'The Pentagon's been hit. The kids, are the kids OK?'

The Panic
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The Independent US

How thin is the line between normality and panic? A perfect earlier September day when Washington is at its loveliest. But from 9am onwards yesterday, for the US capital's numbed and uncomprehending populace, the movie Independence Day seemed about to be re-enacted before their eyes. Only this time no one knew who the aliens were.

Offices closed and panicked workers rushed out on to the streets. Everyone was talking into mobile phones. Snatches of conversations at every stride told the same story: "Bombs ... they're going off everywhere"; "the Pentagon's hit"; "nothing's working ... they've shut the Metro"; "the kids, are the kids OK ?". But then the mobile networks simply broke down, and lines formed at antiquated old payphones.

The White House was evacuated. Famous reporters and mighty officials milled around on Lafayette Park. Anyone else could not get near the place. "Bud, you walk that way," the machine gun-toting secret service man told this reporter, pointing him in the direction from which he's come.

The cafes and fast food stands were still on streets. But in the background, away across the Potomac, great plumes of smoke wreathed up from the Pentagon. As a scrambled F-16 jet flashed across the sky, helicopters hovered waiting to fend off any other attackers.

No one knew which rumours were true – a car bomb at the State Department; an explosion on the Mall, the great ceremonial expanse through the heart of monumental Washington; another at the Capitol. In those terrible moments everything seemed possible.

The city downtown was gridlocked for dozens of blocks as offices were closed and workers in their thousands poured out into the brilliant sunshine, many of them making for their cars in the underground parks, trying to get home, to their children, anywhere but the normally placid and ordered centre of the US capital.

Where they could move, drivers ran red lights; every man for himself. But in the centre nothing moved. Ambulances and police cars, sirens blazing, were stuck fast. The traffic lights flickered from red to green – the people stood, watched and prayed for normality to return.