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Voices to 9-11: Homeward Bound


Grounded: With all commercial flights halted, people grabbed any train, bus, or car they could find.(David McNew/Getty Images)

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.

Joseph W. Hagin, 46
White House deputy chief of staff for operations

Approximately 15 of us from the White House had traveled to New York City on the afternoon of September 10 to do what we call the survey trip for the president's appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, which was coming up. That evening, I had drinks at the Waldorf with Tony Carbonetti, who was Mayor Giuliani's chief of staff. We had a long conversation about the fire service. I had been a volunteer firefighter in Ohio for a long, long time, so he told me that I should set up a weekend to come up and ride with Rescue Company One from the New York Fire Department.

Of course, September 11 dawned a beautiful day, and my group drove from the Waldorf over to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to have some preliminary meetings with the mission staff about the president's visit. We were probably just pulling up when the first plane hit. We had gotten upstairs to either the 8th or 9th floor, and we were in a conference room. Captain Mike Miller, who is the deputy director of the White House Military Office, came up to me and said that a plane hit the World Trade Center. I was going down the hall toward the ambassador's office, and I heard somebody saying, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God." I stuck my head in the office, and there was the early TV coverage. I didn't know if it had made the national TV yet, so I went to the phone and I called the military aide who was with the president down in Florida, to make sure they were aware of what was happening, and they said that they were. We all gathered around the TV to watch. Like many others, we were watching live when the second plane hit, and not long after that, one of the State Department security officers from the mission came up to me and actually grabbed my arm and said, "Sir, you need to get out of here as quickly as possible. There are reports of other planes inbound into the city."

The Secret Service took us to a police station in Midtown Manhattan, where they thought we'd be safe for the time being. We set up shop in the detective bureau of this police station. We started talking to Washington. I was speaking with my counterpart, Josh Bolten, who was in the Emergency Operations Center with the vice president. It was still, we thought, just a New York incident, so they conferred and decided I should go down and be with the mayor and kind of be the federal face in New York for the time being.

The New York City police and the Secret Service were trying to figure out how to get me down to Ground Zero when the Pentagon was hit. At that point, they decided that this group should get out of New York, and try and get home. So, the New York police and the Secret Service put together a route to get us out of the city. I think that by the time we were actually heading out of the police station, both towers had collapsed. What we saw was not just the smoke of the fire; it was the smoke and the dust of the collapse, after it had enveloped dozens and dozens of blocks in all directions. If people had been running screaming through the streets, it wouldn't have surprised me, but they weren't. They sort of had a grim, determined look on their faces. We ended up taking the tunnel that empties out right across the river from the World Trade Center, so we had a long painful look at that scene. Having been a firefighter for a long time-20-plus years-I said to no one in particular, "Gosh, can you imagine how many firemen are in the building?"

We had made the decision to go to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Our group would split up, and eight of us would fly west to meet the president. As we taxied out and got to the end of the runway and the pilot took the plane to full throttle for takeoff, it was just sort of hurtling into an unknown. We were over Missouri when the president decided to come back to Washington; we made a U-turn and headed back. On final approach, we flew right past the Pentagon. So my guess is, the eight of us were probably the only people in the world to see both of those buildings burning on September 11.

We landed at Andrews, and we went back to the White House, which was again surreal because the security perimeter had been pushed so far out, and the city was like a ghost town that afternoon. I went right to the West Wing and went to work. I didn't leave the White House until Thursday, when I went to New York to prepare for the president's visit there. I was very involved in the continuity of government and just how, operationally, we were going to deal with this. The planning began immediately. Did we want the staff in the next day? How were we going to operate? How were we going to travel?

