When Bob and Genny Schmit of Hutchinson packed up their new van in early September 2001, they had no idea they were about to drive into history.
A vacation to celebrate Bob's retirement from 3M was taking the couple to Washington, D.C., and on to Virginia for stops to visit with family and friends.
After spending Sept. 6 at Gettysburg National Military Park, they headed to Chevy Chase, Maryland, where they checked into Embassy Suites. It was about 7 miles from the nation's capitol, or 14 minutes by car if you drive nonstop. Rather than face the hassles of commuting and parking, they took the Washington Metro, a subway line, to and from Washington each day.
They started their Washington, D.C., adventure with a Gray Line sightseeing tour.
"It gave us an overview of Washington, D.C.," Bob said.
"We were typical tourists in Washington," Genny added.
On Sept. 8, they took in the sites of the Iwo Jima Memorial, FDR Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was Sept. 9 when they visited the Smithsonian's National Zoo. On Sept. 10, they headed to the National Air and Space Museum. It was a site Bob was looking forward to visiting. He had been a pilot in the Navy and wanted to see if the plane he flew was on display. It wasn't. It had been scrapped.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the Schmits had a couple of choices of places to visit: the White House or the Pentagon. They opted for the White House.
"We were standing in line at the White House," Bob recalled. "We were outside and there were about 150 people in line. We were about a fourth of the way from the end of the line."
"I had to go to the bathroom, so I walked toward the front of the line where I overheard two guys talking loudly about the second plane hitting the second tower," Genny said.
With the news of a second plane crashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center, she forgot all about going to the ladies room and returned to her husband.
"We were standing in line when we heard a boom," Genny said.
It was the sound of American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. Terrorists killed 125 military and civilian workers on the ground, in addition to 59 passengers on the plane.
"The Park Service and Secret Service told us to run," Bob said. "They were excited and told us to stay away from federal buildings."
The couple headed to the Washington Mall because it was out in the open.
"We were sitting on a bench," Bob said, "when a guy went by on a bicycle and said, 'I wouldn't sit here' as he pointed to the Washington Monument. 'You better move.' We started walking. There was no transportation. All the taxis were confiscated by diplomats."
As they walked, Bob and Genny met up with a woman who was having heart issues. They agreed to walk with her to her apartment in exchange for directions to Chevy Chase.
"The streets were full," Genny said. "Everyone was walking. We were fearful. What do you do?"
"We felt like rats fleeing a sinking ship," Bob said. "Nothing like this had ever happened in our country before."
Looking back, they estimated walking about 10 miles and not in a straight line.
"When we got back to the hotel, we didn't know what to do. Do we leave? Where do we go?" They asked.
Bob and Genny reached out family and friends for advice. It was decided to leave the hotel and head to Virginia.
When they approached the clerk on duty to checkout, he told them to "Just go."
"There was nobody on the interstate," Genny said.
"We had reservations for (Colonial) Williamsburg in Virginia and canceled them," Bob said.
They headed for Richmond to visit Mike and Lori Krenik. She is the daughter of Ralph and Geri Johnson of Hutchinson.
"They didn't make it down to Richmond — about 90 miles — until the following day," Lori recalled. "What I remember is just their story of being in line at the White House and being evacuated without any knowledge of why. We just all sat and talked in total disbelief, reliving every moment at how surreal it was for them to be so close to the Pentagon where such tragedy had occurred."
Lori thought the best way to describe Bob and Genny's demeanor was "grateful yet very shook up."
Mike agreed with his wife's assessment.
"If I had to put their feelings at that time into a few words: a real sense of shock, and a very real sense of thankfulness that it wasn't them," he said.
Mike remembered a conversation they had about how lucky they were.
"I think they knew how close they were to being a headline in our nation's history," he said.
The news in the following days after Sept. 11 didn't get better.
"They're very faithful, and I know just thanked God they were OK," Lori said, "but so very sad for everyone who didn't survive."
For Lori, Sept. 11, 2001, was a harrowing day with much confusion. She remembers heading to work, then the Pentagon was hit and being told to go back home as rumors were flying that the Richmond Federal Reserve Building was also a target. She recalled wanting to get everyone under one roof and then just being glued to the unbelievable news and images coming out of Washington, D.C., a city her family knew well.
"We had planned a trip to New York City for Thanksgiving and ended up going, to find the city still in shock," she said. "The World Trade Center was still smoldering, miles and miles of photos of missing people — just surreal."
From there, Bob and Genny went on to visit Bob's sister.
"It was pretty emotional," he said. "Without a car, we wouldn't have gotten out."
HOME SWEET HOME
Word of their experiences preceded Bob and Genny's return to Hutchinson. The couple recalled Buzz Nelson of Form-A-Feed in Stewart, who drove up to their place in his Cadillac and said, "I'm glad to see you're alive."
It was the same at Mass. People reached out and hugged them.
Looking back on the experience, the couple agreed: "You don't have time to be afraid."