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Like many others, we are recalling our experiences on September 11, 2001, twenty years ago.
We were living in both Northern Virginia and Rappahannock County. Kathy was working as the Assistant Superintendent for Arlington Public Schools, and Larry was working on our farm in Woodville. The Arlington Public School district includes the Pentagon in its footprint.
Moments before the plane hit the Pentagon, kindergarten children at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School in South Arlington, outside for recess, watched the American Airlines jet fly low over their playground. (During counseling sessions several days later, these children drew crayon pictures of the plane with the two As on the sides.) In a tragic twist of fate, the husband of the principal of Hofmann-Boston was killed in the Pentagon explosion, though she did not know this until hours later.
Kathy and her fellow senior staff members huddled with the superintendent to determine how to dismiss students securely (parents were rushing to the 21 schools to check their children out), how to transport children on buses when sections of Arlington were closed off by police, how to communicate with school offices when landlines and cell phones were inoperative, how to ensure that faculty did not have their classroom televisions on (young children perceived that the planes were hitting the towers and the Pentagon over and over), how to lock down schools as rumors flew that terrorists were in Arlington going from school to school, and how to arrange for supervision of children at schools whose parents could not get to them when school was out or, in some cases, ever.
Early on, the superintendent asked Kathy to call Larry and request that he return to Arlington. He had recently retired as principal of Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Community Center and knew how to establish a rehabilitation center for first responders in the community center. Miraculously, the call went through, and Larry drove home on a deserted Interstate 66 where no cars occupied the highway and no planes occupied the skies.
During the next several days, we found ourselves in a flurry of activity. Larry operated the rehab center, setting up cots, making showers available, collecting donated food from local restaurants, and serving it to the first responders as they took required breaks from their shifts at the Pentagon. Kathy provided guidance to the school principals as they prepared to welcome their traumatized students and staff back to school after two days at home.
Larry moved from the community center to Hoffman-Boston Elementary School where, for two weeks, he covered for the principal whose husband had died at the Pentagon.
What did we learn from this intense period in our lives?
In the midst of a crisis, false rumors and facts are almost indistinguishable. Only in hindsight, usually in the history books, do crises take on a logical progression of events. They don’t unfold that way.
Everyone does the best they can in moments of extreme stress. Leaders help people rise to the occasion and give them the tools they need to address the challenges they face.
Teamwork and collaboration for the greater good inspires all of us to go the extra mile together.
First responders deserve all the accolades they receive for their courage and determination.
Once the crisis begins to resolve, it’s okay to take some time to mourn and, yes, cry.
All of us have stories from that unbelievable, terrifying day. We hope we can all recall and re-establish the unity we felt in the aftermath.
By Larry and Kathy Grove
The writers live in Woodville. Larry Grove is a member of the Rappahannock County School Board.