Vice President Mike Pence’s voice cracked as he spoke Monday in the Pennsylvania field where United Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001. The only reason he was standing there, he said, was because of a group of passengers on board the airliner 16 years ago.
The typically upbeat former member of the House Republican leadership grew noticeably emotional at a 9/11 remembrance ceremony near Shanksville, at the site where Flight 93 crashed after a group of passengers forced the al-Qaida hijackers to end their mission early.
The vice president explained that he came, in large part, “to pay a debt of gratitude to the heroes of Flight 93 on a much more personal basis: for their actions, on that day, in these skies, saved American lives.”
“And as my wife, Karen, who joins me here today knows, it’s a debt I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay,” Pence said, his voice beginning to break as he spoke. “Because among the many lives that were saved by their selfless courage, they might well have saved my own life that day, 16 years ago.”
Pence told family members of the group of Flight 93 passengers and crew members that on the morning of 9/11, he was at the Capitol, one of the most likely targets of the hijacked plane.
Chaos and panic
As a first-term congressman from Indiana’s 2nd District, he was going about his “morning routine” that crystal-clear morning when the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center’s north tower at 8:46 a.m. Seventeen minutes later, another was flown into its south tower. At 9:37 a.m., a third airliner, also under the control of al-Qaida hijackers, slammed into the Pentagon.
At the Capitol that morning, Pence recalled chaos and panic.
“I will always remember the scenes of that day, watching the Capitol complex being evacuated,” the vice president said Monday. “It was as though the building was literally hemorrhaging with people running in every direction.”
Pence and other congressional leaders wound up huddling across the street at Capitol Police headquarters as they tried to get a handle on what was happening and make plans to deal with whatever might come next.
“The chief of police set the phone back down and informed the leaders gathered there that there was a plane inbound to the Capitol, and he said it was 12 minutes out,” the vice president said.
Pence recalled that the “room became silent” and then the officials, hunkered down inside, “began to make plans.” The vice president said he then turned his attention to a window and gazed toward the Capitol Dome and what he described as its “majestic Statue of Freedom standing atop it, the Dome that’s a symbol of the ideals of this nation — of freedom and democracy for all the world.”
The bipartisan 9/11 commission pieced through intelligence and other data and concluded that al-Qaida leaders and the men who were selected for the 9/11 mission possessed a much different view of the structure.
In its final report, the commission noted that while senior al-Qaida leaders — including founder Osama bin Laden, 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and mission head Mohamed Atta — disagreed about the exact target list, “all of them wanted to hit the Capitol.”
Atta had long preferred directing one of the hijack teams to fly their airliner into the Capitol, according to the 9/11 commission’s findings. In fact, his insistence irked bin Laden, who ordered underlings to set up meetings with Atta before he left for the United States to explain bin Laden’s desire for the White House to be on the final target list.
“As to targets, Atta understood bin Laden’s interest in striking the White House,” the commission stated. During a final meeting with a bin Laden aide, “Atta said he thought this target too difficult” and explained that he had assigned one of the teams to instead target the Capitol, the group reported.
Though the 9/11 commission was unable to determine which building was the primary target of Flight 93, the report suggested it likely was the Capitol. Fighter jets were scrambled to protect both buildings that September morning, with the pilots given the authority to make any shoot-down decisions on their own.
U.S. military officials at the time expressed confidence that Flight 93 would have been shot down before crashing into the Capitol or White House. “We are not so sure,” the 9/11 commission wrote.
“We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93. Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the Capitol or the White House from destruction,” the commission concluded.
Pence did not say Monday if he and other congressional leaders yet knew that U.S. military fighter jets with “hot” weapons were overhead. But as he waited for the police official’s 12-minute warning to tick down, he described a tense scene.
“So we waited. It was the longest 12 minutes of my life. But it turned to 13 minutes, then 14, and then we were informed that the plane had gone down in a field in Pennsylvania,” Pence said.
“In the days ahead, like every American, we would learn the story of the 40 heroes of Flight 93, men and women who looked evil squarely in the eye and without regard to their personal safety, they rushed forward to save lives,” he said.
The vice president grew emotional again when he recalled bringing his family to the crash site near Shanksville about a year after the 9/11 attacks. He asked a park ranger on duty at what was then a makeshift memorial just what time, on 9/11, Flight 93 might have plowed into the Capitol Dome.
“And what she told me, I’ll never forget. For at the time she said, standing with hundreds of others, I was standing near the East Front of the House of Representatives,” Pence said. “I will always believe that I, and many others in our nation’s capital, were able to go home that day to hug our families because of the courage and selflessness of the heroes of Flight 93.”
“So for me, it’s personal,” the vice president said. “And I speak on behalf of a grateful nation. But thank you for giving me the privilege of speaking on behalf of my little family as well.”