Back on Sept. 11, 2001, I was catching up on some e-mail at home before heading into the office when news first broke about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Like just about everyone else that day, I watched the television transfixed as what seemed to begin as a tragic accident turned into a major terrorism incident.
It wasn’t long before I found myself speeding to the office, and reports began to surface that the attacks had reached Washington. There was a surreal moment when I found myself high on a hill on 13th Street NW overlooking downtown and seeing plumes of black smoke rising from — where, the State Department? The Pentagon? The White House? — and wondering if I knew what I was doing.
My wife was already at work that morning, downtown, and she and her co-workers spilled out onto the streets to get home. I’ll never forget that chaotic day, or how unprepared I was, when she and I moved in opposite directions and neither of us close to our kids.
Fast forward to the recent shooting at the Mall in Columbia. I happened to be working out at the local health club when the leader of a nearby exercise class made an announcement: There’s been a shooting at the mall.
Instantly, people seemed to react. Within moments my children — now grown and scattered hither and yon — were pinging my cell phone with text messages and phone calls: “Are you and mom okay?”
I live close enough to the mall that I walked over to see if I could help with coverage. It wasn’t clear yet what had happened, yet the scene as I arrived was strangely orderly. Large groups of shoppers were beginning to emerge from the shopping center. A dad clutched his young son, mom pushing an empty stroller. “We just hit the ground,” he said. Another recalled hearing someone yell, “There’s a shooter,” and reflexively wrapping his arms around his daughter.
People told stories about clerks pulling them into back rooms, about scrambling for shelter and waiting. The response was almost instinctive.
It wasn’t long before the police began systematically corralling press into one section of the parking lot, putting up yellow police tape, gaining control of the scene. I listened to the first briefing. Even though details were still sketchy, the chief told how the first officers arrived on the scene in two minutes. SWAT officers followed soon afterwards, and with them, fire trucks, ambulances, helicopters, more officers, mobile command posts, bomb-defusing robots and police dogs.
As unsettling as a shooting at the mall can be, I couldn’t help but be struck by how prepared everyone seemed, not just the authorities, but businesses and customers. Even the hastily erected memorials suggested forethought. There’s a measure of comfort in that, for sure, but what a sad commentary on the times in which we live.