In the hours and days after, you waited for the sound of a plane
coming in low. You did this as subtly as possible, but then the
sudden rumble of a patrolling jet would shake the conversation,
and you would forget subtlety and bolt up to stare out the
window. After that no one would speak for a while. Otherwise, all
over the Washington, D.C., area, last week unfolded as a surreal
competition between televised horror and fall weather of such
crisp beauty that it seemed a mockery. By Friday afternoon, with
the horror receding some, D.C. high schools got the go-ahead to
play the following day, a few small colleges took to the field,
and the Navy football team warmed up for practice at the academy
in Annapolis. Now, when players glanced up as a plane passed, it
wasn't clear whether they did so out of fear or because the sky
looked so damned pretty.
Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie, 1-10 last year and 0-2 this
season, was walking between two practice fields last Friday when
someone told him that Jonas Panik, a reserve lineman who'd
dropped off the team before his senior year in 1997, was still
missing, presumed lost with the 188 workers who died in the
Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it.
Weatherbie winced, then winced again when told that at least 11
Naval Academy graduates were believed to have died in the
terrorist attacks. Former players had already begun to ship out.
Someone said that Astor Heaven, a star of the 1996 Navy squad
(the Academy's last team to go to a bowl game) and now serving on
the aircraft carrier USS Stennis, had just been deployed to an
"He's a heckuva wide receiver," Weatherbie said. Then he added,
"I heard from Andy Thompson. He was team captain in '95. He's
stationed down in Texas. He said they're all just waiting. They
know something's going to happen."
The Naval Academy was like everywhere else in and around D.C.
last weekend, only more so. If residents felt swamped by a vague
dread, the academy found itself barricaded behind sandbags and
Marine guards pointing automatic weapons at all who entered. If
business travelers wondered what they'd do if they found
themselves on a hijacked plane, the Midshipmen already knew; they
had long ago attended antiterrorism seminars. If civilians were
feeling bludgeoned by war talk and endless replays and felt they
needed escape, the Middies, remember, had been hearing war talk
for years. Football practice--even during a week when their game
against Northwestern was canceled--"is the relief of our day,"
said senior linebacker Ryan Hamilton.
His future? "Marine Corps," Hamilton says. "Ground."
"You're here for a purpose," said senior quarterback Ed
Malinowski, who wants to be a pilot. "I'm sitting in class and
thinking, If we go to war, the guys I was in class with, the guys
I played with my sophomore and freshman years, might be firing
M-16s somewhere. And if it goes on for the next few years, I
could be the one firing. It's kind of scary, and it's kind of
exciting--scary because it could be me out there soon, exciting
because that's why you sign up: to be a warrior, to go to war.
Why have a military if you're not going to use it?"
Before practice last Friday, Weatherbie gathered his players and
asked them to put aside the events and the last two days of
distracted workouts. For a good hour and 15 minutes, the offense
and defenses drilled and scrimmaged. The air filled with grunts
and the smack of hard-plastic pads, the sweet stink of grass
getting torn up by cleats. Cornerback Matt Furqan hurled his body
to break up a short pass, and Weatherbie stomped on the field and
yelled, "That's what I'm talkin' about! Way to compete!"
For Hamilton it promised to be a long night; as company duty
officer he was scheduled to stand watch throughout the evening,
his shift ending at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday. "I take responsibility
for the company this evening," Hamilton said. "I think it'll be
He couldn't be sure, though. No one was sure. No one felt safe.
That's why most other Division I-A and I-AA schools canceled
their football games, why Virginia and Maryland canceled their
Friday slate of high school games and the District pushed all its
games back one day, to Saturday. Georgetown, George Washington,
American--the recipient of two bomb threats in the three days
after the attack--and Howard canceled all their sporting events
for the weekend. The Arizona Cardinals-Washington Redskins game
at FedExField, like the rest of the NFL schedule, was also
Only those small colleges whose opponents didn't need to fly to
Washington played, and their games turned out to be quiet
affairs, none more so than Friday afternoon's soccer match at
Gallaudet University, the nation's premier school for the deaf.
Gallaudet hosted a Division III game against Lancaster (Pa.)
Bible College at its campus in Northeast Washington. The crowd of
fewer than three dozen fans bowed for a moment of silence, and
that world of quiet grew even more still. As the flag flapped at
half-mast, one minute stretched into two, then three. A woman in
the crowd began to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, but too softly
for even the Lancaster team to hear. She finished the song alone.
By the weekend you needed that feeling of isolating worry to go
away. After four days of too much news, Washington began to break
out, seeking distraction. Three D.C. high school football games
were played on Saturday at 11 a.m., and by then the kids who'd
lost no one could begin to put Sept. 11 away. Some Anacostia High
students had been outside in gym class when the plane hit the
Pentagon, and they'd watched smoke from the crash rise over the
capital. No, Anacostia coach Willie Stewart said, his players had
no problems adjusting to the disaster. "They live in a war zone,"
he said. "They don't fear a damn thing, these Southeast kids.
They hear about stabbings and shootings all the time."
Anacostia took a 14-6 lead over Wilson High in a blessedly normal
first half. There was no anthem because the Wilson band had
gotten the news too late about the game being moved from Friday
to Saturday. There was no moment of silence because no one from
Wilson, the host school, seemed to think of it. Stewart took his
kids aside beforehand and asked them to remember the children
lost and survivors found, but by halftime the 200 fans in the
stands were up--yelling because their boys were playing hard, and
angry because their coach, Horace Fleming, and one assistant had
been ejected for arguing a call. Everyone reasoned that playing
these games would help kids return to normalcy. No one counted on
its doing the same for the adults. "We need this as much as they
do," said Fleming, whose team lost 20-14.
Two hours later, downtown at three-time D.C. Interscholastic
Athletic Association champ Dunbar High, the bands showed up, a
moment of silence was observed and an announcement was made
honoring D.C.'s three teachers and three students who had died on
the jet that had hit the Pentagon. A five-man color guard marched
out, wearing silver helmets and bearing rifles and the U.S., D.C.
and Dunbar flags. A scratchy recording of America the Beautiful
blared. Planes flew overhead, and they almost looked normal. Boys
danced. Dunbar beat Eastern 36-0.
Saturday night, Georgetown Prep receiver Eric Heidenberger played
in his team's 35-7 win over Good Counsel, though he hadn't been
sure all week if he should. His aunt, Michelle Heidenberger, was
a flight attendant on American Flight 77. With the score 7-7,
Eric caught a three-yard pass for his first touchdown of the
season. You wanted to think that for one instant anyway, his
family had a chance to feel good.
But you knew it couldn't last. All weekend a stream of people
made its way to a hill overlooking the Pentagon's west wing.
Families, couples, friends, tourists, mourners--all came and
prayed or took pictures or sat mutely, staring at the massive
black cavity in the side of the building.
You saw it, and that helped because it made you angry, and you
didn't want anyone to forget. Leaving Virginia, just before
reaching the Francis Scott Key Bridge into Georgetown, you saw
the sign that someone had painted on the right side of the road:
REST IN PEACE VICTIMS OF TERRORISM, flanked by pictures of the
dead. It made you feel strange to see all the bikers and joggers
cruise past without missing a beat. Part of you wanted them to
stop and stare. Part of you wanted them to go faster still, to
soak up the gorgeous day and walk, run and pedal for dear life.
danced. Dunbar beat Eastern 36-0.
mutely at the massive black cavity in the building.