Today, of course, marks the 10th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Everyone old enough to remember it has a story of that day. Here’s mine: I was on my way to work as a newspaper reporter. I heard the news, turned my car around, gave my cat extra food, and picked up spare clothes and flat shoes. Later, I heard that two of my cousins, and two acquaintances, were missing. By dusk, I learned my cousins had walked across a bridge into Queens, part of an ash-covered tide of refugees. By midnight, I knew my acquaintances were dead.
So let me tell you, instead, some other peoples’ stories of that day and what came after: the terrorism first, and then the fears of a bioterror attack to follow; the relief when no epidemic appeared, and then the sinking shock when it did. The disease detectives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were at the center of that month of horror and confusion. Between now and Oct. 4, the 10th anniversary of the announcement of the anthrax attacks, I’ll run excerpts from Chapter 12 of my book Beating Back the Devil, about the disease detectives — the Epidemic Intelligence Service — of the CDC.
We begin in Atlanta, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
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Terrorism, 2001: New York City and Washington, D.C.
When they had a chance to look back, everyone remembered that it had been a beautiful day. The sky was a pure blue arch, unmarred by cloud. It was warm — in Atlanta, early September is an extension of summer — but there was a cool breeze freshening. The trees were all green; only a few of the dogwoods showed a tinge of red along the edges of their leaves. All the way up the Eastern Seaboard, the weather was perfect.
At the CDC, Epidemic Intelligence Service director Dr. Doug Hamilton was late for Tuesday morning seminar, the mandatory grand rounds for the CDC’s trainee disease detectives. The seminar was always held in Auditorium B on the street-front side of the campus. It was the CDC’s fanciest conference room, the place where dignitaries were welcomed and new EIS members took their first weeks of training. It had rows of movable chairs, blond wood walls and a ceiling made of rippling, curved acoustical panels that looked like an abstract sculpture. Its central feature was a huge projection screen that stretched across the back of the stage. When EIS members made presentations about their investigations, audiovisual technicians in a darkened-glass control booth built into the room’s left wall threw their Powerpoint slides on the screen. When they took questions about their research, the techs patched in a video-conference link to other CDC locations, and projected the questioners’ faces on the screens instead.
Tuesday morning seminar always began at 9 a.m. Hamilton arrived about three minutes afterward. As he pulled open the double doors at the back of the auditorium, his boss, Dr. Stephen Thacker, caught up with him and held him back.
“A plane has hit the World Trade Center,” Thacker said. “Should we make an announcement?”
Hamilton envisioned a small touring plane losing its bearings in the visual flight corridor down the center of the Hudson and hitting the side of New York City’s tallest buildings. He shook his head. “There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “Let’s go on with the seminar.”
He slid into a seat in the back row. Ten minutes later, one of the technicians tapped him on the shoulder from behind. “Another plane just hit the World Trade Center,” he whispered.
Disbelieving, Hamilton got up and followed him into the control booth. On their desk screens, the techs had turned off the Powerpoints and switched to CNN. The channel was running the same loop of tape, over and over: The first jet, slamming into Tower One of the World Trade Center; the flash of its disintegration; the plume of smoke boiling slowly across the perfect sky. Underneath the image, the newscrawl crept by: Passenger plane hits the World Trade Center, 8:46 a.m.; second plane crashes, 9:02 a.m.
Hamilton watched the loop a dozen times, trying to absorb what he was seeing. Shaken and dazed, he walked back to his seat. Thacker was across the auditorium, next to retired CDC director David Sencer; they always sat in the same spot, halfway up the aisle. Next to Hamilton’s empty seat, though, Dr. Denise Koo had settled into the back row. She was in the same division, above Hamilton and below Thacker on the organizational chart.
“You’re not going to believe what’s happening,” he said to her.
The two were deep into a whispered conversation when the technician nudged Hamilton again. It was not long after 9:40 a.m. He didn’t bother to lower his voice this time.
“A plane has hit the Pentagon,” he said.
The seminar stopped. The speaker sat down. The technicians threw CNN on the huge video screen. The staff in the auditorium, and the ones on the other end of the video links, watched in silence. A few of them left to make family phone calls. A few cried.
Tower Two of the World Trade Center collapsed at 9:59 a.m. Tower One fell 30 minutes later.
By the time the second tower collapsed, Hamilton had reached his fifth-floor office two buildings away to gather email addresses and phone numbers. What was unfolding was a national emergency. The EIS existed to serve in such emergencies. He was sure the group would be summoned to action — though, watching the endlessly replaying tape of the collapsing towers, he was not sure what they could do.
The chime of a high-priority email cut across the mutter of the television. A plane without a flight plan had been detected heading toward Atlanta. The CDC was being evacuated.