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Voices of 9-11: Amid Chaos, Chords of Unity


A Song for America: By nightfall on 9/11, lawmakers regrouped at the Capitol and sang "God Bless America."(AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert)

The following are first-person accounts of Americans and their experiences on Sept. 11, 2001. These interviews originally appeared in the Aug. 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., 59

I was, as usual, taking the train. I got almost to Baltimore and my wife called and said, "Joe, I'm looking at the TV. I'm looking at the TV. I can't leave the TV. A plane just crashed into the World Trade towers." I said, "Honey, was it an accident?" And she said, "I don't know." I am now calling my staff: "Is it an accident?" They don't know. The next thing, my phone rings and my wife says, "Oh, my God. A plane just went in the second tower."

Now, I am almost in Washington. I get off the train. It was a vivid memory. I walk outside and look over to the southwest, and there is this black plume of smoke. There are all kinds of rumors: a car bomb, and so on. Everybody is standing out in the park to the other side of the Russell Building. I said, "I am going to the floor." They said, "They won't let you on the floor." I said, "God damn it, we should not be out. We should be in session, people seeing us on the floor."

So I try to walk up the stairs of the Capitol, and a cop stops me. Just then a cop comes running through and says, "Senator, get out, evacuate the area, evacuate the area, incoming, incoming plane." I come running back here to make sure everybody was out of my office. The cop wouldn't let me in here. I said, "I'm going in anyway, it doesn't matter." And I came running down, and everybody was gone from the office.

I heard that some congressmen and senators were over at the police headquarters by the Monocle restaurant. I asked where Daschle was, where the leadership was. I got a private briefing upstairs. They had already briefed Daschle and others, and said they should go to a secure bunker. I called and said, "Tom, don't go. Don't do that. Stay here." He explained that he felt that since others were doing it, he was obliged to. He didn't think he should. Byrd refused to go, God love him, which I loved.

Congressman Brady and a couple of others agreed with me that we should go back into session and be seen. I raised that with 10 or 12 of my colleagues, and it fell on deaf ears. They didn't think it was a good idea. There were a lot of press outside that building. I came out and indicated that we should go back and that America should calm down.

Everybody was leaving, so I hitched a ride with Brady. About halfway between here and Baltimore, my cell phone rang, and it was the president of the United States. He called to thank me for standing tall. He just saw me on television. I asked, "Mr. President, where are you?" He said, "I'm on Air Force One." I said, "You comin' home?" He said, "No." I said, "Where are you going?" He said, "Undisclosed location." I said, "Mr. President, don't do that. Come home." He said, "The security people insisted that we do this." I said, "Mr. President, I can't second-guess them, but if I were you, I would look them in the eye and say, is there any real, compelling reason they think you are in danger? Because, otherwise, Mr. President, they are going to take you anywhere." I said, "Now is the time to be seen." He thanked me for my advice and we hung up.

And the next thing I knew, I was home. It's like 5:30 or 6:00. I had been running around the Capitol trying to get everybody to go back into session. Next thing I see, seven o'clock, a group of senators who had left or were going to leave, all back on the steps of the Capitol, and I am up in Wilmington.

Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, 62

My day began quite routinely. I was in my office at 8 o'clock, drinking my coffee and eating a bagel. One of my top guys walked in and said someone had flown a plane into the first tower. Like so many other people, we watched on television as the other plane hit the second tower. Then the plane hit the Pentagon.

Someone made the decision that we should vacate the Capitol, and my security guys hustled us out of there. We got in the car and we couldn't communicate by cell phone, but we could communicate by BlackBerry. I reached the speaker and was able to discern that he was going to Andrews Air Force Base. We went there and were flown by helicopter to some undisclosed location. I still don't know where it was. I've never asked where it was. It's not information that I need to have.

We were escorted to an office, and we were impressed with how nice the office looked. The speaker asked me if I saw anything curious. I looked, and there was the presidential seal. Somebody had put us in there by mistake. The speaker called and said somebody had made a mistake, and we were moved to another room.

