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ARLINGTON, Va. – Call it happenstance, call it what you will. When NASCUS President Doug Duerr thinks back on the chain of events that occurred on September 11, 2001, one thought crosses his mind: if he hadn’t decided to make a stop at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Alexandria that morning on his way in to work, he wouldn’t have driven on I-395 Shirley Highway, exited the interstate to connect to the George Washington Parkway, and wound up getting stuck in traffic on the three-lane road that runs in front of the Pentagon heliport about 200 feet from the building when terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The year that’s passed since that day’s events haven’t dulled their poignancy for Duerr, and he doubts that no matter how much time goes by it never will. To this day, says Duerr, “I can’t drive past the Pentagon without reliving what happened. I’m still drawn to it because of what I experienced.” What happened to Duerr is this: He woke up early the morning of Sept. 11 and realized that he needed to renew his driver’s license that morning because he was going to be leaving for Dana Point, Calif. in two days for NASCUS annual conference (the conference was originally scheduled for Sept. 13-18, but was rescheduled for Dec. 14-18.) Normally Duerr would have taken the I-66 to work, but the morning of Sept. 11, driving to NASCUS’ Arlington, Va. offices from the Department of Motor Vehicles in Alexandria, Duerr decided the fastest way would be to take I-395 Shirley Highway and connect to the George Washington Parkway. To get from one highway to the other, drivers have to take a three-lane road that runs along the front side of the Pentagon heliport. The hour of the morning Duerr was making his trip put him smack in the middle of rush hour, and Duerr found himself about 200 feet from the Pentagon building, stopped in traffic along with other drivers. What would have otherwise been a nerve-wracking situation didn’t bother Duerr that day because, he recalled, “It was a beautiful day, just getting into fall, the sun was really bright and felt so warm. I remember the sense of the beauty of the morning. It was impossible to feel angry about being stuck in traffic.” Duerr remembers having the radio on his car and hearing about the two United Airlines planes that went in to the World Trade Center towers, when “I heard loud plane engines. I looked out to my left and saw a full size jet airliner coming straight at my car.” In retrospect, says Duerr, “it amazes me how much time I had. Your eyes track the trajectory of the plane, and then I realized the jet was headed for the Pentagon. The noise was so intense that everyone who was there knew what was happening.” He recalled that as the jet approached the Pentagon, his car and the other vehicles were being covered with shredded tree leaves that fell from the plane. Duerr learned afterwards that as the plane flew over Arlington National Cemetary it sheared off the tops of many trees there and that’s where the falling leaves came from. Duerr assumed the plane would not go inside the Pentagon but would instead crash in to the buildings enormous granite walls and be stopped there. He concluded that if the jet crashed at the base of the Pentagon building, he and the other drivers would be caught in the debris and could die. “I wanted to stay inside my car for protection, but at the same time I was trying to figure out how I could get away from there,” said Duerr. When American Airlines Flight 77 finally crashed in to the Pentagon, Duerr said, “There was a moment in time when there was no noise or explosion. Your eyes saw the plane almost completely penetrate the building. Then there was a very loud explosion, and you saw the first poof of orange, then a massive orange ball of fire came from a gaping hole.” Duerr said he was caught between feeling like he wanted to take some action to help the situation, but he wasn’t sure what he should do. “I realized where I was in my car was not a safe place to be, but there was no place for me to go.” So the first thing Duerr did was call his fianc Diane on his cell phone and let her know where he was and that he was alright. Then he called the NASCUS office and told the staff that they needed to make whatever plans were necessary in case they were evacuated (NASCUS’ offices are near the State Department Annex in Roslyn, Va.) Eventually, Duerr and some of the other drivers that had been stuck in traffic with him got out of their cars to look at the fire. “When I saw people around me crying, that’s when I realized the severity of what had happened. There was a sense of the realization of how it was going to turn in to an awful event,” Duerr said. “If you’d ask me at that very moment what had happened, I would have told you, `I just saw 1,000 people die’,” said Duerr. Duerr said a reporter for the Washington Post who was caught in the traffic in the car in front of Duerr’s had seen him using his cell phone. She explained to him that she couldn’t get through on her cell phone to the newspaper and asked to use his. By that time, though, the cell phone lines were jammed. Duerr told her where she could find a pay phone and between the two of them, she managed to maneuver her car on to the shoulder of the road. Duerr was subsequently able to do the same with his car and leave the scene. Afterwards, as details of what happened began to unfold and be covered by the television stations and newspapers, Duerr said he was “absolutely drawn to read everything that unfolded about the Pentagon disaster. I was drawn to it. I identified with those people. I had an unusual sense of obligation of wanting to know everything about what happened.” Duerr said he’s always thought of himself as being a “tough guy,” but he admitted that, “it’s a sobering experience to see the Pentagon now.” What does Duerr think 9-11 will mean to Americans this year and in the future? “I think we will all have reverence for that day and will have the feeling that we need to be soft spoken. It won’t be a conscious decision, but it’s something that resides inside of all of us now.” -

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