My late husband, Shep Lee, and I went down to Washington in 2001 to accompany federal Judge Frank Coffin and his wife, Ruth. Frank was being given a prestigious award, and we wanted to be there for him.

Little did we know what was about to transpire. The next morning – Sept. 11 – we left for Reagan International Airport to catch a 9:30 flight to Portland. Approaching the ticket counter, my husband got a call from his secretary telling him that a plane had just gone into one of the twin towers in New York. Simultaneously the ticket agent told us we had to evacuate the airport. By that time the second tower had been hit, and unbeknownst to us, the Pentagon had been hit. There was no one to lead us. We were like ants climbing the berm on the other side of the road, leading to – where? A young Black man said that this had “Osama bin Laden written all over it!” The smoke from the Pentagon was wafting over us. We wondered if it was radioactive.

It was pandemonium. Luckily, my savvy husband spotted a car with a driver in it and rushed over to ask if he could help us. Thankfully, he could. Mrs. Coffin had asked me only moments earlier if we were going to die! Trying to remain calm, I said, “No, we are not going to die.” But truthfully, I had no idea.

The driver had his work cut out for him since all entrances to Washington were closed. I wanted to try to go to Baltimore, where we had friends, but that was not an option. Luckily, we found a motel in the outlying areas. The desk clerk was not certain there would be rooms for us. My husband was very persuasive in a nice way, saying that this eminent judge was frail, and he had just received an important award, etc. Within an hour, we had rooms.

The next hurdle was trying to get back to Maine. My husband called his old friend Sen. Bill Hathaway to see if he had any leads on transportation. His driver wanted $10,000 to drive us. Shep had the card of the nice driver who’d rescued us earlier and, thank heaven, he said he would drive us to Maine for $2,000. We were relieved!

This man was an angel. Not only was he a good driver, but so polite and kind, especially to Mrs. Coffin, asking her if she would like to stop and use a restroom or needed some refreshment. Well, Ruth Coffin was made of stronger stuff, and we stopped only once from Washington to Portland. When we got to Portland we asked the driver if we could treat him to a lobster dinner. He said he had to rush back – in other words, “to make hay while the sun shines.”

Driving past Manhattan on the New Jersey Turnpike, we saw the black smoke and smelled the acrid burning smell and felt such overwhelming sadness. Twenty years ago. How things have changed.

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