‘We Were All in It Together’
In Sharing Their Memories of Sept. 11, Members and Staff Recall the Dueling Senses of Terror and Togetherness That Framed the Day
This week, as the nation prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Roll Call looks back at how Capitol Hill responded to the attacks and how that day’s events changed — and didn’t change — life in Washington.
“Get your people out of there.”
On 9/11, Tina Tate found herself in the midst of journalists rushing to report on breaking news and the breaking news itself.
As director of the House Radio-TV Gallery, her job was to offer support to the dozens of journalists going in and out of the gallery that day. But after a plane hit the Pentagon, she and her staff rushed the few remaining reporters out of the gallery.
“Ted Barrett from CNN called me from outside and said, ‘Get your people out of there,’” she recalled.
Tate turned to look out of her office window on the West Front of the Capitol and saw smoke pouring from the direction of the Pentagon.
Then-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) had stopped in front of the Capitol to hold a news conference, and Tate stopped to support that, but they were guided away by police.
“For the rest of the day, I was trying to figure out where to go to find out what was happening,” she said.
She found herself at Fox News headquarters and spent the day there, watching the story develop. When she was finally allowed back onto the Capitol grounds, to get her car, Tate found a poignant reminder of the fear that gripped the city that morning.
“As you walked across the grounds, there were empty shoes littering the ground. People who had been running had run out of their shoes,” she said.
“It’s just a normal day in the office.”
The magnitude-5.8 earthquake that rattled the capital last month triggered some unpleasant memories for former Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.).
He is now an adviser for D.C.-based Alston & Bird, and though he wasn’t in town for the quake, the images he saw of how things unfolded on the Hill that day were similar in his mind to 9/11.
“It’s just a normal day in the office, just like any other,” he said. “And then something happens, and you stumble out into the street and everything’s changed, but it’s still a beautiful day outside just like before.”
One of the challenges lawmakers faced in the moments following the attack was balancing their responsibilities as Members of Congress while dealing with the fallout on a personal level with family and staff.
This dilemma was all the more frustrating because it was just as difficult for Members to get reliable information as it was for citizens.
“My press secretary had a brother in the New York City police force, and she hadn’t been able to get a hold of him all day,” Pomeroy said. “At the end of the day she got a call that he was OK, but it was all very emotional. We were dealing with staff members on a personal level, while trying to respond to constituents back in North Dakota about the broader implications of a situation we didn’t understand. We were gathered at the home of a staff member who lived a few blocks away, watching CNN like everyone else.”
Despite all of the chaos on the Hill that day, one of Pomeroy’s most vivid recollections was the solidarity the tragedy provoked.
“That night we gathered on the east steps of the Capitol,” he said. “It was Republicans and Democrats, the House and the Senate — it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. There were two features to it that I remember — it was this sense of unity we felt as Americans and the sense of resolve that we were going to deal with this. Those feelings were palpable. And then, of course, we sang ‘God Bless America.’”
But that moment of respite was brief, and the emotional effect of the attacks intensified as stories of the thousands of lives that had been affected began to circulate.
“There was already this sense that something horrible had occurred, but that sense became deeper as we learned more about the Americans we lost that day and the desperate grief of their families,” Pomeroy said. “In North Dakota, we lost [bond trader] Ann Nelson on the Cantor Fitzgerald trading floor. She was a wonderful young woman who I never got to know, but I found out later from her family about this bright light that was tragically snuffed out. Spending time with these grieving families really draws you in on a more personal level.”
Pomeroy’s emotions caught up with him that weekend as he returned home.
“I hadn’t cried the entire week,” he said. “But I was driving to the airport, just trying to deal with the chaos and grief and horror from that week. On a bridge over the highway, I passed some people with a bedsheet that said ‘God Bless America’ in salute to the passing cars, and I just lost it. That literally made me break down and weep about how badly we’ve been hurt, the losses we sustained and how we’d all come together because of it.”
“It probably bonded them for the rest of their lives.”
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s former press secretary, Jim Manley, had an inside view on how the attacks immediately diminished the importance of politics on the Hill. Then-first lady Laura Bush was scheduled to testify in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that morning. It was one of her first policy-related appearances, and preparation for the event had consumed her in recent weeks.
“I spent most of the morning going over the briefing I was supposed to give,” she said in a Smithsonian Channel documentary. “It was about nine months into George being president, and I was really just hitting my stride as first lady.”