As time went on, other members of the House and Senate leadership arrived. We watched what we could on television and tried to determine how to get back to business. We were in constant communication with the president, the vice president, and the secretary of Defense.

I don't think anyone was concerned about their party affiliation. Everyone knew that it was important that we maintain an atmosphere of unity. Nobody was panicky. It was all matter-of-fact and concern about what we could do to reconvene. We were concerned about where our people were. The best things we had were our internal beeper system and our BlackBerrys.

Later in the day, when we felt confident that any threat to the Capitol had dissipated, we decided to return. We were helicoptered to the Capitol lawn. The whole idea behind gathering on the Capitol steps was to tell the country: "Here we are. We're at work." We broke out into song-"God Bless America." It was a pretty remarkable thing. People commented that they saw Maxine Waters and I hugging. That's not so rare. We're good friends. We just don't agree on anything.

Everything was very businesslike. I think something about the gravity of the situation just sobered us up.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., 59

About 20 House Democrats from the leadership and the Appropriations Committee were meeting early that morning in Dick Gephardt's conference room in the Capitol. We were talking about the recession, and we Democrats were confident politically. When we had returned from the August break, the president's public approval numbers were around 50 percent. On a whole range of issues, he was on the defensive.
We had begun the discussion of our legislative strategy, when a staff person brought in a note to the leader. He opened it, and said that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We were glued to the television set and saw the smoke. Then the second plane hit. People jumped out of their seats. People exclaimed, "My God!" They were aghast with the horror of it. Everyone dispersed and went back to their offices.

At the Rayburn Building, I gathered my staff and told them to go home. Not long after that, there were rumors of a plane coming to the Capitol. A Capitol policeman came to our office and told us to evacuate. With three of my aides, I was walking up Independence Avenue when we were told that there was a meeting of members at the Library of Congress. I got into a van there with a clutch of members that were going to the Capitol Police station. When I arrived, I called my husband, Stan, and our children, including my son-in-law who worked in the Sears Tower in Chicago. All the members were trying to cope with our professional obligations, plus our personal response. We tried to sort out family and friends. I know so many friends with kids in New York.

The police station was noisy and chaotic. Everybody wanted to go back to their office. But the police and sergeant at arms didn't feel that they could allow that, except for a brief visit late in the day to get some things. Some people were briefing us on what was going on. We felt the necessity of communicating with the American public that the government was standing tall and strong. We didn't yet have our mobile pagers and BlackBerrys, so it was hard to keep in touch.

Because there needed to be a public expression by members, we were told to be on the plaza of the Capitol at 7:00. I was asked to get members organized on the steps. The singing of "God Bless America" was not scripted. It was spontaneous and one of the most emotional actions of the day. It was important to tell the public that the United States would not be deterred, and that we were all together.

Neil G. Volz, 31
Former staff director
House Administration Committee

I had just gotten back from my honeymoon, so that morning I was in my office on the third floor of the Longworth Building, catching up. Right as the second plane hit, Chairman Ney walked in. And we instantly began a conversation: "Terrorists. Under attack. This is war."

A woman came in from our front office and said that Fred Hay, one of our counsels, was on 395 and he had just seen an American Airlines plane go into the Pentagon. At that moment, the chairman was on the phone with the Office of the Sergeant at Arms. And I remember the chairman hanging up the phone and saying, "That's enough for me. Let's get our people out of here." Our deputy staff director, Channing Nuss, came in and said, "I think we have a role to play here." And I told him, "You know, you're right." So I called the chairman and said, "We're not leaving."

We decided we were going to walk down to the Sergeant at Arms Office and see what we could do to help out, if anything. On our way, we saw the deputy sergeant at arms and some uniformed officers on the East Front of the Capitol, and we all decided it would be best for us to set up our operation at Capitol Police Headquarters.

Right then, we noticed the cops on the beat just go crazy. One of the police officers looked at us and said, "Plane, north of here, coming toward the Capitol or D.C. Get the hell out of here." So we sprint across the Capitol grounds. It was just sort of a weird feeling. It's half Hemingway novel, half Schwarzenegger movie, but totally real.