For me, personally, at that point on September 11, I had not gotten to the emotional state yet. I don't think I really got to that deep emotional state until we went to the Pentagon the next day. This gentleman came up to me in camouflage. He was a major. I don't know what service he was with, but he had a stethoscope around his neck. And he said, "Sir, are you Mr. Hagin?" And I said, "Yes, I am." And he says, "Well, they tell me that you're somebody who can make things happen around here." I said, "I'll try to help. What are you looking for?" He said, "Sir, I'm in charge of the morgue detail, and my guys have been working over 24 hours now without a break, and their morale is very low because once the rescuers uncover the bodies, their job is to bring them out. And they have seen friends and colleagues, and their morale is just really low. If they could meet the president, it would sure mean a lot to them." I said, "Major, follow me."

There were about a dozen of them, and they were all in the white Tyvek suits and the yellow boots and very grim-faced, obviously. They had the face masks hanging around their necks, and I took them to a line of people. The president was going down a line of rescuers and I put them at the end of the line, and abruptly, he changed direction, and they all sort of sagged. I said, "Come on, we'll get to him." I moved them around and the security people kept trying to stop them, and I said, "No, they're with me." I took them under ropes and changed position, and he was almost to them again, and again they pointed him in a different direction. I thought at that point some of them were just going to cry. I thought, well, he's got to get in the car. So I took them over to the area right outside the door to the limo and lined them up, and I grabbed the major, and I said, "Major, when the president gets here, you're first in line. I want you to tell him what these guys have been doing." He did, and the president was very tender toward them all, and they were very emotional, most of them in tears when he got to them. By that point, most of us were, too. That was when it really started to hit emotionally.

Paula E. Kougeas, 50
Retired U.S. Air Force colonel

My son, Christopher, who was 12, and I were planning to go to New York that day and meet P.J., my husband, for lunch in Manhattan. We met in college; he was in the Air Force before me. We've been married for 28 years. We live in Alexandria, but P.J. works in New York-we don't want to move until my daughter is done with high school.

We'd never been to his office before. He's on John Street, which is about three or four blocks from World Trade.

That morning, my daughter, who is 16, went off to school, and my son and I went to Union Station. The train left at about 8:30. There were these really annoying people sitting in front of us, and all this cell phone chatter. Maybe around Baltimore, I heard one of them say, "Gee, a little plane flew into the World Trade." I thought I'd walk back to the cafe car and get a cup of coffee, and as I got back there, people were huddled around a radio. And that was when we started to get the news that it had been an airliner.

I made my way back up to Chris and said, "You know, honey, there's been this problem in New York. I don't think we'll be able to go to Manhattan. We might think about going to Newark and then have Daddy come across and meet us."

This is like the biggest event of my life, and there's no TV. It was very strange to be relying on radio. And then it was two planes. I tried several times to call P.J. And then we heard about the Pentagon. Suddenly, I only had one thought: I have to get back to Washington immediately. It's like this motherly thing that kicks in. You have to get to your children. I get choked up just thinking about that.

So I said to Chris, "We have got to get off this train." Meanwhile, I'm trying to reassure him that I'm sure his father is OK. I left Chris up front, which was a good thing because the guy with the radio said, "Well, this isn't going to be the end of it. They'll be hitting nuclear power plants next." And I was thinking, "Oh, my God, that's not what my son needed to hear." We said a couple of Hail Marys, in the seat. That was our instinct. I said, "I'm sure Daddy's OK."

At the next stop, in Wilmington, everybody has figured out they aren't going to Manhattan. At the ticket window, the woman gave me tickets for the next train to Washington.

A train came in. No sooner had we sat down than they make the announcement: "All Amtrak service has been suspended." I found the conductor and said, "Listen, I really need to get to Washington. Would you wait for Amtrak to run?" He was very clear: "I'd find another way."

So, once again, we run down the stairs, and I see a taxi. To the cabdriver, I said, "You know, I need to get to another car rental place. Where's the closest one?" He said, the airport. I said, "Stay right here." I put my bags in the trunk. I ran past the ATM machine. I don't know why I got $300, but I got $300.

The minute we start to leave the station, they announce on the radio that all air traffic has been shut down. I said, "How much is it to go to Washington, D.C.?" Three hundred dollars. So we ended up taking the cab.