An equal amount of preparation went into the event on the Democratic side.
“We had an ongoing skirmish with the White House about what to call it,” Manley said. “They didn’t want us to call it a hearing, so there was a lot of back-and-forth before we agreed to call it a roundtable discussion. Regardless, it was going to be a high-profile thing.”
The second plane struck the World Trade Center just before the first lady arrived, and she was escorted into Kennedy’s inner office as the chaos around them unfolded.
“It was just me, Sen. Kennedy, the first lady and Kennedy’s Portuguese water dog, Splash,” Manley said. “It was this calm space in contrast to what was going on with the staff in the conference room next door. Outside the office there were televisions blaring, the chief of staff was trying to get everyone on the phone, people were shouting and running around. But in there it was quiet. I will never forget it.”
The emotional intensity of that day, and sharing it in such a personal setting, created an unlikely but lasting connection between the first lady and the Senator.
“She was in there with Sen. Kennedy, amidst all of the Senator’s stuff — his dog tags, his personal memorabilia, the pictures on the wall,” Manley said. “She later praised the Senator for his calm demeanor and level head. It probably bonded them for the rest of their lives.”
“The news reported that there had been explosions down at the Mall.”
There have been so many changes in disaster response on the Hill in the 10 years since the attacks that the pre-9/11 Capitol would scarcely be recognizable to an incoming Member today. Jeff Donahue was an electrician working for the Architect of the Capitol, and he remembered how quaint the response systems were back then.
“When news came that the Pentagon had been hit, there was a big rush to evacuate,” he said. “But the fire alarm system wasn’t set to go off for something like that, and the emergency broadcast system wasn’t prepared for something of that scale either — all of that came later. We just knew that we had to get out of the building, so that’s what we did.”
The confusion surrounding the evacuation continued on the streets outside.
“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.
“The roads were gridlocked so I couldn’t drive back home to Northern Virginia,” he said. “My wife and I and about a third of our staff went to a staffer’s apartment on Fifth and A [streets], where we stayed glued to the news. Everything we knew, we got from the TV.”
The Senator didn’t get any official information about the attacks until the following morning.
“They began briefing us right away,” Grassley said. “We had three kinds of meetings: an update on what had happened, an update about our own safety, and then that same week we began having policy discussions.”
Grassley said there was a rare sense of unity among Democrats and Republicans in the days that followed, although it lasted for only a short time.
“The Democratic and Republican caucuses were meeting on what needed to be done, and I would say there was almost complete unanimity between the parties for the rest of the year,” he said. “If you remember, when we passed the [USA] PATRIOT Act, I think there was only one or two dissenters, and now look at how controversial it is. That level of agreement was surprising, but then it was also surprising how quickly it fell apart.”
“We weren’t even allowed to have cellphones back then. We used land lines from the building
to call our parents.”
Jena Gross was a 16-year-old Senate page who had been in Washington for nine days when the planes struck.
“We were walking down the stairs, and the Capitol Police pushed the magnetometers aside and were yelling at us to run out of the Capitol,” she said. “Nobody knew what was going on. We were crying and holding hands as we ran out.”
Many of the pages were away from their families for the first time. Gross said the newness of that experience, coupled with the hysteria surrounding the attacks, left the details of the day vividly etched in her mind.
“I looked up, and the sky was filled with gray smoke from the Pentagon,” she said. “But there was one small patch of sky that was clear, and there was a plane looming up there. It was probably just a commuter plane landing, but we didn’t know at that point what to expect from anything that was in the air. There were flashes of light from photographers as we ran out, staffers were cramming into taxis and cars were making U-turns. It was total chaos.”
The page program staffers kept the pages together as they made their way back to the dormitory a few blocks away.
“The Senate day care was next door, and they evacuated the children to our dorm,” Gross said. “There were cribs in the basement and kids everywhere. Most of them were too young to know what was going on.”
The lack of reliable information added to the confusion.
When compared with the social networking and citizen reporting of today, there was a considerable dearth of information technology in 2001.
“We weren’t even allowed to have cellphones back then. We used land lines from the building to call our parents,” Gross said. “When I evacuated for the earthquake, I already knew from Twitter what was happening. On 9/11 there was so much confusion about what was going on, even from the major news outlets. There were reports that the White House and Capitol had been attacked; I definitely remember that being reported. Nobody knew what was accurate and what wasn’t.”