We get to Capitol Police Headquarters. Daschle's there, Lott's there, Reid's there, DeLay's there. The father was up there, and we all had a prayer and watched out Chief Varey's window and waited for a plane to come into view. I remember thinking how weird it was that a plane could come hit the dome, and we're going to watch it. Mr. DeLay and Mr. Daschle, they were really calm under pressure. They really took control of the situation, because members and senators had just dispersed.

It turned out we did have a role to play. We made a decision to transfer all the D.C. congressional office phones to the district offices. Some members were a little unhappy about it, but generally most were happy that somebody calling D.C. got somebody. Then we worked with Mr. DeLay and Mr. Ney by phone on crafting a message we could send out through all the BlackBerrys and e-mails, because we really wanted the members to know they could come back at 3 o'clock, meet at the Capitol Police Headquarters, and get an update. Communicating was tough. Cell phones were generally down. But BlackBerrys were working. It was very ad hoc.

Eventually we had the member meetings, which were amazing. I was just overcome with this feeling of patriotism, watching members debate whether we go into the Capitol or not. And the speaker and Gephardt and DeLay and Daschle and Lott were all at the secure location by this point, and we had them on the speakerphone with all the members. And they had come up with this idea that they were going to do this press conference in front of the Capitol, and that caused consternation. The members were upset: "No, we all need to go up there, we should go in session." And Steny Hoyer said, "We will support our leaders. We'll go stand behind them. And we won't go in the building."

Everybody sang "God Bless America." I can remember being surrounded by a lot of members and senators crying, praying out loud. That's when it hit me.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, 60

I had a meeting with a general early in the morning. He would have been in the corridor the plane hit, so as it turned out, paradoxically, I saved his life.

I did not see the first plane hit, and then I did see the second plane hit. At that point, I sent everybody home except three people. It was clear to me that something was happening, and so I stayed here. Lott and I talked a couple of times. They had this deal about trying to gather people up, either at Andrews or at a police station near the Capitol. I have a son in New York, so I thought, "I don't want to get with a whole bunch of people where there is not a telephone." I was sure he was all right. I had not talked to my mother. I didn't want to bring up that my son was in New York. On a logical level, I figured the chances that he would be affected were very low, but you never know. Anybody who had kinfolks in New York was relieved when they heard from them. He called me in the afternoon.

I won't be forgetting the day. Strangely enough, I never felt in any danger. I don't know why. But I never did. After that second plane hit, it was clear that we were eventually going to evacuate the building. We knew there was another plane; I assumed it was probably headed for the Capitol. But nobody knew. In retrospect, the thought of that old building being destroyed was frightening. They could have replaced people like me. Replacing that building would be pretty hard.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., 55

I was standing in the Monocle restaurant, speaking to a fundraising breakfast, when one of my staff handed me a note that said a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. That's all it said, and when you read a note like that, you don't necessarily jump to the conclusion that it's a terrorist. Those things are high, and a small plane, disoriented-it could be fog or bad weather. So I didn't say anything to the group. I just kept going. A few minutes later, another staff person said, "Senator, I think I need to interrupt you. Another plane has just hit the second Trade Center tower, and it was a jet." At that point, you race to some quick conclusions.

I raced, literally, across that little park to the Russell Building; I got into the office, and the third attack had just happened. The plane that went into the Pentagon-we heard the sound. I was on the phone with one of the people who had been with me at the Monocle-a former general-and he was talking to one of his intelligence buddies. He said it was definitely a planned terrorist attack, that both planes were commercial jets. He did not say they were loaded with passengers-they didn't know that.

At that point, we started getting our staff out. About 10 minutes later, the guards started coming down the hall, getting everybody out. They moved out across the street into the park next to the Russell Building. We got all our staff out immediately, and I went out with them and waited in the park. We had portable radios and phones. And a lot of media were there with their cameras and were constantly in touch with their people.

I stayed out there a while, probably an hour. Then I saw Senator Domenici. He has a town house on the Hill about two blocks away, and he said, "Why don't you come with me to my house?" I went over there and stayed for about two hours, and I was in touch with everybody. My press secretary was with me for a while, so everybody knew where I was.

