Sept. 13: Councilman caught up in D.C. disaster

September 8, 2006 

York County Councilman Rick Lee had just flown in to Reagan Washington National Airport on business Tuesday when he heard the news of the terrorist attack in New York City.

Watching the events unfold on an airport television screen, Lee soon saw smoke rising from the Pentagon only a few miles away.

Then an eerie silence settled over the airport, Lee said Wed-nesday from a hotel in Fairfax, Va.

Minutes later, airport security began herding travelers out of the building, yelling "Everybody out!"

Lee said he was swept up in a sea of humanity as people were rushed out of the airport, dragging their luggage and streaming across the George Washington Parkway.

Public transportation had been shut down, Lee said, so there were no taxis or buses available.

He ended up at a car rental outlet on top of a nearby parking deck. But the female agent told him and other anxious travelers that no vehicles were available.

"People were really skittish," Lee said, adding that from the parking deck, he could smell — and almost taste — the acrid smoke from the Pentagon. Fighter planes circled in the distance.

Then a man returning a rented minivan drove onto the lot. Hearing the plight of the stranded voyagers, he offered Lee and several others a ride.

While heading for Richmond, Va., Lee said he and five other minivan occupants found themselves stuck in a massive traffic jam.

As far as they could see, Lee said, people were walking along the highway, pulling suitcases. Local workers left their offices to hand out drinks to the passers-by.

The minivan passengers were mostly strangers, Lee said. Those with cell phones tried to call friends, family and business associates, but lines were busy. Finally, someone got through to a co-worker and asked him to call the other passengers' emergency contacts.

Lee gave out the number to the county administration building in York. Soon after, County Clerk Becky Sellers got word of Lee's whereabouts. She called his house in Rock Hill and left a message, informing his wife and four kids that he was OK.

Hours later, Lee arrived in Fairfax, where he checked into a hotel. "It was a hell of a day," he said.

Winding down his hotel room, he finally saw the ghastly TV images of airplanes flying into buildings, towers disintegrating, people running for their lives.

"I hope there's revenge," Lee said. "There has to be."

Lee's wife, Kim, said she was volunteering for a book sale at Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School on Tuesday morning when she heard news that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.

Knowing that her husband was on a flight to Washington at about the same time as the crash, she was devastated. "When I heard the Pentagon, I just froze," said Kim Lee.

Her sister, Jan, a school psychologist, came to the school to comfort her and to help make phone calls. Eventually, they heard Becky Sellers' message on the Lee's home answering machine.

"We knew that he was safe," Kim Lee said from her home on Wednesday.

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