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House Oral History Project Adds 9/11 Memories

On Sept. 11, 2001, John Feehery was told to draft a news release about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

As press secretary for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Feehery dutifully typed away until the Capitol Police came into the office on the third floor of the Capitol.

“Everybody, get out of the building,” an officer said. “A plane is coming.”

Feehery’s story is one of many shared on the newest component of the Oral History of the U.S. House of Representatives website. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, the Office of the House Historian gathered firsthand accounts of staffers and Members who were in the Capitol that day.

Feehery and others rushed to leave after the warning from the Capitol Police, but one man was moving slowly down the stairs. Feehery told him to hurry up. As it turns out, he had just yelled at then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

“It was one of those things where you wanted to get out of the building because you weren’t quite sure what was happening,” Feehery said in his interview.

The project, which consists of 30 interviews, was conceived last fall, when House Historian Matt Wasniewski and his staff discussed what they wanted to do for the 10th anniversary. The office had a few stories recorded from previous interviews for the oral history project, but they would need more.

With oral historian Kathleen Johnson at the helm, the staff worked to find more than two dozen people to feature, including former Rep. Michael Ferguson (R-N.J.) and former Capitol Police Chief James Varey. The staff mainly got in touch with people through word of mouth, with subjects suggesting other people for the team to contact about their memories.

The videos are about one to two minutes long and are divided into four categories. “September 11, 2001” highlights stories from the morning of the attacks and the evacuation, “Reaction and Response” features the bipartisanship and patriotism that came in the days and weeks after Sept. 11, “Security and Safety” discusses how security changed around the Capitol, and “In Retrospect” shares people’s takeaways from the events.

“There was a numbness, an unawareness, which gradually gave way to a sense, an apprehension, a personal relief,” former House Parliamentarian Charles Johnson said in his interview. “I mean, from that point on ... there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t think of those people in the plane that had been taken down in Pennsylvania who were true heroes and certainly saved a lot of lives in the Capitol itself.”

The Sept. 11 project differs from other parts of the oral history because it encompasses a particular event, instead of focusing on one person from a biographical standpoint. The office plans to do more event-related projects in the future.

“It has given us a 360-degree perspective on this event,” Wasniewski said. “What we’ve found are many moving personal stories.”

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