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Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham was a commander in the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a clear, sunny day.

Everyone has their own story, but each seems to remember the weather 20 years ago.

Yes, when you read this it may not be exactly 20 years. Maybe it’s a day before or a few after, but you certainly remember where you stopped to listen to the news when you first heard.

It’s difficult to describe the uncertainty and chaos of 102 minutes in September 2001 to those who were younger, perhaps not even born, at the time. It can be difficult to fathom that the people who vividly remember that day are now having their stories told by those who might have only been in third grade at the time.

With the war in Afghanistan coming to a close, it’s easy to finally isolate that piece of American history from the present. But if you were in the Washington area and clearly remember, you can easily recall how life was even more uncertain once smoke started rising from the Pentagon.

Ask anyone who was in a position of authority on Sept. 11, 2001, and you might get more compelling and riveting narratives of the day. But perhaps the story of someone so close, but with no control can be relatable to those in Northern Virginia. 

Prince William County Police Chief Peter Newsham started the day far from the scene, but then he was suddenly very near. 

The man who took over earlier this year as the county’s top law enforcement officer was at the time a commander in the second district of the Metropolitan Police Department. His assignment: overseeing a district that included Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.

Newsham distinctly remembers the early portion of the day, as many do, watching as United Airlines Flight 175 smashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. 

Just over 30 minutes later and across the Potomac River, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

Throughout Washington, many were trying to evacuate. Others were trying to get their children from school.  Anyone who has traveled through the District knows it’s not easy to quickly move from one side of the city to the other. As news spread, Newsham was called to MPD headquarters.

The smoke at the Pentagon was visible. But despite the chaos, those in the city did their best to unclog the roads, providing a deference not typically seen.

“People were extremely gracious in moving out of the roadway to give emergency vehicles the ability to travel through,” Newsham said.

As news of the attacks spread, Newsham said it was like an “eerie calm fell over the city.”

Police officials were concerned about an attack on the White House, or maybe the U.S. Capitol. No one knew for certain how many planes were hijacked or what would be hit next. 

Once word came down that flights had been grounded and the threat had passed, MPD focused on police visibility in the community as everyone worked through shock.  

Over the next year, Newsham said there was an unsettled feeling throughout the city.

“It was like nothing you could even imagine that something like that could happen,” he said.

Looking at the long-term impact on law enforcement, Newsham sees a lasting improvement in coordination.

“Law enforcement has become less siloed and more cooperative,” he said. “Relationships between federal and local law enforcement have improved dramatically, and law enforcement does a much better job at intelligence gathering and threat assessment.” 

Watching the World Trade Center burn and collapse, the smoke rising from the Pentagon and drivers clearing the way for law enforcement are seared into Newsham’s memory.

“Those are types of memories you’ll never forget,” he said. “It was almost inconceivable that would happen in our country.”

Nolan Stout covers Prince William County. Reach him at nstout@insidenova.com or @TheNolanStout on Facebook and Twitter.

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