Like all of us, I didn't fully understand what was unfolding. My first reaction, and my first thoughts, were, How bad is this going to be? How widespread is this? You race through your mind-and think of your family and think of your staff, think of the Congress. It came to me in a split-second kind of process, these lightning processes that we all go through cerebrally, that the world is forever changed.

Interestingly enough, one of the thoughts that hit me was, What kind of a world will my 9-year-old and 11-year-old inherit? For some reason, I could not get that out of my mind. Their world is now going to be so different, so much more complicated than I had to deal with. And I was riveted on that point. When you think in terms like that, it does tell the rest of the story: We are now living in a world that is totally different, and no longer is the United States insulated from any kind of terror, from any source at any time.

Ed Pesce, 34
Senate Periodical Press Gallery

I was standing in the office with a pot of coffee and saw the second plane on TV. I remember taking a step backward, as if something was going to come out of the television. It was a weird sensation. The feeling was that this was something bigger than I thought it was, and it was the first time I thought maybe we in D.C. were not so safe.

At that point, I noticed the increased volume of the Capitol Police radios though the hallways and walked outside to see if I could find out what was going on. I noticed people at one of the far windows. I ran over to see smoke billowing from across the river. I went running back to the office to ask police officers if we were evacuating. Without waiting for an answer, I went back to the office and started yelling for everyone to get out. I remember yelling at reporters who were actually still trying to pack up their equipment, still thinking they were going to do work.

As I started yelling at people to get out, one reporter got emotional and I walked over and put my arm around her shoulder. We walked down the stairs, with me sort of pulling her along. She wasn't dead weight, but she was confused about what to do. Once we got outside, she bolted and went home. But I'd never seen such disorientation before. The fact that this reporter got so upset was a blessing, because it was a distraction from my own fear. It helped me focus. At that point, we were all in it together.

I finally got everyone out of the office and moving toward the middle stairs. As soon as we hit the second floor, I saw Senator Daschle with at least three Capitol Police heading down the stairs. The urgency with which they were escorting him out of here struck me. It was the first time that fear struck my body. At that point, Capitol Police officers started yelling for us to get out of the building and everyone picked up their pace.

We finally got outside, to a gorgeous day. We saw Capitol Police, staff, and senators walking away from the Capitol. Every time a fighter jet flew by, everyone looked up to try to locate it. At one point, the Senate chaplain gathered a small circle of staff and said a prayer for calm and safety.

When I got home, my voice mail was almost full. It was mostly family members and some reporters. I tried to get in touch with as many family members as possible.

Katharine Lister, 24
Former deputy press secretary
Democratic Leadership Council

You could see the smoke from the Pentagon out our office window. It was absolutely terrifying because we didn't know what was coming. I looked out the window, and people were running down Pennsylvania Avenue to get to the Capitol South Metro. So the entire Capitol is evacuating in our general direction, and everyone in the office was like, "Let's get out of here." I felt like I was sleepwalking. It felt like you were trapped in a really weird, bad dream. Everyone's parents were saying get out of there, get on the train, get out of D.C.

It was almost like it wasn't scary because it wasn't real. Seeing everything happen through the television made it absolutely surreal. The only two things I clearly remember were seeing people running down Pennsylvania, and a woman who came into the office: She had seen the plane go into the Pentagon, and she still didn't know if her husband inside was alive. I remember the look of terror on her face. Those two things were very real.

I had a classmate who was killed in the tower that went down first. She worked for Morgan Stanley on one of the top floors. She was on the phone with her dad when she died-that's how they knew she was gone. They were talking, and then there was just nothing.

It's scary because you don't think about people our age dying. You don't think of innocent civilians being victims in the United States. Civilian casualties are things that happen in other countries when we screw up. It was scary to see all of my classmates at the funeral, grieving, at a time when we didn't know what was going to happen next.

