A long, anguished wait

By Todd C. Frankel,

Herald Writers

It went beyond the general feeling that an incredible tragedy had occurred with thousands dead. Some people in Snohomish and Island counties suffered Tuesday the peculiar anguish of not knowing if relatives and friends were among those caught in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

When the unimaginable occurred, a naval officer who spent years on Whidbey Island was at the Pentagon, two Snohomish County PUD officials were at the Capitol, and a mother and brother with a sister in Lynnwood were inside the World Trade Center towers.

Back on the West Coast, friends and family waited several hours to learn of their fates.

Naval Cmdr. Matt Storrs spent 15 years stationed at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station before starting work earlier this year at the Pentagon, where he was when a hijacked Boeing 757 slammed into the E wing of the five-sided building.

"We didn’t know if it was a bomb or a plane or what," said Storrs, who was in a nearby D wing office.

But they knew immediately it was terrorism.

When the Pentagon was hit at about 9:45 a.m., Storrs and others in the naval office of warfare preparation and assessment were watching CNN coverage of two airplanes that had collided less than an hour earlier into the World Trade Center. Storrs ran to a back window and could see only smoke and an intense fire. He and more than 20,000 Pentagon workers were evacuated from the military complex just outside Washington, D.C.

"I’m used to being on the cutting edge," said Storrs, an A-6 and F-18 fighter pilot who served aboard the USS Lincoln, based in Everett. But even he knew that to survive being so close to the devastating explosion, "I’m really lucky."

The day was hard for Storrs’ relatives in Snohomish County and throughout the state and for his wife, Vicki. Tuesday was their 21st wedding anniversary. Storrs, 44, couldn’t call anyone because the cell phone channels were jammed and land lines scarce. His wife waited anxiously for more than three hours at their home in Ashburn, Va., before Storrs finally walked in the door.

"This was a tough one for her," he said.

Two Snohomish County PUD officials who are still in Washington, D.C., reported that the nation’s capital was somber and eerily quiet Tuesday evening.

"It’s kind of muted," said Al Aldrich, chief lobbyist for the local power cooperative.

"The town is very, very quiet," said Don Berkey, one of three PUD commissioners. "People are in a very somber mood."

The city’s declaration of emergency left the six-lane streets surrounding the Capitol almost empty as a 30-block zone encompassing the White House and Capitol has been closed off, Aldrich said.

The two PUD officials had set up appointments with members of Congress, trade associations and other involved in power issues on their trip, he explained.

On Tuesday, the two men were on their way to see Rep. Rick Larsen in the Longworth congressional office building when an employee ran down the hall telling people the Pentagon had just been hit. That triggered an evacuation.

As they descended the office building’s steps, they saw a large plume of smoke drifting across the horizon from the explosion and fire at the Pentagon, Berkey said.

"You could see Air Force fighter jets going around, circling the Pentagon and flying over the area," Berkey said. Twice the fighter jets triggered sonic booms that "put everyone on edge."

"It was pretty chaotic," he said. "People walking, people trying to drive their cars away form the Capitol, firetrucks … and some people crying."

Neither man was sure when they would be able to fly home. They likely will depart from Washington, D.C.’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, near the Pentagon.

All government offices and the Pentagon are scheduled to reopen today, Berkey said. "They’re trying to get things back to normal as quickly as they can."

Marilyn Gibbs of Lynnwood was on the way to work in Bothell when she learned of the terrorist attacks. She paid close attention. Her mother and two brothers work in the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

Gibbs continued on to work despite being unable to "put it all together." Co-workers tried to send her home.

Instead, Gibbs went to her new church, Greater Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Everett, where the Rev. Paul Stout Sr. described her as "broken down and distraught." She was unable to reach her family. Church members comforted her and prayed with and for her, she said.

"I knew this was the best place for me to be," Gibbs said. "I had people here to be with me and pray for me and keep me strong."

She called New York again at 1 p.m. and began to cry. Her mother, who works on the 101st floor of one of the towers, had just walked in the door of her Bronx home, Gibbs said.

"She felt a rumble and she just took off running," Gibbs said. "She ran down 102 flights of stairs."

Gibbs’ brothers work on the 17th floor of the first tower to be struck by a hijacked airliner, which caused the rumble her mother heard.

"My brothers got out pretty quick after the plane hit," Gibbs said.

One headed up the stairs of the second tower to look for their mother. The two met at the 26th floor and quickly fled the building, still not knowing what had happened, she said.

"They said they saw the second plane hit the building, and that’s when they figured it out," she said.

Her mother went straight home, but likely didn’t stay there because she’s active in her church and a Red Cross volunteer, she said.

"She’ll be out helping somebody," Gibbs said.

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