For the last 26 years I have been fortunate enough to take Chestnut Hill Academy’s incoming freshmen class to Washington, D.C., during the second week of September to spend a week researching various topics.
The week falls into a routine with some of the activities being on the same day and usually around the same time. The trip in September of 2001 happened to be a year when the schedule changed.
For the preceding 15 years the class had spent Tuesday mornings in the Pentagon. The tour was almost always followed by a briefing by a Defense Department spokesperson who engaged the class on “Star Wars,” deployment of troops to Bosnia or another contemporary issue.
In 2001 I had an opportunity to take the class to the National Press Club on Monday afternoon, so I switched our normal Tuesday activity at the Pentagon to Monday. That Monday, Sept. 10, the class visited Arlington Cemetery, went to the Pentagon and then to the National Press Club.
The luncheon speaker was Joe Biden, then a Delaware senator. He made the point that the Senate should not ratify a bill allocating huge funding for a new ICBM program, because in his opinion the next wave of war was “terrorism.” I can vividly remember the senator thumping the podium, and presenting point after point in defense of his view.
We left the Press Club and finished our full agenda for the day, then returned to our campsite, Prince William Forest Park in Virginia. Little did we know what the next day would bring.
Tuesday was as clear and beautiful as I have ever seen in Washington. We rolled into town for our first appointment at the Federal Elections Commission, and this was to be followed by an audience at the Israeli Embassy. We left the Federal Elections Commission and something was amiss.
I was making sure all of the students were on the bus when my phone rang. I was informed of the strike at the first tower, the strike at the second tower and, while I was on the phone, the news about the Pentagon was delivered. I remember looking to the southeast and seeing dark smoke coming from the Potomac River.
I knew that our normal route to Virginia would not be available. The traffic was now past any rush hour traffic snarl I had ever seen in D.C. The normal return trip of 45 minutes took almost three hours.
I remember not really knowing what was happening but also realizing I had 54 young men who only knew that something was wrong. I used the bus intercom to explain what I knew and that we were returning to the campsite.
During that long trip, I called the school more than 100 times. I could not get through. Finally, I phoned and got through. There was the receptionist. Boy was it good to hear her voice. After the initial calming process, I told her that we were all safe and out of Washington and that I would call with our plans around 4:30 p.m.
When we arrived at the campsite, I asked the boys to go and pack their gear and bring it to the dining hall. This allowed the faculty to debrief and to learn the extent of the events that Senator Biden had so prophetically spoken of the day before.
The boys returned, and we tried to explain what had transpired. We answered questions, allayed fears and told them that the school was contacting their parents. They wanted to know who was responsible. Were we at war? How many attacks were there? For the most part the class was very subdued, and it was easy to read the concern on their faces. The faculty and I spent the balance of that time and the return trip trying to be reassuring and positive.
After an early dinner, we took off for Philadelphia, but there was a snag. Interstate 95 and all bridges and tunnels were closed. This meant a detour west on Interstate 66 to Interstate 81, and then east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The bus was stopped at the Susquehanna River and checked with mirrors by Pennsylvania State Police for weapons, bombs and any other suspicious material.
I will never forget the rush of parents to meet their sons when the bus pulled into the CHA parking lot close to 11 p.m.
Since 9/11 the Washington trip has changed to a degree, most notably in security and access. All buildings have people pass through metal detectors, when prior to 9/11 only a few required this.
Access to the Capitol, The White House and numerous other buildings is now denied. And today, a full decade past that horrific day, the presence of Capitol Police armed with heavy weaponry and wearing Kevlar vests at most sites stirs the memories of 9/11/2001.
Stan Parker graduated from Chestnut Hill Academy in 1968 and has been a member of his alma mater’s faculty since 1973. A former chairman of the history department, he is currently the dean of CHA’s faculty and varsity baseball coach.