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9/11: a personal memoir

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(Author’s note: this commentary was written on Sept. 11 and 12, 2001, as events transpired. Today, September 11, 2020, Royal Examiner reprints an edited version to commemorate the 19th anniversary of that horrific day in memory of those who died and those they left behind.)

The World Trade Center twin towers presented a surreal backdrop to lower and even near mid-town Manhattan – Photo/Roger Bianchini

The faint ring of a telephone stirred me from a restless sleep. I grudgingly opened my eyes and realized that it was fairly early in the morning on Tuesday, a weekend for me in my current employment cycle … I stumbled into my adjacent office and without my glasses tried to make out the caller ID through a sleep-encrusted blur. I lift the receiver.

“Turn on your television!” my friend Dewey’s voice commanded excitedly. “We were watching one of the World Trade Center buildings burning after a plane ran into it about 15 minutes ago and another one just flew into the other building!”

“When,” reality and dreams seemed to be mixing though I thought I was awake.

“Now!!! A second ago,” Dewey said & I knew this was not a “Jerky Boys” prank phone call. I hung up the phone without responding. I understood as my mind snapped to, that the information was presented not for discussion but for action. I was at my complex of three televisions at the far end of my third-floor loft apartment over the Main Street Mill that was so reminiscent to me of the fifth-floor walkup loft I had sublet for a year 11 blocks north of the World Trade Center some 20 years earlier. I hit the on button on the smallest of the three, the old 13-inch that I had gotten from my mom. It sat several feet from my living area couch and was my preferred home-alone viewing screen. Perhaps its size helped me maintain the illusion that I wasn’t really addicted to it.

The crystal-sharp satellite picture quickly focused and I picked up the remote and, punched in channel 970, the satellite channel for the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C. As a child, it would, as likely as not, have been the morning news station I would be watching as I got ready for school and my parents prepared for their respective federal government jobs in D.C. and Rosslyn, Virginia.

There they were, the twin towers gleaming in a bright September morning against a cloudless, bright, blue sky; except for the huge plumes of black smoke pouring from the top 20 or so floors of both buildings. I flashed on the old ‘70s movie “Towering Inferno”. How did that movie I’d never seen more than about 10 minutes of at a time end?!? How many were saved? How long did it take to finally – just burn out?

Bryant Gumble’s calm TV voice hypnotically recited the facts as known at – I flicked the info button to see the time, 9:07 a.m.

“Two planes … believed to be a 737 and a 767 … 18 minutes apart … North Tower first, then the South Tower … Not known if intent or accidents … Here it is. Watch to the right of your screen and you’ll see the second plane as it approaches and plows into the South Tower.”

Oh man, that wasn’t an accident! There was malevolent intent apparent the first time I saw it. That building was a target. But can’t alarm the public with unsubstantiated theories – public, I have public there!!!

I raced back to my office for the phone. Stuart and Annie Lee, my friends since college days in Richmond, Virginia, at old VCU, the urban university; Stuart and Annie, whom I sublet that Lower Manhattan loft from in 1979-80, when I had my New York state of mind experience, still lived in that five-story walkup, 11 blocks from the World Trade Center.

Two-one-two, two-zero-two, NYC/DC, I always transpose those area codes in my head. I dial two-one-two … The line picks up on the second ring. It is Annie’s voice, “Hello” – she seems breathless.

“Annie, what the hell is going on up there,” I blurt out not letting on how relieved I am to hear her voice.

“I don’t know but it’s pretty bizarre,” she replied.

We used to joke about whether the North Tower, the closest one to their loft, would fall on their building if it tipped over on its side northbound. It seemed that close, those big rectangles looming out of their back windows and over the rooftop deck Stuart had built. That was after their 1977 wedding in Charleston, South Carolina, Annie’s home turf. I glanced at the time on the caller ID. It was 9:11 a.m. – REALLY?!? I thought without verbalizing it.

“I just saw a tape of the second plane hitting the second building,” I said.

Annie hesitated, then said, “Roger, I was down there when they exploded.”

I was stunned. She had been closer than her home, at 9 in the morning. Was she nuts? What was Annie, an artist, a sculptor doing in the financial district at 8:45 in the morning? I must have verbalized the question as well as thought it.

“I was at the fish market they have in the parking lot on the east side of the Trade Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays (that’s an acceptable reason, I thought). We heard a plane and we all ducked. We knew it didn’t belong there so low over the city. Then the building exploded and we had to run under this building overhang to get away from all the burning debris that was coming down after the explosion. After the second explosion I thought I better get out of there and I went to look for my bike, which was on the Trade Center side. Luckily it was OK and I just came in the door when you called.

“You said the plane HIT the building?” she trailed off, apparently just making the connection between the low-flying plane that had caused those at the fish market to duck reflexively and the first explosion. “I didn’t, we didn’t – Listen Roger, I don’t mean to cut you off but I want to clear the line for my mom. I know she’s going to try and call or I should call her before the lines get clogged up.”

“OK, sure. Where’s Stuart,” I wanted to make sure the calm in her voice included knowledge of Stuart’s whereabouts before we disconnected.

“He’s here.”

“Good. You all take care and stay in touch.” I hung up.

They were OK.

That she was down there in physical jeopardy had jolted me …

I was back at the TV. I plopped on the couch. It was 9:15. It was like I was hypnotized, the emotional trauma of world-changing events perceived at an almost subconscious level. In a weird way it was like 1963 and 1968. But no, it was 2001 – the real first year of not only a new century but a new millennium; 2001, much bigger deal than 1901; none like it since 1001 – a thousand-year bookmark on the pages of history. So, I channel surf throughout the morning of September 11, 2001.

The World Trade Center, the Pentagon are in flames! All air traffic to the U.S. being diverted and all planes in the states being brought down. How?

“A plane down in the woods of western Pennsylvania – Camp David may have been the target” is theorized on the air.

BUT THEN – a huge plume of smoke in lower Manhattan. What the … ?!?!

Is there only one building there?

It’s gone.

In a panic I look for competent reporting and a familiar voice. CNBC broadcasts from lower Manhattan, competent, who knows; familiar and boots on the ground, yes.

“One of the two World Trade Center towers has collapsed,” a camera shot from across the Hudson River – lower Manhattan looks like it is on fire – back to NWI (News World International) – they had the live feed from a New York City ABC affiliate earlier with a poor guy trapped on the 85th floor because the fire doors locked up, which building was he in? Is he dead? He said things were under control and stabilizing and he was giving directions to where he and one other person were trapped with windows blown out – the firemen must have been going up …

Watching NWI with their main Canadian affiliate as … the … second tower … collapses from the top down – “Oh my God. Oh my God,” the on-air voice repeats calm but distraught – how is that even possible? – as off camera, yelling and screaming with no pretense of calm maintained as the North Tower joins its sibling on the ground … where am I?!!? Two 110-story buildings … gone …

I watch lower Manhattan from across the Hudson River again. It is totally enshrouded in smoke. Are people suffocating in that? Could you breathe in there?

Again try Stuart and Annie. Nothing …

Then tears came and I sobbed with worry for my friends and for my old neighborhood; for 50,000 or 5,000 people, I didn’t know; for two buildings that had stood like a magical, surrealistic backdrop to an already magical skyline for a quarter of a century or more; for the firemen and the cops who went in there trying to get trapped people out … It’s just enormously, monumentally tragic and screwed up and I don’t feel bad about crying …

That it has come to this is tragic in more than the obvious ways. Things will never be the same. A dark thought flashes into my consciousness – is that what it is really all about?

As the day progresses I follow the pending collapse of adjacent buildings, watch ghost-like, dust-covered people stumble, walk calmly with their briefcases or run from the rubble and spreading, spewing cloud that covers lower Manhattan.

As the skies over America clear of all air traffic for the first time in the age of air travel, an age that has existed all of my life, I wonder how the next attack will come, who will bring it and why …

As the day progressed into night, lower Manhattan took on an eerie look as powerful spotlights bracketed debris and the continually rising cloud of smoke from fires burning deep within the rubble of 220 stories, estimated at 1.2 million tons of debris that will take a year to clear …

Who knows how long it will take my mind – or anyone’s – to assimilate what has happened.

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WCPS starts new school year staring down COVID-19 related challenges

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic did not prevent Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) from starting off the 2020-2021 academic year, although some issues did crop up during the first week, according to WCPS Superintendent Chris Ballenger.

“It was a good start; we did have some challenges,” Ballenger told Warren County School Board members during their Wednesday, September 16 meeting. “But we had a good start considering the situation that we’re in with this pandemic.”

On day one at the elementary schools, for instance, Ballenger said there were some long lines getting parents through, as well as a few backups and traffic congestion on some roads. But he explained that such issues were simply due to it being the first day of school, and “of getting everybody in and being able to make sure we got them to where they were going, and getting the buses in, and getting the buses sanitized so that they could go do their next run.”

“But when you entered the buildings and you saw the interactions of the teachers and the students… you could see the students smiling underneath their masks,” said Ballenger. “It was nice to see the students there, and they wanted to be there.”

For virtual learners, technology challenges took precedent on their first day, the superintendent said, but the WCPS Technology Department worked quickly to rectify the issues, which were partly due to en masse sign-ons to the school division’s network — basically an online traffic jam of sorts.

Ballenger said that during the first week of school, WCPS corrected, made changes, and streamlined processes to solve the challenges. “Schools are getting that cycle going, so, we’re moving in some positive directions,” he said. “We still have some issues, but we will continue to address those.”

WCPS Technology Director Timothy Grant — who received a round of applause from Ballenger, the School Board, and WCPS Central Office staff for the work he and his team have accomplished to get the school year going — reported that more than 2,200 Chromebooks and tablets are expected to arrive “any day now,” and once delivered, they will be configured and deployed as soon as possible to the schools for student use.

All WCPS virtual learners have received their laptops and tablets, Grant said, adding that new parts have just come in “so we’re repairing all the Chromebooks that had some problems.”

At the same time, the WCPS Technology Help Desk has been very busy. “I can’t tell you how many calls we get, but it’s busy. It’s ringing all the time,” said Grant. “All [6] of our techs are on the help desk until it settles down.”

Technology staff also have deployed 60 hot spots around Warren County, with most of them being used in the Browntown and Bentonville areas. Grant said WCPS still has 30 more hot spots to configure that will provide teachers and students with free internet access for virtual learning.

Grant also said the tech staff is working diligently “to stay ahead of the curve” on security, and thus far has not experienced any breaches on the WCPS network and will continue to regularly monitor the network.

“I know you’ve worked a lot of hours and I think I can speak for the board — we all greatly appreciate the effort that you and your team put in to keep everybody up and running, so thank you very much,” said School Board Chairman Arnold Williams, Jr.

WCPS Assistant Superintendent Melody Sheppard updated School Board members on how WCPS transportation, food services, and custodial services fared during the first week of school.

Along with new bus runs, for example, WCPS transportation employees yesterday started delivering seven-days-worth of free school meals (breakfast and lunch) at its summer stops around the County. Some 850 students on Wednesday received meals, which will continue to be delivered through December 31 unless the program gets extended, Sheppard said.

“We’ll adjust if we need to,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure all of our students are eating.”

Additionally, more custodial employees are now working day-time hours to regularly wipe down high-touch surfaces throughout the school day, said Sheppard.

WCPS Special Services Director Michael Hirsch said that school health and wellness efforts have been followed diligently by WCPS staff and families, who have adhered to daily pre-screening and other health checklist items. “It’s been crucial for ensuring students are healthy before they enter school,” he said.

During the School Board’s work session portion of its meeting, Ballenger also provided a school enrollment update as it pertains to the WCPS budget, noting that the current population of 4,957 students is down by 60 students.

Once the school district contacts these 60 students, the population could increase to 5,017 students, which is still lower than what the current WCPS budget is based on of 5,202 students. This would reduce the district’s budget by $916,886, Ballenger reported.

“In this year’s budget, we have a contingency of around $531,366 so right now we are looking at what we need to do as far as financials,” he said. “We do have a lot of things on hold. We’re still trying to find those students.”

Currently, Ballenger also said that there are 89 students total who attended WCPS last year who now are under home instruction status, which removes them from WCPS rolls, also consequently impacting the budget. While some of these 89 students may physically return to school once the buildings open back up, “we don’t know when that may be,” said Ballenger.

At the same time, because WCPS now operates a hybrid-learning model consisting of in-person and virtual education, some numbers of students may be recovered at the high school and middle school levels once they work out scheduling, Ballenger said. “Principals and schools are calling and making contact with students that have not shown up yet to see where they are at,” the superintendent said.

To watch the entire School Board meeting, watch the Royal Examiner video.

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Town Talk: A conversation with Congressman Ben Cline

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In this Town Talk, our publisher Mike McCool speaks with Congressman Ben Cline. Cline was in town for the Warren County Republican “Pig Roast” held at the VFW grounds in Front Royal. Topics in this Town Talk includes 2nd Amendment and Sanctuary Cities, Supreme Court appointment, supporting law enforcement, civil unrest, monument removals, elections, and COVID response.

Ben Cline represents Virginia’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee. He previously served as a Member of the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the 24th District from 2002-2018. In the Virginia House, Cline chaired the Committee on Militia, Police, and Public Safety.

Prior to his election to the House of Representatives in 2018, Ben was an attorney in private practice. From 2007 until 2013, he served as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg.

