

  • Avoid holiday celebrations at important landmarks.
  • Avoid venues known to be packed.

But thinking a little more today, when I was preparing this blog in my head, I realized that there are things our government could do to make us all safer. I don’t know if they are listening, but I sure hope they are (supposedly they are scanning all of the Internet, which is completely legal):

  • Do not close the Metro stations by the Mall completely. Instead, allow people to leave from them, at least and especially around the time when the fireworks end.
  • Allow only completely empty and secured trains to stop at these stations to pick up passengers.

Be safe. Be vigilant.

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