During the 2001-02 school year, Howard University had a bit of a mess up. The historically Black university in Washington D.C. overbooked the dormitories, leaving Tina Tewelde and plenty of other students without a room on campus.
Tewelde, a Denver-native and Thomas Jefferson High alum, moved to D.C. in 1999 and was heading into her junior year as a finance major.
Tewelde remembers not having a dorm room and being shipped off with the excess students to the DoubleTree Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, about 20 minutes from campus and a stone’s throw away from the Pentagon.
“There were four floors of students,” Tewelde said. “And we were directly across from the Pentagon. There was a shuttle that came at the top of every hour to bring us to D.C.”
On a regular Tuesday morning, Tewelde started her day and heard “something.” She assumed it was thunder. Then, she heard commotion and a few people yelling.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Tewelde said. “I opened my room door and looked down the halls and didn’t see anything. We had the hotel curtains closed, and you know hotel curtains are pretty thick, so I got in the shower.”
Chalking up the noises to four floors of college students freely roaming a hotel, Tewelde continued getting ready for classes. She hopped out of the shower, turned on the television and saw what the rest of the world had been watching since 8:46 a.m.
The Sept. 11 attacks.
“It was all over the news,” Tewelde said. “They showed New York and then they showed the Pentagon and I thought, ‘Wait a minute. That’s across the street from us.’ I open the curtains and I just see smoke billowing from the building. I turned to my roommate and said, ‘We’ve gotta go.'”
Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks, where four planes were hijacked and subsequently crashed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the Pentagon in Arlington and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Tewelde doesn’t really talk about that day. She said no one knows she was even there besides a handful of close friends.
“I didn’t even realize it was the 20th anniversary,” Tewelde said. “I can’t believe how fast that came, but I don’t really talk about it. Every year, I do kind of have a sense of dread and then I find myself going online reading different articles, looking at the same videos that I’ve seen every year. I don’t know why I do that but I do it every year and it takes me back to that day.”
Tewelde and her roommate left the room and were immediately hit with the smell of smoke in the hotel hallway. The pair ran downstairs and saw people running from the Pentagon under the highway trestle toward them.
“We were just kind of stuck, not knowing what to do,” Tewelde said.
The area is surrounded by other federal buildings and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
“No one knew what would happen next,” Tewelde said. “Would there be more attacks? So, they told us we had to leave the area but we were like where can we go? We can’t get on the train. There was the highway right in front of us that goes into the city. Can’t go that way. So, we just walked.”
The crowd ended up at the Pentagon City Mall and watched as others fled from the smoke, confusion and chaos.
“I knew we were in the middle of something big,” Tewelde said. “When we finally walked to the mall, we just had to sit there. We were just sitting there, watching the smoke, smelling the smoke and I remember just staring at it thinking this is something big… something tragic. You just knew something big was happening right in front of our eyes and I remember just looking at the smoke and staring at it for a long time.”
The attacks on Sept. 11 resulted in 2,977 deaths and more than 25,000 injuries.
Tewelde recalled that a professor’s wife died in the attacks. She was a school teacher on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
The chaos of the day never ended, and Tewelde couldn’t go back to the hotel, so she stayed with a friend in Virginia for a few days.
The clunky Nokia cellular phones were useless during the day and Tewelde didn’t speak to her family in Denver until later that night.
“Of course my mother was like ‘Come back to Denver, come home,'” Tewelde chuckled. “There were so many rumors going around on the news. Oh, there may be a bomb here, or there, so she wanted me to come home for a couple of weeks.”
But Tewelde stayed. Howard continued to house the students in that hotel for the rest of the school year.
“I never felt the need to get away,” Tewelde said. “There was a sense of solidarity in everyone. We had all been through the same thing. We were all still here. We stayed in that hotel for the entire school year, so we were always in the presence of the Pentagon. You look out your window and you see the black tar. It was always a constant reminder for us.”
Classes continued. Tewelde remembers the increased military presence around the area. It changed the landscape for her, making it feel like she was in “another world.” Tanks became the norm, along with armed personnel.
Tewelde added, “I remember everyone saying you can get back to your lives… we just really couldn’t.”
Tewelde still lives in D.C. She moved back to Denver for a few years but ultimately found herself back east.
Besides doom scrolling on the anniversary, Tewelde doesn’t have any traditions. She’s gone to the memorials in New York and the Pentagon but doesn’t make it a point to go to memorial events. Like she said, she doesn’t really talk about that day.
“I don’t bring it up because then people have a lot of questions,” Tewelde laughed. “I haven’t been to an event and maybe that’s just me. I block things out. That’s my natural defense mechanism but I go on my terms.”
Tewelde said she may go since it’s the 20th anniversary, but she never finished the thought. She mentioned again that time flies.
“But I’ll go when I’m ready. Spend some time there and reflect,” Tewelde said.