Charlie Don't Surf

Monday, October 03, 2005

My terrorism freak-out

I was sort of relieved to see the front-page story in the Post (below) about how many people in D.C. were spooked by the fireworks sounds on saturday night, since I was one of them. Generally I don't get as nervous as most people about our town's bull's-eye status -- "Oh lord, look, an unattended package!!" -- but the sounds on saturday were so loud that I really thought something downtown had blown up.

Just before 10 pm there was a series of loud BOOMS coming from downtown, like nothing I've ever heard. I was walking in our bedroom and the windows shook. Immediately I thought it could be a bombing because it came from downtown and there were so many of them. About a minute passed and I started hearing sirens going down 16th Street toward downtown.

A minute or two passed and then there was another series of explosions, and at that point I started thinking about how car-bombers in Iraq and Israel often set off more blasts in the same place a few minutes after the first one, as people rush to the scene. A minute after that, the third and loudest series of explosions, loud enough to be a few blocks away; it sounded like some smaller bomb had blown up a bunker full of munitions. I started getting this sick and panicked bewildered feeling, and then there were more loud sirens and fire trucks heading south on 16th. That, to me, was the proof that something really awful had happened downtown. I opened the back door and listened outside, and had this sick feeling that if it had been some sort of apocalyptic atomic bomb, a huge wall of fire might roar out from the blast site and flatten the entire city, like that nuclear scene in "Terminator 2."

So, at this point I'm pretty sure that some sort of apocalyptic attack has taken place, and I feel like I have to do something, call someone, walk around, figure out what's happening. I don't think I had felt this rocked since I was stuck in traffic on Canal Road on Sept. 11th an hour after the planes had hit the WTC and I was hearing about the Pentagon crash on the radio, and these big black SUVs with sirens were tearing past us south toward town as we sat in a jam waiting to cross Chain Bridge.

So I'm scrambling around my house saying "car keys.. car keys.. wallet.. cell phone.. where's the goddamn cell phone!!" I walk outside and there's an older guy on 18th Street next to a tow truck that's winching up a car. They didn't seem worried.

Me: "Did you hear that? What was that?"
Guy: "Yeah I heard it. Lot of them. Don't know."
Tow truck guy: "Big booms."
Me: "What was it?"
Guy: "I don't know, maybe fireworks?"
Me: "Who the hell sets off fireworks in October at 10 o'clock at night?"
Guy: "Don't know."
Me: "Did you hear the fire trucks going downtown?"
Guy: "Oh yeah, lots of them."

I walked over to my neighboir Bob Tignor's house across the alley. He's a D.C. judge so maybe he has, like, a special red phone that was ringing, I thought, absurdly. I rang his bell. While I was waiting I called Christina's cell and left a message. "Hi, it's me -- there were all these explosions and sirens just now -- I think something happened here --" then the door opened so I hung up --

Bob: "Hey Will, what's up?"
Me: "Judge, did you hear that? What was that?"
Bob: "Oh yeah, we heard the sounds, yeah. I don't know. It was loud!"
He did not appear to be packing canned foods.
Me: "Do you think something happened downtown?"
Bob: "Maybe. Could be fireworks but I've never heard fireworks that shook the windows like that. That was really loud."
Me: "Have you heard anything from anybody?"
Bob: "No. I guess what would worry me more would be, like, one big horrible bang. Not a lot of sounds together like that."

Bob's teen-age daughter appeared in the doorway. He asked her, "Do you know anything about fireworks in town tonight?"
She disappeared inside and then called out to say that she had heard that some people she knew were waiting for some fireworks at the Kennedy Center.
We stood on the porch and I dialed the MPD non-emergency number. I asked about the explosions and a police guy put me on hold for a few minutes while Bob and I talked. I started to feel a bit better.
After several minutes the guy came back on the line. "Are you the one who was calling about the sounds?" Yes. "It's fine. There were fireworks at the Kennedy Center."

