In 2006, on the 5th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Center for Local History conducted a series of interviews with first responders and Arlingtonians about their experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, and the days that followed.
The three narrators who you’ll hear from in these clips – Gabriella Day-Dominiguez, Elizabeth Davis, and firefighter Dale Varnau – experienced the same events that day, and yet had uniquely personal responses to the tragedy shaped by their identities and roles within the community.
NARRATOR: Elizabeth Davis
INTERVIEWER: Diane Gates
DATE: August 2, 2006
ED: Our neighborhood is very friendly people but nobody ever seems to talk to anybody else. But on that day everybody was outside of their house. So I was talking to my neighbors and they didn’t know anything and they were asking me and I didn’t know anything. So we ended up having a kind of a barbecue. Nobody really wanted to be alone. Everybody pulled a little bit of something out of their refrigerator and just gathered together.
DG: It was just impromptu
ED: Totally impromptu.
DG: When your neighbors had the cookout or got together to eat did people seem just quiet and somber. Was anyone crying? Were there people there who knew or wondered if they had a friend that was—
ED: There were a lot of people who knew somebody. I don’t think I knew anybody who knew anybody who had been hurt but there a lot of people who worked in the Pentagon or knew somebody who worked in the Pentagon. Even more than that there were people who knew somebody in New York. And at that point of course we didn’t know what was going on. You had no idea of head count. And the phones were so busy it was very hard to get through to people. So there was a lot of “I don’t know if this person is okay” going on.
But the one thing I noticed for the next, might have been two or three weeks, if you remember they had shut down every single plane everyplace, nothing was flying. So we’d be standing outside and you’d hear a plane go overhead and everybody stopped and everybody sort of cocked their head and just listened and you could tell they were thinking is this us or is this them and that wasn’t just the first day or so, that was two or three weeks.
NARRATOR: Gabriella Daya-Dominiguez
INTERVIEWER: Judy Knudsen
DATE: August 24, 2006
GD-D: My husband in the meantime, what was occurring with him at that moment was he was just entering his office. He was about 200 yards from the building. He saw the plane coming very low overhead. He saw it make a U turn and bank right into his building. At that point he said he knew that this was not an accident, this was an attack and all hell broke loose. The pandemonium in the city was already going on. First with the North Tower. People were just standing there staring. They weren’t really running, they were just watching. But by the second tower hitting people started running frantically.
GD-D: And then another twist of the story is the fact that my father is Arabic. I remember feeling a sense of dread that week. I couldn’t eat at all. I remember food tasted like paper. It was just hard to put something in my mouth and I’m not someone who loses my appetite easily. So it was deeply concerning. I felt that there was going to be an Arab backlash and I was worried about my father, although my father is not Muslim, he’s Christian. But it was an Arab group of terrorists that struck the buildings and I was worried about the perception that the world was going to have about Arabs at that time. I remember being terrified. I remember feeling like I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I was afraid to talk to anybody. I just didn’t know how to explain it.
NARRATOR: Dale Varnau
INTERVIEWER: Judy Knudsen
DATE: December 14, 2009
JK: Right. So after it’s over with, how long did it take you to…. I mean, some people were obviously very freaked out, didn’t recover so well, and I have talked to police and firemen. And some people did—Of course a lot of people internalize things, and you don’t know. I mean, how did you feel, say, afterwards, a few years afterwards? Obviously it still affects you.
DV: Yes. The first I-don’t-know-how-long, I was very angry. I was like, “Let’s go get the people that did this to us! This is America!” I’m very patriotic.
I didn’t notice it bothering me for about a year, but after a year I started, “Hey, I haven’t been sleepin’ that well. I’m startin’ to have nightmares about it, relivin’ it.” So it was pretty close to a year before I started feeling anything physical from it.
DV: And people I’ve talked to—you know, my brother’s a Vietnam vet, and he was like, “Well, I saw a hundred times worse.” “Yeah, well, you were trained for it, I wasn’t!” I was trained to fight fires, you know.
DV: So yes, there was about a year delay for me. I knew other people that the next day had problems. There were a couple of guys that day, that while it was goin’ on, basically they wanted to say, “Okay, I’m done, I’m outta here,” and they wanted to go home right then. But it took about a year for it to really build up in me. I was kind of surprised, I guess this is the first time I’ve really talked about it in depth for a while, that I was starting to crack up a little bit a while ago. But yes, it had a delayed effect for me.
You can explore the entire September 11 oral history collection in the Center for Local History – VA 975.5295 A7243oh ser.5 – or read the transcripts online.
You can also explore our current display of letters, which were sent during the days and weeks after September 11, from children all over the county to Arlington rescue workers.
Photo: Arlington Ridge Rd Overlooking Pentagon – Public Memorial; Source: Photographs of the Arlington Historical Society, PG 230-6928
The goal of the Arlington Voices project is to showcase the Center for Local History’s oral history collection in a publicly accessible and shareable way.
From June 2017 – May 2018, we will post one oral history clip and transcript each month, focusing on Arlington’s history, culture and identity.
What is the oral history collection?
Oral history is a popular method of research used for understanding historical events, actors, and movements from the point of view of people’s personal experiences.
The Arlington Public Library began collecting oral histories of long-time residents in the 1970s, and since then the scope of the collection has expanded to capture the diverse voices of Arlington’s community. In 2016, staff members and volunteers recorded many additional hours of interviews, building the collection to 575 catalogued oral histories.
To browse our list of narrators indexed by interview subject, check out our community archive. To read a full transcript of an interview, visit the Center for Local History located at Central Library.