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9/10: The Day Before
No one asks, “Where were you on 9/10?” and most people don’t remember. It’s only in hindsight that the details of a thoroughly ordinary day seem so remarkable. By Shane Harris
Illustrations by Jesse Lenz.
Comments () | Published September 7, 2011

Monday, September 10, 2001, dawned with a forecast of continued warm temperatures and a few showers. It had been a cool summer by Washington standards, and a wet one. August alone had seen more than six inches of rain.

Thousands of Washingtonians had spent the weekend outdoors, taking advantage of the nice weather. On Saturday, September 8, the first National Book Festival had brought 25,000 literature lovers to the East Lawn of the Capitol. Historian David McCullough had talked about his latest book, a biography of John Adams, which President George W. Bush recently had finished reading. McCullough’s afternoon talk in the Library of Congress was so popular that festival organizers had to turn away dozens of fans.

Sunday was the 23rd annual Adams Morgan Day festival, which drew 90,000 people to one of Washington’s most diverse neighborhoods for an afternoon of eating and listening to music.

On Monday morning, it was back to work and back to political battles that had been suspended in August as many congressional staffers headed for the beach and the President and First Lady spent a month at their ranch in Crawford, Texas. President Bush had taken time from his vacation for a televised address—just the second of his presidency—to announce his policy on limiting stem-cell research.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans were arguing over whether the country could afford Bush’s tax cut, enacted earlier in the year, or whether consumers needed another in order to help revive an economy that was still faltering amid the wreckage of the dot-com bust. The unemployment rate was on the rise—from 3.9 percent in September 2000 to 4.9 percent a year later.

In mid-August, 92 million IRS rebate checks had been mailed to taxpayers—up to $300 for unmarried filers and up to $600 for those filing jointly. The administration hoped people wouldn’t hang on to the money for long. Stores such as Home Depot were so eager to attract customers that they offered to cash the tax checks for them.

Amid partisan bickering over the federal budget, Morton Kondracke, in his syndicated column published on September 10, offered “a proposal that’s almost certainly too high-minded to be adopted: Democrats and Republicans should work together this year to get the economy growing again and fight next year about the nation’s longer-run fiscal future.”

But the biggest stories of the day—of the entire summer up to that point—were of more immediate concern: a panic-inducing spate of shark attacks along Atlantic beaches and the disappearance of a young Capitol Hill intern, Chandra Levy, and the lingering cloud of suspicion around California congressman Gary Condit.

American Pie 2, Shrek, and Pearl Harbor were hits at the box office, and many were eagerly awaiting the November release of the first film in the Harry Potter series. Washington didn’t have a baseball team, but fans were fixed on Barry Bonds, who was closing in on Mark McGwire’s all-time record of 70 home runs.

Attorneys at the Justice Department were wrapping up their antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft. Media giants Time Warner and America Online were nine months into the largest corporate merger in history. And at the US Patent and Trademark Office, final approval for a “method for node ranking in a linked database” had just been granted to Lawrence Page, cofounder of the three-year-old search engine Google.

***

In Stafford, Virginia, Navy lieutenant commander Pete Marghella stepped out the front door of his house at 4:30 that morning and looked down a gentle slope that led to the Potomac River. The air was cool and still. A good day for a run, he thought. He would have liked to squeeze in an afternoon jog on the Mall, but he’d be too busy at the Pentagon.

Marghella, chief of medical plans and operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was preparing for a highly classified military drill the next day, called Operation Global Guardian, which would test the nation’s response to a nuclear attack. Marghella would be flying aboard a modified Boeing E-4 jumbo jet, the National Airborne Operations Center, known more commonly as the Nightwatch. In the event of a real war, it would serve as the Defense Department’s mobile command post. The drill would keep Marghella away from home for a few days, and he was told to prepare for “an austere living environment,” which, as a Navy man, he took to mean Army barracks.

In Springfield, Vicki Yancey was also getting ready for a big trip. She recently had been promoted at her job with a defense contractor, and her new responsibilities included business travel. That summer had been a productive one, with Yancey taking her first-ever work trip, to New Orleans. It wasn’t the best time of year to visit in terms of the weather, but she had come back with renewed confidence and loads of souvenirs for her family.

Business travel agreed with Yancey. On Tuesday she was heading to a conference in Reno. It had originally been set for August, but the planners had moved the date. Yancey was booked on a 7:45 am flight out of Dulles.

Next: A journalist's encounter with Osama bin Laden

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Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 09/07/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles