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“The news reported that there had been explosions down at the Mall,” Donahue said. “As soon as I hit the parking lot I heard it, too — there was this loud boom, and I saw the Capitol Hill police hit the deck, that’s how loud it was. Turns out it was just a sonic boom from the jets overhead.”
Despite the panic and uncertainty, Donahue said the masses of people evacuating the District acted selflessly throughout.
“I live in Maryland about 30 miles south of the Potomac, and I remember thinking about what a long drive it was going to be,” he said. “I thought for sure it would be every man for himself on the roads — at the time we thought Washington was under attack. But I’ll never forget how people were letting others into the traffic; all the way out of town people were letting people in or letting them across lanes so they could exit. People had their windows open and everyone had the news on, and even though everyone wanted out of the city as quickly as possible, everyone was calm and there was this feeling that we were all in it together.”
This is perhaps even more remarkable considering that the devastation at the Pentagon was visible from the Capitol.
“I was going down [Interstate] 295 south of Washington,” Donahue said. “When you cross over the hill you can see the Pentagon off in the distance. There was smoke coming across, and it was really low, going from the west to the east. You had to drive through that smoke, smelling the debris from the plane crash and knowing in your mind that people had died in it.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley
“Everything we knew, we got from the TV.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley was thinking about his wife, Barbara Ann, as he hustled away from his east campus office that day.
“She worked about five blocks away in an office building on C Street,” the Iowa Republican said. “I couldn’t call her because the cellphones were jammed, and there was just a few people around with pocket radios that we were listening to. We knew then about the two planes in New York and the one at the Pentagon, but there was still one in the air and we thought it might be headed our way.”
Once together, the Grassleys were just as in the dark about the day’s events as everyone else.