Felt better and a little stupid for disturbing them. I walked home and had a glass of bourbon. The next day's Post Style section had a big front-page color photo of a huge fireworks display over the Potomac harbor for the Chinese festival. The Chinese pyrotechnics designer had wanted to create an "explosion event" with a massive spinning tornado firework at the end.

Then this on the front page today:

Fireworks Cause Deluge Of Panicked Calls in D.C.

By Theola S. Labbe and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 3, 2005; A-1

Hundreds of Washington residents took cover in buildings, raced to outdoor balconies and made panicked calls to local police and fire departments Saturday night, unaware that the loud explosions they heard were from a fireworks display near the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The noise, which sounded like machine-gun fire to some and like bombs or cannonballs to others, could be heard as far away as upper Northwest Washington and Falls Church.

D.C. fire department dispatchers were deluged with calls from worried residents for more than an hour, spokesman Alan Etter said. "They couldn't count the number of calls," Etter said. "They were swamped."

District emergency officials, aware of the scheduled fireworks display, nonetheless sent out firetrucks as a precaution in response to the numerous reports of noise, smoke and haze, Etter said.

The seven-minute show, which launched the Kennedy Center's month-long Festival of China, was the creation of pyrotechnics designer Cai Guo-Qiang, who had referred to it as an "explosion event."

But in a region all too familiar with color-coded terror alerts -- and not used to hearing fireworks on days other than the Fourth of July -- the loud, unexplained noises in the nighttime sky sowed fears of something far more ominous.

"It sounded like a kind of rocket or something," said David Zhang, 35, a consultant who was a half-block from his apartment in Foggy Bottom when he first heard the bangs and booms. Like many others interviewed yesterday, he said the explosions did not sound like typical fireworks. "I've never heard fireworks this loud. They just didn't sound right," Zhang said.

Alicia Adams, the festival's curator, said Kennedy Center officials had pushed for publicity about the fireworks show because they were eager to promote the work of Cai, an international artist who also has staged fireworks in London and Australia. She said local news media had run stories about the show in the preceding days.

"We are certainly sorry that people had that experience," said Adams, vice president for international programming at the Kennedy Center. "For the people who were here and read about it, it was on the banks of the Potomac, and it was a wonderful celebration."

The display began around 9:50p.m., said Kennedy Center spokeswoman Tiki Davies. The shells were launched from nine small boats and one barge in the Potomac River, to heights of 80 to 150 feet. For the finale, spectators saw what festival organizers called a "tornado" -- a thick, funnel-shaped, white plume of smoke suspended 500 feet in the air.

Daniel Ostick, 35, heard the noise from his fourth-floor condo at Columbia Road and 16th Street NW in Adams Morgan.

"When fireworks are happening in Rosslyn or the Mall, I can see them out my window," he said. "I had no idea what it was. It sounded like a series of explosions."

In Arlington, Sheila Cordaro, 34, a stay-at-home mother who lives about a mile from the Ballston Metro stop, said she feared an accident on the tracks.

"It sounded like something had been hit and dragged across the tracks for 10 seconds. It happened again one minute later and then again," Cordaro said.

The blasts could even be heard during a student play at Sidwell Friends School in the 3800 block of Wisconsin Avenue NW.

"Constituents were calling me to ask me if it was a terrorist attack," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "You don't expect to hear a major fireworks display in October."

Outside Zhang's building in the 2100 block of L Street NW, residents rushed to their balconies to locate the source of the noise but were too far away to see the pyrotechnics. In that same area, pedestrians ran inside buildings in fear.

Brooke Taylor, a 19-year-old George Washington University freshman, heard the disturbance from her dorm room at Fulbright Hall, in the 2200 block of H Street.

"Everyone in the dorms rushed to the halls to see what was going on," Taylor said. "We then went to the roof and saw gray smoke with a reddish taint. Someone was, like, 'Is that a nuke?' People were saying, 'Which way is the Pentagon?'"

Arlington resident Jim Pebley was online yesterday, reading his neighbors' complaints and comments. In the age of terrorism, he said, residents simply could not dismiss the sounds.

"I think everyone's a little jumpy right now, don't you?" Pebley said.

Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company