We had NPR on; no picture, we only have words. And then we saw the smoke from the Pentagon. I tell you, it just made me cry. That's a building you really almost develop an emotional attachment to. It's just this tough old building. I was pregnant with both my babies when I was working at the Pentagon, right around the corner from where they got hit. That was my office.

I ran in the house, and there was no message from P.J. Then my mother called and said, "I heard from him." That's when I broke down.

That night we went over to see the Pentagon, up on that little bluff. The kids were saying, "Oh, Mummy, don't cry." It was just incredible to see it like that.

I never got the cabdriver's name. I think it was Bob. He could have said, "Forget it. I'm not taking you." He was such a great guy. I gave him a $60 tip; it was all the money I had. I was so grateful that he took us, and he was so kind to Chris. And he was there.

James Lee Witt, 58
Former director
Federal Emergency Management Agency

My wife and I were at our farm in Arkansas. I was in the shower that morning, and she came running in to tell me, "You've got to come here and look. Something just terrible happened in New York." I got to the TV about the time the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I was shocked and stunned. It was just devastating.

I was in the mode of wanting to respond but not having the authority to respond. I did make some phone calls and offered my assistance any way I could. But you couldn't get ahold of anyone. Then I started getting calls from CNN and NBC and everybody who wanted comments. We were actually getting ready-and had our bags packed-to go to Little Rock and fly back to Washington that day. CNN called, and we drove to Little Rock and set up there to do commentary for them. And then, the next day, we rented a car to drive back to Washington.

I was very concerned about a friend of mine, Ray Downey, who was so instrumental in helping us in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He was with the New York Fire Department. I never will forget: We were in Oklahoma City, and it was at the memorial service with President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton. I had Ray and some of the search-and-rescue team leaders there in a room to brief the president and the first lady. When the president came in, I said, "Mr. President, I want you to meet Ray Downey from New York. He has just done such an incredible job out here." And I said, "The next time I'm in New York, I'm going to take him out and buy him a steak dinner." And of course, Ray looked at President Clinton and he said, "You know, Mr. President, if James Lee Witt comes to New York, he's going to have to take off those cowboy boots." And President Clinton said, "Well, Ray, he never owned a pair of lace-up shoes till I brought him to Washington." I will never, ever forget him and forget that moment.

I made some phone calls, and found out that Ray was one of the first ones into the first World Trade Center building. By the time we got to Washington, they called me and said he was missing. And he did get killed in that building.

We got back to Washington, and I came to the office and we were trying to think of something that we could do to help. The Guinness Company was one of our clients, and we called them and they furnished about 50,000 bottles of water free and took them to New York. So we helped that way as much as we could. I offered my assistance and would have helped any way I could. I talked to Joe Allbaugh at FEMA and told him, "If there is anything I can do to help, just please let me know."

But it wasn't my disaster to deal with. I stayed away for that reason. Director Allbaugh needed to run FEMA. And they did a really good job.

Cynthia J. Mattson, 55
Deputy division counsel for the IRS

I was in Boston at a training session sponsored by Harvard Law School. There were probably several hundred government and private-sector executives from all over the country. At roughly 10:15 a.m., someone came into the hotel ballroom where the session was going on and we were told that two planes had hit the World Trade Center, but not much else was known. I left the room immediately because I have a daughter who lives in Greenwich Village. Many of us went out to the lobby, where about a hundred people were looking at the TV. I saw the towers burning and then one of the towers fall. It was just horrible; all these executives who were there were crying.

I gathered my materials, went to my room, and tried to reach my daughter first, but couldn't get through. I finally got through to my husband, who's a lawyer in Washington. I spoke to him about every half hour; he acted as sort of the focal point since he was getting connected to everybody.

Over the next couple of hours, I learned that my daughter was safe, that the Pentagon had been hit, and that my husband had left work and gone home to Arlington. I learned that another daughter, who was in Chicago, was safe. Once I found out that everyone in my immediate family was safe, I had this overwhelming sense that I had to go home.