Gene B. Sperling, 43
Former economic adviser to President Clinton

I was at the Brookings Institution, preparing to go to the Hill for a 9:45 meeting with a senator in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Near the elevator, a colleague said, "A plane ran into the World Trade tower." I thought of a small commuter plane and wondered whether a lot of people-like meaning 20 or 25-had died. My first thought was of being a kid. When I was little, we used to go to the Empire State Building, and we were always kind of fascinated with the notion of planes and that building. Then I heard somebody say, "Another plane has hit the World Trade tower." At that moment, I instantly knew it was terrorism. But I still thought we were talking about small planes; I guess I had in my mind the plane that had tried to go into the White House one late night when I was there, a small plane. Downstairs, in the cab, was the first I heard that it was a 767.

I figured my meeting would be canceled but I ought to show up anyway. I was there a little early, and one of the senator's aides came out and said, "This is horrible. They may be getting briefings on this, so just hang here for a few minutes, but I think we'll have to reschedule."

At that moment, my cell phone went off and it was my older brother, Mike, who's an attorney in Milwaukee, and he wanted to make sure that I was in D.C., and not in New York. I hung up the phone, and the news suddenly said the Pentagon had been attacked. And at that moment, like a lot of people, I had no idea whether the White House or the Capitol or monuments or anything else might be attacked. My cell phone went off again. It was Mike again, and he said, "Get the hell out of there!" I said, "Bro', don't worry, I'm thinking just like you!"

So I went down on the street-the corner on the Union Station side-to try to find a cab. People were crowding into cabs, and hundreds of people seemed to come up. I'd only started walking, maybe 30 yards, when I heard a familiar voice yell, "Gene Sperling! Gene Sperling, get in the car!"

I looked up and I saw a silver car, and I was confused because all I could see were two large men in the front seat. And I finally saw that on the other side there was a woman yelling to me. It was Mrs. Clinton. I think they were less than thrilled that Mrs. Clinton was stopping at all; these are moments when the Secret Service has a mission to get her to a protected area. She asked me where I was going. I said Dupont Circle, but I could walk. She insisted I get in-it was right on the way.

It was a car ride I'll never forget. She was the first person I was really sharing this horrible, horrible day with. And you could see the different roles in her life. To the Secret Service, she was an ex-first lady. For herself, you could see her flipping back and forth between trying to be the best senator of a state that has just been terrorized, to a wife and a mother who's not satisfied by the 80 percent assurance that her daughter is OK and whose mind is racing, trying to figure out what close friends lived or worked near the World Trade Center.

I wanted to digest what we were hearing, but I also felt that old loyalty to be an adviser. And so her aide, Huma Abedin, and I were trying to place phone calls for Mrs. Clinton to different parts of the New York government, to the police department, to FEMA. Like everyone else, we were experiencing the frustration of the phones being jammed.

While we would be placing these calls, she would ask one more time about Chelsea. Huma kept telling her she was pretty sure Chelsea wasn't near the trade center. And Mrs. Clinton would seem satisfied for about 40 seconds, until she would spin out different scenarios: "Well, what if she came back? Or what if she went jogging?" Huma seemed to have some reason to believe that Chelsea was more midtown at that time. But, you know, telling a mother that you're 80 percent sure that her daughter is safe is not very satisfying.

One of the worst moments was when Mrs. Clinton turned to me and asked, "Gene, where does Nickie work? Where does Nickie work?" My heart just sank. Nicole Davison is a woman who interned for me at the National Economic Council, but was also Chelsea's best friend. And I felt horrible, because I knew Morgan Stanley, where she worked, had a big office in the trade center. I said, "I'm not sure." As it turned out, Nickie was in the midtown office, but I did not find out that she was OK until much, much later that day.

I was trying to be very functional, to think through different steps Mrs. Clinton might have to take-as I would have done during the eight years we were in the White House. For that 20-minute ride, I was, in a sense, one of only two aides able to help her think through, a little bit, the various actions and steps she might need to do during this completely unprecedented day. It was not that I had any special insight, but you want to try to have a level head.