Ben also worked for Congressman Bob Goodlatte, beginning as a member of his legislative staff in 1994 and ultimately serving as the Congressman’s Chief of Staff.

Ben grew up in Rockbridge County, Virginia, and is a 1990 graduate of Lexington High School. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Bates College and his law degree from the University of Richmond. Ben and his wife Elizabeth live in Botetourt County with their two daughters.


Town Talk is a series on the Royal Examiner where we will introduce you to local entrepreneurs, businesses, non-profit leaders, and political figures who influence Warren County. Topics will be varied but hopefully interesting. If you have an idea, topic, or want to hear from someone in our community, let us know. Send your request to news@RoyalExaminer.com

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Virginia House bill to guarantee free school meals to students advances to Senate

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Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

House Bill 5113, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, passed the chamber unanimously. Roem’s bill requires eligible public elementary and secondary schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“School food should be seen as an essential service that is free for everyone regardless of their income,” Roem said.

The program allows all students in an eligible school to receive free breakfast and lunch. Currently, 425 schools are eligible for CEP but don’t take part in the program, according to a document that details the financial impact of the legislation. More than 420 schools and 200,000 students participated in CEP during the 2018 to 2019 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

The bill allows eligible schools to opt-out of the program if participating is not financially possible.

Most Virginia food banks have purchased twice as much food each month since the pandemic started when compared to last year, according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“We’re just seeing a lot of need out there, and we know that school meal programs are really the front line of ensuring that kids in Virginia have the food they need to learn and thrive,” Oliver said.

Virginia school districts qualify for CEP if they have 40% or more enrolled students in a specified meal program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It also includes homeless, runaway, migrant, and foster children, Roem said.

Sandy Curwood, Director of the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs, said school districts receive federal reimbursement based on a formula.

“Making sure that children have access to good healthy food, and particularly through school meals I think is a great opportunity,” Curwood said.

The federal government will reimburse schools that have more than 62.5% of students who qualify for free meals, Roem said. Schools with between 55% and 62.4% of students enrolled will receive between 80% and 99% reimbursement.

“If HB 5113 is the law, how their children will eat during the school day will be one less worry for students and their families,”, said Semora Ward, a community organizer for the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. The meals are available whether children are physically in schools or attending virtual classes.

The Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative has raised $8,000 in the past three years for unpaid school meals in Hampton and Newport News, according to Ward.

“While we are pleased with these efforts and the outpouring of community support, we should have never had to do this in the first place,” she said.

Roem was one of several legislators that took on the USDA earlier this year to not require students to be present when receiving free school meals during the pandemic. The Virginia General Assembly passed Roem’s bill earlier this year that allows school districts to distribute excess food to students eligible for the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA.

HB 5113 has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.

By Aliviah Jones

Capital News Service

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Governor Northam casts vote in November General Election on first day of early voting in Virginia

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Governor Ralph Northam voted early Friday morning, September 18th, in person at the Richmond general registrar’s office on the first day of Virginia’s 45-day early voting period.

New laws allow all Virginians to vote absentee by mail, or in person at their local registrar’s office or satellite locations. The Governor signed legislation this year removing a previous provision that required absentee voters to provide a reason for voting early, so any Virginia voter may vote early without providing a specific reason.

“Virginians can be confident their vote is secure and will be counted,” said Governor Northam. “While the pandemic has made this an unprecedented election year, Virginia voters have several safe and easy ways to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Voting is an essential part of our democracy, and I encourage every Virginia voter to know their options and make a plan for safely casting their ballot.”

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a higher number of Virginians are expected to vote by mail in the 2020 election. As of Thursday, the Department of Elections had received 824,000 requests for absentee ballots by mail. For comparison, 566,000 votes were cast absentee in the 2016 General Election—half by mail.

Virginians have several options for safely casting their ballots for the November General Election.

Absentee by Mail
Beginning today, September 18, Virginia general registrars will mail absentee ballots to voters who request them. Virginians can request a ballot online at elections.virginia.gov. The last day to request an absentee ballot by mail is Friday, October 23 at 5:00 p.m.

All absentee ballots will include a return envelope with prepaid postage. Ballots with a postmark of November 3 or earlier will be accepted until noon on Friday, November 6.

As an additional layer of security, every absentee ballot envelope is required to have an intelligent mail barcode and an election mail insignia. The insignia tells the United States Postal Service that this piece of mail is a ballot and should be prioritized. The barcode lets voters track their ballot once it leaves the registrar’s office—so a voter will know when their ballot has been mailed to them, and when it is delivered back to the registrar. Voters can track their absentee ballot using the absentee ballot lookup tool available here.