But the airlines were shut down, and I was hearing that there were no trains running. I heard that there was not a rental car to be found in Boston. Being alone up there, I didn't know what to do. I went through the directory of executives who were attending the session and just randomly started calling people who were from Washington. The first person who answered the phone was Bill Ott, who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. We agreed to join forces to see how we could get home. We decided that I'd stay in my hotel room and he'd do a little reconnoitering. He went to the train station and came back later and said he'd decided to stay in Boston with friends, but he'd heard that a train was possibly leaving at 4 p.m.

I decided to take my chances. I packed up, went down to the train station, and bought a ticket. It was very strange; there were just a handful of people-maybe five or six-on the entire train, and we all congregated in one car. The train went to New York, and we pulled into Penn Station about 8 p.m.

I was sitting on the right side of the train, and all of a sudden there was the Manhattan skyline. It was dark, with this red glow and smoke. I just remember this image of a building up against the black smoke. It was very hard to watch. It was like being on a ghost train. I wondered if Penn Station would be crowded and hard to get out of, but that wasn't the case. There was another train going on to Washington, so the few of us left on the train grabbed our bags. We got on the other one, and we pulled into Union Station right before midnight. I got into a cab to go home, and it went right past the Pentagon, where I saw more smoke and fire.

It struck me as I was going past the Pentagon that I had been in all three of the cities implicated in this horrible day. I'd felt this sense of anxiety, not knowing what was happening. During the train trips, I also learned that Seven World Trade Center had collapsed. That was like a knife in my heart. The chief counsel's office had 100 employees at Seven World Trade. But it turned out that everybody got out.

On the train, I'd felt alone and disconnected. But the ride also allowed me to feel grounded and have a sense of security. I felt good and confident about going home.

Maj. Kirk Pierce, D.C. National Guard, 35
Pilot, United Airlines

It was the last day of a trip. I was supposed to get back to New York on the 11th and come home. Vancouver to San Francisco, San Francisco to Newark, and then I would be done.

We had a 6 a.m. Pacific departure. We had just taken off. Everything was going great.

We were over top of Seattle, at 23,000 to 25,000 feet, and one of the Horizon Air pilots-that's a commuter airline-asked why the Seattle-Tacoma Airport was on a "ground stop." Usually that only occurs if there's really bad weather. It was gorgeous.

About two minutes later, Seattle Air Traffic Control came on the air. We're being diverted to Portland: "Don't ask questions, pull out your charts, and land immediately." I go to the captain, "Are they kidding?" He looked at me. Total confusion.

What they said was, a plane had hit the World Trade Center. They thought a bomb had gone off at the State Department, that another plane or a helicopter had hit the Pentagon, and that there were several aircraft on the East Coast that were unaccounted for. It got your blood going.

The good thing is, you're trained to do this. You compartmentalize. Specifically, fighter pilots do, because we're a little different. We do so much multitasking. All we had to worry about right now was, land the plane. Compartmentalize, and deal with it later.

While I was doing that, I got a message from United world headquarters saying, "Things are real bad. We have two or three United planes that are not in contact."

We didn't know it was terrorism yet. The big thing was, we didn't want to get everybody upset. We tried to keep it short and sweet. We told the passengers, "We've been advised by air traffic control that we need to land. There's nothing wrong with the airplane."

As soon as we landed, we went down to the United area underneath the terminal. And that's when we saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I'm pretty sure it was a replay. We knew it was a United plane. Just looking at it, we could tell the color, we could tell the tail. So we were just sitting there, totally in shock.

We got rooms, because things were starting to fill up quick. We went to the hotel, and that was weird. You'd walk down the hall and every room had some news channel on. I went from confusion to being pissed off. Also feeling kind of helpless.

I wanted to get back, I wanted to be helping out the team, I wanted to be protecting the capital. Eventually, I found out that United had a 747 chartered to try to get everybody back in position. All our aircrews were in the wrong places. They put me on there as a "national asset."