Rep. Robert Aderholt
“I knew then that this was no normal day.”
Rep. Robert Aderholt’s day centered on his wife and young daughter.
“It was the first day of day school for my 2 1/2-year-old daughter,” the Alabama Republican said. “My wife and I were just going to meet the teacher that day, and then I was going straight to the Capitol.”
The Aderholts took separate cars, but upon leaving the school they followed the same stretch of road for a while. That’s when news came that the Pentagon had been hit.
“I knew then that this was no normal day and that I wouldn’t be going to the Capitol,” Aderholt said.
He flagged down his wife, and they pulled over to watch the news at the only place that had live television coverage: the retail sets at Best Buy.
“We decided then that we wanted to get our daughter out of D.C.,” he said. “We just started driving south.”
“There were no more instructions to be given.”
Daniel Chao’s memories of 9/11 begin with a weather forecast.
“It was a pleasant day,” he said. “Sunny and slightly windy — an average September day.”
On that average September day, Chao had plans to finish a memo for a committee and then head to a markup. The legislative assistant for Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) had work on his mind when the first plane hit the twin towers.
But then the second plane hit, and shortly after that Chao remembers seeing a vibration run through the windows of his Longworth Building office.
“It was just a small vibration,” he said. “It could’ve been somebody doing construction.”
That small vibration was the result of a plane crashing into the Pentagon miles away, which, when it was reported on the news, tipped Chao off to the fact that America was under attack.
“Something’s going on, this was planned, and I’m not sure what exactly is going to happen next,” he remembered thinking. So he got on the phone and called around to offices, trying to figure out the next step to take. No offices were sure what was going on, and the Capitol Police offered no guidance.
Then the phones went dead.
“There was no dial tone. It was complete silence. That’s when I realized: It was every man for himself, there were no more instructions to be given, no more contact to be made,” he said.
Napolitano’s chief of staff gave the OK to get out of the office, and Chao remembers walking into a silent hallway.
“There was quiet, everyone was just kind of walking out as fast as they could, but there was no panic,” he said. There was no panic, he explained, because nobody really understood the enormity of the situation.
Chao and his friends walked down the Mall to catch a bus to his place. He said there were tourists lazing on benches on the Mall, obviously oblivious to what had just happened. The bus they tried to take moved only two blocks in 15 minutes, so they got out and walked to his house, spending the rest of the day there glued to the television.
When they emerged to grab lunch, Chao said they encountered an empty D.C.
“Most of the people who didn’t live in D.C. had already evacuated. It was eerily quiet — a ghost town,” he said.
The next morning, still unsure, Chao headed to work and pushed the attacks out of his mind.
“I was busy because we had to get back to work,” he said. “I never questioned it. It was just the thing to do. We had to get back to work and get on with our lives.”
“It was terrifying, but that’s what courage is.”
Well, it got then-Rep. Gary Condit off the front page of the newspapers.
That’s the silver lining Rebecca Ross, currently a staffer on the House Armed Services Committee, remembers from the events of 9/11. As an executive assistant for then-Rep. Joel Hefley (R-
Colo.), her office was down the hall from Condit, a California Democrat who had been in the news all summer for his affair with a missing intern who was later found murdered.
“On Sept. 10, I said to our press secretary, ‘What’s it going to take to get Gary Condit off the front page? God only knows …’” she recalled.
And then, on Sept. 11, America suffered a terrorist attack, and talk of Condit was no more.
That morning, Ross had carpooled into her office early with her father, who also worked on the Hill. They chatted about the weather and the fact that a celebrity had planned to appear at the Capitol. In the office, she sorted mail and prepared Hefley’s schedule for the rest of the day.
“We were watching the news, and I just thought the first plane was an accident, that the pilot was having a heart attack,” she said. But when the second plane hit, it was obvious that America was under attack.
Hefley, who was running late, called the office and told staff to leave. Ross stayed and waited for him, and when he arrived he immediately sat down at his desk and started making calls. They likely would’ve stayed there if not for a call Ross received from her father.
“Hey, there’s been an attack,” her father said. “Your brother just called, and he watched a plane hit the Pentagon.”
Still, Ross wanted to stay, unsure of what that meant for the Capitol. But her father insisted they drive home.
