On that bright September morning nine years ago, I drove to Yakima from Tacoma for a chaplains meeting. My friend and I enjoyed the beautiful clear day, the colors of the leaves as we went through the mountains, and just being away from the work that occupied us at our separate prisons. We got lost in Yakima and stopped for directions, eventually making it to the meeting just a few minutes late.
But the meeting hadn't started yet. "A plane hit a building in New York City," someone said. More news trickled out, every cell phone in the place was put to work. And then the phones stopped working. Every chaplain from every state prison was in the room. We talked in anxious groups, mostly asking, "Now what?"
Not much later, someone was finally in touch with headquarters and we were told, "Go back to your institutions." We prayed together, sorted ourselves into various cars and vans, and we left. My friend rode back with another chaplain from her facility and I drove alone. We had used one highway to make the trip east. Going back, I got on Interstate 90, the road that links Seattle and Boston.
The freeway was quiet, but it usually is quiet mid-state. Unlike the I-5 corridor that runs north-south on the western side of the state that can seem like an unholy parking lot between Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia, I-90 is a chance to see farms, great rolling prairie, and no Mt. Rainier anchoring the horizon. I-90 also goes past the ski areas, once you're in the Cascades. In the winter, the overhead signs will change to warn of snow, the need for chains, whether or not Snoqualmie Pass is open--or closed once again because someone forgot traction devices.
An hour into the trip home, the overhead signs read, "Sea-Tac Airport closed." Radio stations were hard to get out there. It was sunny with a brilliant blue sky, the same as it was in New York, I found out later. I drove on, eventually making it past home in Tacoma to the prison in Shelton.
The prison was locked down, all activities cancelled. I went to the living units. Where there were televisions, they were turned on and the towers kept falling down, over and over again.
That evening, a priest from a local parish was scheduled to come in for his regular time with the men. We changed our plans and put together a prayer service. At seven that night, the chapel filled with over a hundred men of all faiths and none at all. We prayed for courage, for wisdom, for forgiveness, for healing. At nine, the men returned to their units. The priest and I headed out.
The next morning, the line outside my office stretched across the chapel. Several people had relatives who worked at the World Trade Center. Were they alive? Were they safe? The phone lines to New York were most often busy, so I took names and numbers. It would take more than two weeks to get the final word on the last mother who hadn't been accounted for. In the end, all these relatives were safe.
Rumors abounded in those first weeks. The worst one was about Marshall Law: Corrections officers would be released from their jobs to go fight "the war" and whoever was left in charge at the prison had permission to shoot to kill. The fear level skyrocketed. I spent some time on the Internet and tracked down some sanity. There was a kernel of truth in that mess. The rumor had roots in the Second World War.
The easy part? The "Marshall Law" was taken from the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe. Easy enough. (Does anyone still pay attention in history class? Or, maybe, like my own classes back in the early 70s, we never got that far.)
The more difficult part? Apparently, there was some plan related to the Japanese internment camps: if Japan attacked the US on US soil, those in the camps would be killed--or so someone said--and the guards would be drafted into the military.
With families demanding to know their son/brother/father was going to be okay in prison, even in these extraordinary circumstances, rumor control was essential.
More of the men went to religious services over the next month or so, and then, like what happened out in the community, attendance drifted back to its usual level. We handed out bibles and Qu'rans both for a while and encouraged different groups to sit down together to talk about their faith and its practice. There were good strong religious men among the inmates who were instrumental in keeping peace. In the end, there were no incidents at this prison of people being beaten for belonging to the "wrong" religion.
Four years later, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, some of this was repeated: so many people had relatives in the battered area. We hunted on the Red Cross website for relatives, tracked some to Houston or Baton Rouge. For one man, it was six months before he knew if any of his family had survived the flooding.
Events may seem to happen thousands of miles away, but the truth is we really sit at one table, and if someone is missing, we notice.