My wife picked me up at Dulles on Friday, the 14th. I came in that night and flew combat air patrol over D.C. until 3:30 a.m. I could sit there with the target finder and look at my house. The Pentagon was still burning.

Karen Hastie Williams, 57
Member, Continental Airlines board of directors

Continental was having board meetings in Houston on the morning of September 11. The audit committee, which I chair, was scheduled for 8 a.m. I heard about the first plane when I was on the elevator coming down to the meeting. A young man-he must've been a basketball player because he was very tall-got on with two teammates on the 10th floor and said, "Hey, did you hear about the plane that hit the World Trade Center tower? It must've been one of those stunt guys." I thought, "Oh, gee," and I guess I had the same reaction, that it must've been a small plane that lost its way. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it was a 767. Not until I got in to the meeting did I find out that it was a major scheduled jetliner. I remember that I just froze. My first reaction was horror, and what a tragedy it was for the people on the plane. My second thought was of both of my boys in Lower Manhattan and then, "Oh, my heavens, was this a Continental plane?" I had those three thoughts in about three seconds.

We had the TV on when I called the meeting to order, and I had called for the first item on the agenda at the time the other 767 hit the second tower. There was an atmosphere of disbelief when we saw what was happening. There was anxiety on everyone's face, and it was difficult to conduct our business. I tried to keep everyone as calm as I could, and I kept saying to them that we would get more information at the board meeting.

We never imagined that the towers would collapse. The thought never occurred to any of us. We watched it on the television. We were stunned. It looked like a Tinkertoy set falling apart. It was unreal to see those towers just collapse. I was thinking, "These are steel and concrete buildings, more than 80 stories high." None of us realized the impact that the heat of the jet flames would have. Those buildings were built to withstand all kinds of high winds and earthquakes, but not those intense flames.

Everyone was on a cell phone. There was not a person in the room who was not on a cell phone trying to reach a family member or friend. Because we realized it was just not the people in the planes and buildings who were affected-but as you saw the degree of the calamity and the smoke, and the white dust-it was affecting the whole area.

By 10:00, all of the directors and the senior management team were in the room. Fortunately, our COO was on his cell phone in immediate communication with our head of airport operations and the FAA. There were a lot of questions flying, and he couldn't answer some of them. There was only a limited amount of information available. He shared with us that they had closed all U.S. airspace and that we had to get our planes down to the closest airport, and divert those outside the United States to Canada and Mexico.

We prayed. Gordon Bethune, our CEO, asked everyone to take a moment of silence for all of the individuals who had been killed or hurt and the families impacted.

After the meeting, I realized that there was no direct way to get from Houston to Washington. The airline made cars available for any director who wanted to leave. I convinced one of the drivers to take me to New Orleans, a four-hour journey. I had a bunch of reading materials, but I couldn't read, because I was reliving what I'd seen on television. I was thinking about the impact it would have on everyone's lives. I spent a sleepless night in a New Orleans hotel and arose early the next morning to catch the 6:15 a.m. Amtrak Southern Crescent train. It was a 22-hour trip back to Washington.

Kathleen V. McNally, 54
Vice president
National Foundation for Credit Counseling

I was in New Orleans for a conference when the man in charge got up and said, "It appears that our country has been attacked." They rolled in giant televisions. To be in a public setting with 150 people, most of whom I didn't know-it was numbing. We watched the towers collapse, and I came this close to being physically ill. They continued the conference, but I couldn't concentrate at all.

The next day, I decided to give blood. I had to do something. Afterward, I met a group from my conference at a restaurant. In the ladies' room, this very beautiful blond lady saw my sticker that said, "Be Nice to Me, I Gave Blood." She asked, "Are you from here?" I said, "No, actually I'm from the D.C. area and I'm stuck and I'm really concerned about my mother," who was 91 at that time. I told her that there were no planes, trains, buses, or cars to rent. She looked at me in a really lovely way and said, "I'm going to introduce you to someone who can help you."

