Outside the White House, More Calm Than Panic

Analysis of breaking news events.
Sept. 11 2001 12:41 PM

Outside the White House, More Calm Than Panic

By 10:30 a.m., there are as many rumors as there are people on the street: a bomb in the West Wing; a bomb in the Old Executive Office Building; a car bomb outside the State Department; a bomb at George Washington University. Another passenger plane streaking toward the Pentagon, surrounded by F-16s. 

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Yet downtown Washington is strangely, almost preternaturally calm. The smoke from the Pentagon crash--a huge low cloud--looms over the Lincoln Memorial, but otherwise the sky is blue and crystalline. Cars jam the avenues out of downtown, but the driving is civil. Crowds of pedestrians file out of office buildings and shuffle north from the White House. Everyone is heading home. The news will be just as bad, but at least they'll be out of the target zone.

The mood is subdued but not alarmed. Everyone is absentmindedly punching buttons on their cell phones. No calls seem to be getting through, but this isn't too annoying. Who expects phones to work at such a time? We are thrown back in time: Information--all rumor--passes by word of mouth. Small knots of people gather outside the Metro station at Farragut Square. Is it open? Is it closed? No one is sure, but people descend down the escalators. An occasional ambulance or police siren blasts nearby, but not many. Someone says smoke is rising from the back of the White House grounds, but we don't see any.

The cops have set up a perimeter around the White House, clearing out everything within two blocks of the building. Lafayette Square, where protesters camp out 24-7-365, is empty for the first time in memory. The cops are remarkably polite, and so are the crowds. On the north corner of Lafayette Square, within sight of the White House, uniformed Secret Service officers shoo away tourists, but without rancor. When a bike messenger tries to sneak around him, an officer shouts, "Don't test me!" and the messenger doesn't. Outside George Washington University, a security guard gently informs students that yes, classes are canceled. On Pennsylvania Avenue, one man gripes mildly in the direction of a Secret Service officer, "I can't get to my damn car." They wave him off. A woman next to him asks no one in particular why she is still at the bullseye. "Why am I standing on Pennsylvania Avenue with the White House down the street?" She joins the crowds walking north.

Most buildings have been evacuated. The chefs from the Oval Room loiter on Connecticut. (When we see them, we momentarily think someone has been hurt: In their bright white uniforms, they look like doctors.) The Post Office has shut down. A postal employee driving by shouts: "We're closed, so you know it's serious." Still some workers seem undeterred. On 17th and H Streets, two blocks from the White House, the Opportunity Concrete truck pours cement for an office building foundation. A crew of a dozen construction workers keeps working, though the looks on their faces suggest they can't believe they are still on the job. The street vendors are doing a brisk trade in sodas and candy bars. Limousines line up outside the plummy Hay-Adams hotel, a block from the White House, and even amidst the relative chaos, guests are arriving and unloading luggage. Secret Service agents are 50 feet away. General Manager Hans Bruland says he hasn't decided whether to evacuate the hotel. "Where would the guests go?" he says with a shrug, then says that several of the "foreign delegations" staying at the hotel "are quite worried." 

Bruland passes on a rumor that a car bomb has exploded at the State Department. We race over to Foggy Bottom and find utter quiet. A State Department cop says of the bomb rumor, "That's unconfirmed, sir." We walk the perimeter of the building, and find no sign of a bomb or any other chaos. Yet when we return to the Slate bureau at 12:05 p.m., National Public Radio is reporting that a bomb has indeed exploded near Foggy Bottom. Perhaps there was a bomb elsewhere, or there was no bomb at all. It's impossible to know anything this morning.

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