As they drove with the windows open, they heard rumors float in and out of the car. Someone said the State Department had been hit. Phones weren’t working, and she didn’t have a BlackBerry.
“We were getting as much information as we could; we were just drinking it in through the fire hose,” she said. She got home and watched the news while she supported her boss for the rest of the afternoon.
And on Sept. 12, she didn’t for a second consider calling in sick.
“Yeah, it was terrifying, but that’s what courage is,” Ross said. “John Wayne said it best, I think. Courage is being scared but saddling up and riding anyway.”
“By the time I left, it was very quiet, very orderly.”
Vickie Plunkett’s office normally didn’t turn on its television in the morning.
The TV was for watching activity on the House floor, and until Congress started morning business, it usually stayed off, high in the corner of then-Rep. Solomon Ortiz’s Rayburn Building office.
But the morning the World Trade Center was attacked, Plunkett’s husband called to let her know, and Ortiz’s deputy chief of staff immediately turned the television on, bringing the flaming towers to life on the screen.
But it wasn’t until she was told by her boss to get out, that there might be another plane on the way toward the Capitol, that Plunkett evacuated the office.
“By the time I left, it was very quiet, very orderly,” she said. “Some people waited around to see what was going to happen, saying, ‘Why do I have to leave?’”
Plunkett met up with her husband, who also worked in Rayburn, and headed to a friend’s house to continue work for her office and to watch the news.
“One thing that stuck with me was a lot of people were walking around looking up,” she said of the walk to her friend’s apartment.
Plunkett said the next day she refused to give in to the anxiety that caused so many people to keep their eyes turned to the sky on 9/11. She went back to work without a second thought, she said, because she refused to be afraid.
“The point of terrorism is to cause people to live in fear,” she said. “If they can cause you to live in fear, they win. And I refuse to live in fear.”
“It wasn’t so much fear, more confusion.”
Debra Wada worked on the House Armed Services Committee on 9/11, a go-to committee for Members seeking an explanation for the attacks that day.
She, like most of her co-workers, watched the attacks on the news but knew little more than what the television was telling her.
“We were getting calls from Member offices — ‘Do you know what’s going on?’ they were asking,” she remembered.
The committee staffers didn’t have much to tell people, but they weren’t evacuated until a few hours after the attacks, so they continued to answer those calls. Wada remembered seeking answers that day, a sense of inquiry more than fear.
“It wasn’t so much fear, more confusion — what potentially was the source of the attacks? We knew we were going to have to explain this stuff to the Members,” she said.
Although the rest of the day was just as confusing as the morning, Wada knew she had to be back at work the next morning, to try to give answers she didn’t have to the Members who continued to call her office throughout the week.
“We knew we were going to have to respond, probably militarily, so I had to be at work,” she said.
“Everyone else is going to be strong and go back and work.”
For Brenda Muniz, 9/11 means comfortable flats.
She decided she would never again walk two hours home in black pumps, as she did that day, and for weeks after she’d bring an extra pair of shoes.
“Just in case anything would happen, I’d have comfortable shoes to walk in,” said the legislative assistant for then-Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas).
But Muniz hadn’t dressed for an attack on the U.S. that day. She arrived at work after the first plane had hit the World Trade Center and was barely contemplating what was then thought to be a freak accident. But then the second tower was hit. And then the Pentagon.
“At that time it was clear that, OK, this isn’t an accident,” she said.
Rodriguez had plans to go to a news conference that morning, which wasn’t canceled until the Pentagon was hit. He stayed behind with a few staffers while Muniz and her colleagues left the building. They went to Pete’s Diner on Second Street Southeast, and Muniz sipped a Diet Coke while the events sank in.
“There was a lot of commotion, a lot of talk,” she said. “One of my colleagues started crying.”
Pete’s was crowded with staffers staying on the Hill as they waited to figure out whether they’d be returning to their offices. But with the entire Capitol complex evacuated and locked down, Muniz and her colleagues decided to head home.
And although she considered taking the next day off, Muniz said she didn’t feel as if she had the right to ask for it.
“I remember the leadership saying, ‘We’re coming in, tomorrow’s a regular workday,’” she said. “Everyone else is going to be strong and go back and work and go on, and be collectively defiant.”
And on Sept. 12, that’s what she did.