Drop-off Locations
Absentee ballots may also be hand-delivered to your local registrar’s office or returned to a secure drop-off location, which includes any satellite voting location. A list of drop-off locations is available on your county or city’s official website. On Election Day, you can also drop off your completed absentee ballot at any polling place in the county or city in which you are registered to vote.

For voters who prefer to vote in person, there are two options.

Early In Person
Starting today, September 18, Virginia voters can vote absentee in person at their local registrar’s office as Governor Northam did. Voters can simply go to their local general registrar’s office or a satellite voting location identified by the registrar’s office and cast their vote. Voters may use this option through Saturday, October 31—one of the longest early voting periods of any state.

Election Day
The other option is the traditional one: voting in person on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3, at your polling place. Polls will be open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Virginia has allocated federal CARES Act funding to ensure that all election officers have personal protective equipment, and Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed.

Virginia considers election security to be a top priority and has made significant progress in recent years to ensure a secure election process that places election integrity and voter confidence at the forefront. Additional information about election security in Virginia can be found here.

To register to vote or learn more about absentee voting in Virginia, visit elections.virginia.gov/absentee. Answers to frequently asked questions can be found here.

Follow the Department of Elections on Twitter at @vaElect, on Facebook at @VirginiaELECT, and on Instagram at @va_election.

See below for photos of Governor Northam casting his ballot at the Richmond general registrar’s office today.

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Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue Services awarded a $1.2 Million SAFER Grant

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The Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue will receive $1,216,724 in Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER). This grant award is from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 100% of salary and benefits for six new firefighters for three years. Generally, SAFER grants require a local government match or contribution during the award period which was waved this year due to the effects of the COVID Pandemic on localities.

SAFER grants help local fire departments and volunteer firefighter organizations to increase or maintain the number of frontline firefighters to comply with standards established by the National Fire Protection Association. These new positions will be utilized to staff the newly constructed Rivermont Fire Station with two 24/7 responders. The fire station replacement and construction project is slated to be completed by the end of the year.

“We are honored to have been selected to receive this highly competitive grant, and for the opportunity to bring on these additional firefighters to the department,” Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie said. “This is a great day for the residents of our community.

“In awarding such a large SAFER grant, FEMA recognized the critical need for additional safety personnel in Front Royal/Warren County to adequately meet the increasing service demands from our growing community,” Mabie continued. “With grants such as this, we will be able to continue to exercise fiscal responsibility while delivering improved services.”

“Incredible news,” stated the Board of Supervisor Chairman Walt Mabe. During my tenure on the Board of Supervisors, residents have sent a clear message that they expect excellent public safety services using creative funding mechanisms. This is an example of the fire department once again rising to that mandate and improving service for our residents. The ability to replace all Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus throughout our stations with a recently awarded $725,000 grant was a success in itself. Now the ability to increase staffing without affecting the pockets of our citizens is simply amazing.” These two grants saved the County a total of $1,950,000.

The Department of Fire and Rescue Services expresses our appreciation to the Fire Chief, Captain Gerry Maiatico, and General Services Director Brandy Rosser for their hard work in this process. Additionally, special thanks go to our elected officials for their continued support to these Grant Requests. The Department of Fire and Rescue Services Grant Committee will meet with the Warren County Board of Supervisors at its October 6, 2020, meeting to formally accept the grant.

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VDOT: Warren County Traffic alert for September 21-25, 2020

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The following is a list of highway work that may affect traffic in Warren County during the coming weeks. Scheduled work is subject to change due to inclement weather and material supplies. Motorists are advised to watch for slow-moving tractors during mowing operations. When traveling through a work zone, be alert to periodic changes in traffic patterns and lane closures.

*NEW* or *UPDATE* indicates a new entry or a revised entry since last week’s report.

INTERSTATE 66
No lane closures reported.

INTERSTATE 81
No lane closures reported.

PRIMARY ROADS
No lane closures reported.

SECONDARY ROADS
Various roads – Flagger traffic control for utility tree trimming, Monday to Friday during daylight hours.

Vegetation management may take place district wide on various routes. Motorists are reminded to use extreme caution when traveling through work zones.

Traffic alerts and traveler information can be obtained by dialing 511. Traffic alerts and traveler information also are available at www.511Virginia.org.

The VDOT Customer Service Center can assist with reporting road hazards, asking transportation questions, or getting information related to Virginia’s roads. Call 800-FOR- ROAD (800-367-7623) or use its mobile-friendly website at my.vdot.virginia.gov. Agents are available 24 hours-a-day, seven days a week.

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