For me, at that moment, I was more struck by the horror of the overall situation. There was a feeling that there were just thousands and thousands of people who were going to be dead, and that inevitably, there would be people that you knew. A couple people who crossed my mind were close friends, a judge at the 2nd Circuit, and another friend from law school, who worked for the New York legal defender. They were evacuated, but were OK. Plus, you still didn't know whether this was the end or just somewhere in the middle of this attack. There were still a lot of rumors at that point. There was a rumor that the State Department and Old Executive Office Building had been hit.

Around 11th or 12th Street we came to a light, and suddenly the guy on the radio started saying, almost like you were listening to the "War of the Worlds" tape: "Oh my God, the World Trade tower has just collapsed! Oh my God, the World Trade tower has just collapsed! Oh my God, the World Trade tower has just collapsed!" It was unimaginable. And that was the moment when the car just went silent. And I just remember staring at Mrs. Clinton and seeing just the hint of-just the slight watering of her eyes. It was unfathomable that it had collapsed. To hear a radio announcer in hysterics and try to imagine it was even more horrific than when I actually watched the second one collapse, live, on TV. We rode for a couple of blocks, I think, stunned, before conversation continued. I remember saying, "This is like Pearl Harbor." She said, "It's worse. It's worse."

I hopped out a couple of blocks past Brookings. I think we just clutched arms, and I said, "Whatever I can do, let me know." And Mrs. Clinton was just very motherly: "Take care of yourself. Be careful."

When I went back up to Brookings, I had a very eerie memory. Twenty years before, I had been at Brookings as a research assistant, and I watched the Air Florida crash on a black-and-white TV in the office. There was a camera covering it live, but they had no sound. And you literally watched the hook come down and rescue people, and then you saw a man who didn't seem to be able to get up; you saw some people fall, and the notion that you were watching some survive and some people die right in front of your eyes-it just brought back that horrible moment. It was one of the most haunting things I ever witnessed in my life at that time. In my Brookings office, I saw the second tower collapse.

I did not feel the tears until later, when they started showing the people in New York looking for their family members, and I saw this mother and two daughters looking around for their dad.

There used to be times at the White House when I would come down at night and see Sandy Berger and think to myself that as weighty as the economic issues were that we were dealing with, that, you know, how truly heavy must be the weight when the decisions you're making can have a direct impact on life and death. So I felt enormous empathy for the people in the White House that day. While I had not experienced anything like that in my eight years, I could imagine the sense of responsibility everybody there would feel, and how all-consuming this must have been.

September 11 on Capitol Hill

8:50 a.m. Capitol Police notified of plane crash at World Trade Center.

9:00 a.m. House meets for routine debate.

9:07 a.m. Capitol Police issue heightened security alert after being notified of second plane crash.

9:20 a.m. House recesses until 10 a.m.

9:52 a.m. Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., gavels the House back into session. A guest chaplain gives a short prayer.

9:53 a.m. House recesses subject to the call of the chair and does not go back into session.

9:59 a.m. Capitol Police order evacuation of all Capitol Hill buildings.

10:00 a.m. Senate is scheduled to meet, but does not go into session.

Midday Congressional leaders huddle at an undisclosed secure location, while rank-and-file members disperse around Washington.

7:24 p.m. More than 150 House members and senators gather on Capitol steps. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., speak and members sing "God Bless America." Congressional leaders announce that the House and Senate will meet the next day.

About This Issue: This special report features the accounts of more than 50 Washingtonians who talked with National Journal reporters about their experiences on September 11, 2001. The accounts are in the words of the members of Congress, White House aides, Pentagon personnel, waitresses, cabdrivers, and other area residents who agreed to be interviewed. Conducting the interviews were National Journal staff members James A. Barnes, David Baumann, Carl M. Cannon, Richard E. Cohen, Courtney Crimmins, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., Robert Gettlin, Siobhan Gorman, Erin Heath, Corine Hegland, Louis Jacobson, James Kitfield, Margaret Kriz, Neil Munro, Mark Murray, Molly C. Norton, Patrick B. Pexton, Marilyn Werber Serafini, Alexis Simendinger, Bruce Stokes, Peter H. Stone, Stuart Taylor Jr., Kirk Victor, and Shawn Zeller.

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