Every soul employed in the fancy glass office building at 1050 Connecticut Avenue swarms the exits well before the alarm system finishes blaring its robotic instructions. We march slowly and deliberately down a stairwell plunged into blackness, illuminated only by emergency bulbs at each landing. I’m grateful nobody has panicked, but I can’t help silently urging my colleagues to pick up the pace. The alarm shrieks deep inside my head, even with my hands pressed over my ears.
How many minutes since the floor rocked under our feet? Can aftershocks take down buildings? Crush the people in them?
I try to estimate our progress, but lose count of the steps before we reach the pavement. I pause and blink at the shock of sunlight before realizing that every person who stops for a moment to regroup slows the evacuation. A detail cop yells at us to move north along Connecticut Avenue. Good. Shorter buildings up there.
On the sidewalk the news barrels over us: Not an earthquake. A bomb. A massive one. The kind that can change everything.
The phones crash as I’m breathlessly relating my escape from Rutledge & Smerth to Damien. My husband listens without comment for several minutes.
I pause to look at the screen. No signal. I wonder how long I’ve been talking to dead air. Sirens wail, both in the distance and down the block. Conversation ceases while hundreds of my shell-shocked co-workers study their unresponsive phones. There’s a bizarre but absolute absence of hysteria.
A vaguely familiar man touches my arm. “Lena, are you okay?”
I nod absently and turn away from this guy I now recognize as a paralegal from my floor. I can’t muster any conversation. I just want to go home. Hide under the covers. Erase the past thirty minutes from memory.
Firemen in full hazmat gear herd us further from the smoking crater that used to be the K to L Street block of Connecticut Avenue. They string up yellow police tape several yards back from the crumbling pavement, and plead with the most aggressive gawkers to back off so rescue teams can do their jobs. News vans start to arrive and soon outnumber ambulances. An officer with a bullhorn yells at the crowd to disperse. I pick my way through the crowd of faces, some familiar, many not. I finally reach M Street and turn north on 19th.
The walk takes twice as long as it should, because pedestrians, most underdressed for the January cold, clog the streets. My naked ears and fingers ache, but I feel guilty for wishing I had my coat. I should feel thankful to be alive and unscathed. By the time I arrive at our doorstep on T Street, it takes me three tries to maneuver the key into the lock with my numb hands.
I crank the heat, glad for the first time ever that Damien insisted we keep our landline. I knock a pile of magazines and catalogs out of the way so I can see its caller I.D. box, which has recorded more traffic this afternoon than during the entirety of the last two years. I try Damien at work. His steady voice on the outgoing message explains he has left for the day. He recites his temporarily useless mobile number and email address.
I talk to my mother, insist I’m shell shocked but physically fine. I urge her to refrain from taking any of the prescription sedatives one of her book club ladies recommended. We hang up. I scroll back through the missed calls. My friend Hannah is the only member of our inner circle who hasn’t checked in. Her office is a block from mine, a few hundred yards further removed from the crater on Connecticut. I saw, through the swirling ash and smoke, that her building withstood the jolt. Maybe Hannah will think to walk over here. We’re much closer than her place across the river. I try to check Facebook, but our Internet isn’t working. The router’s insolent red light blinks under the desk.
On TV, NBC’s anchorman reports, “At 12:13 p.m. in the nation’s capital, at least six explosive devices detonated on different Metrorail trains. The explosions appear to have been simultaneous. The Secret Service, along with agents from both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, are trying to determine who or what triggered the blasts.”
Six of them? I grab the arm of the couch for support. Tell myself the blasts can’t all have been as bad as the one under my building.
The screen shows a map of DC’s Metro system. In addition to the bomb right outside my building, there are explosion icons at Capitol South Station, between Chevy Chase and Bethesda Stations, at Foggy Bottom, downtown at Metro Center, and across the river, at Pentagon City Station.
The anchorman says, “Initial estimates put the death toll over 700, and rising.” I feel the world tilt under my feet. 700? “Many area roads have collapsed from the force of the underground explosions. We have no solid figures on the number of wounded, but police estimate that over a thousand people await treatment at area hospitals. Search and rescue teams from around the country have started to arrive in the DC area to aid overwhelmed first responders. Time is of the essence. If anyone is alive under the rubble, they will be unlikely to survive overnight. Record lows are forecast throughout the region. Elsewhere around the nation, police are on high alert. The FAA has ordered all U.S. airports closed at this hour.”
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