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AARP Staffers Remember the Day That Changed Everything

Some watched the twin towers fall, others watched smoke rising from the Pentagon

spinner image editor george mannes runs from the twin towers in new york city on september eleventh surrounded by a huge dust cloud
AARP senior editor George Mannes in Manhattan, shortly after the fall of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.
Kelly Price

We who woke up on the East Coast that morning will never forget what a splendid day it was. Bright and blue and virtually cloudless, the sky on September 11, 2001, revealed no hint of the destruction we'd see over the next few hours.

To commemorate the anniversary of that terrible day, we published a piece by Steven Greenhouse. You'll hear the voices of survivors and first responders on our website, as well as on our social media feeds and YouTube channel. But I wanted to give this space to my fellow AARP staffers who were witnesses; most of them were working for other news outlets at the time.

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At 8:46 a.m., the first plane sliced into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, just blocks away from Mike DeSenne's office at the former “I saw the planes crash from my window,” recalls DeSenne, now an executive editor for “Most of us were paralyzed by disbelief, but disbelief turned to terror when the first tower collapsed and our building was engulfed in smoke."

spinner image the attack on the world trade center show both towers struck and burning

AARP's Full 9/11 Anniversary Coverage

Read and view more stories of rescue, recovery, grieving and healing, as we mark two decades since the tragic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

AARP senior editor George Mannes — at the time a writer for — was outside looking at the South Tower when it fell. “As I was running down Broadway, trying to escape the dust cloud, someone snapped my picture,” he remembers. “I was overtaken by the cloud, which turned the day to night in an instant. I made my way to a nearby building, interviewed some people about their experiences and filed a story that night."

At AARP's E Street headquarters in Washington, phones began ringing off the hook in the lobby at 9:37. Security guards locked down the building. “We were told to shelter in place,” notes Jeff Van Dam, AARP's director of business strategies and operations. A plane had just hit the Pentagon, 3 miles away.

Mike Hedges, then a national security reporter for the Houston Chronicle, arrived at the Pentagon just after the plane struck. “When the first firefighters showed up, I hurried in behind them to record their efforts to deal with fire billowing out of the huge gash carved by the aircraft,” says Hedges, now an AARP executive editor. “At first I thought maybe a small plane loaded with explosives was involved. Then I saw a piece of the aircraft's tail with the American Airlines logo. I felt sick at the thought that a jetliner had disappeared into that wall of flames.”

At AARP headquarters, employees who headed up to the roof “could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon,” recalls executive editor Margaret Guroff. “Downtown D.C. was swarming with people walking, trying to get home."

Senior staff writer Dena Bunis was the Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register. “I was driving into the District of Columbia — dodging military Humvees — as everyone was clearing out,” she remembers. She did interviews and later headed to the Capitol. “It wasn't until members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and began singing ‘God Bless America’ that I finally broke down and allowed myself to weep over what had happened to our nation that day."

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