The smoke he saw drifting across the National Mall on Sept. 11, 2001, while sitting behind his desk at the Capitol left a lasting impression on former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
"I couldn't look at that window the next five years without thinking about those people who really made a difference — the real heroes," the Illinois Republican told an audience of students Monday during a panel discussion at The Washington Center. He credited the passengers who thwarted a terrorist hijacking of Flight 93 with saving Congress from a plane he suspects was headed right for his office window.
Hastert recalled what it was like to be one of the only members in the building that Tuesday morning, and making a the call to cancel the joint session of Congress scheduled to take place later in the day with Australia's prime minister.
"You have the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the president's cabinet, the joint chiefs of staff all in that same room at one time, and I'm thinking to myself, 'This is probably not a good idea,'" Hastert said. He told the students that he couldn't find anybody in the Senate "because it was too early for them to be around," and couldn't get ahold of Vice President Dick Cheney, so he had to act unilaterally.
The speaker eventually was evacuated from the Capitol by two members of his security detail who grabbed him from either side as he was shuffling through Statuary Hall, trying to coordinate a prayer in the House chamber, Hastert recalled. He was escorted out through the tunnels to an SUV waiting outside the Rayburn building, and watched the rest of the events that unfold on CNN and C-SPAN with the other congressional leaders at an undisclosed location.
Hastert recently donated the flag that flew over the Capitol that day to the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pa. It was destroyed in a fire less than a month after it arrived in Somerset County. Authorities have ruled the blaze was accidental.
The 11-minute video clip from Monday's event also includes Hastert describing the "blue-black smoke just belching out of the Pentagon, and dark orange flames underneath just pushing it up," that he saw during his helicopter flight over Southeast D.C.
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