Her name was Jody Taylor. She walked me out to the restaurant and introduced me to her friend, a charming gentleman named Duke Robin. We chatted a bit, and he said, "Where are you staying?" I told him, and he said, "I will bring you a vehicle at 10:00 tomorrow morning." Jody turned to him and said, "Honey, don't give her the Mercedes." And he said, "Actually I'm going to give you the Navigator"-he meant a Lincoln Navigator SUV.

It was an amazing gesture. I gave him my business card, and he said, "I'm going to give you the name of my friend in Virginia. You just call him when you get home, and he'll get the car back to me somehow." They both kept saying, "We want to do something. We feel that our country has suffered this terrible tragedy, and we want to help."

So I lined up some people to go with me. The volatility of our emotions in that car as we headed north was really extreme. We were all shocked by then. And there were some incredible tempers, including my own, that erupted in the course of that journey.

I kept thinking of the time I'd spent with my parents in Afghanistan when I was a teenager. My father was in the State Department, and I grew up all over the world. I'm a huge believer in respecting diversity-acknowledging it and working together. I felt that everything that I believe in came crashing down with those towers. I haven't gotten over it.

When we got back, I dropped everyone off in Alexandria. I was driving home when suddenly I saw some of our wonderful Washington monuments. And I just started to weep. I've been weeping off and on ever since. I thought, "Oh, my God, we're so vulnerable." We have so much freedom in this country. And I live in absolute fear that we're going to lose those freedoms.

James Bentley, 57
Senior vice president, American Hospital Association

I was in a meeting of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education in Chicago. So someone walks in and says a plane just hit the Trade Center. Then the second one hit, and we realized it must be terrorism.

We had the head of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. We had the dean of the Uniformed Services, Health Sciences University in Bethesda. There was a woman officer from the Medical Corps in the Army, responsible for medical education in the Army. There was a staff member from the American Association of Medical Colleges. Clearly, the lady from the Army was the most anxious. She works in the Pentagon, as does her husband.

I called the travel agent. I said I would take any kind of car from Hertz I could get, the bigger the better. Hertz had a big long line. There were hundreds and hundreds there, waiting for cars. We got a huge Lincoln Navigator that took seven of us. We started out around noon and got our luggage and jammed it into the sport-utility vehicle.

The first time we buy gas, it dawns on the guy from Columbus, a family practitioner, that Ohio license plates show the county you're from. He didn't see any plates from his county. The next time we buy gas, he sees a car from Franklin County, and he explains he's a doctor, and asks for a ride. This girl says yes. (If I were her father, I would have been angry.)

All the way home, all we could hear was that one side of the Pentagon was struck. It was really eerie: The highways were completely void of traffic as it got later. For a while it was like driving through regular life, but as we got further and further east, things changed. We didn't see two cars between Breezewood, Pennsylvania, and Arlington.

The woman from the Pentagon was amazingly calm. When we got to rest stops, we would try the telephones. We wouldn't get answers, and sometimes we couldn't get a line. We were doing the only thing we could do: Drive east.

We drove through the dark and listened to the same stories on the radio over and over and over. As we got close to Arlington, coming down the George Washington Parkway, once we got close to the Pentagon, we could smell the smoke.

We got home about 4 a.m. People had taken turns driving. If I was buying gasoline, someone else would buy something to munch on. The front-seat passenger was always in charge of making sure the driver was awake.

It's like any of those events, people journeying together and learning more about one another. Everybody was really grateful.

John D. Ashcroft, 60
Attorney general

As I recall, it was a very nice day. We left Washington relatively early, in one of the smaller aircraft that's provided for travel for Cabinet officials. We had just crossed western Michigan, maybe breaking out over Lake Michigan, on our way to Milwaukee. I pointed it out to the staff, and I said, "There's Grand Rapids." I have a particular affection for Grand Rapids, Michigan, because the river comes right through the middle of town. If you go there, you see people fishing right in the middle of the city.

We were just a little past that when we received word, from either the pilot or some of the security people on the plane, that we should place a call back to the Command Center of the Justice Department. I don't remember who I talked to. I was told that the towers had been hit. I immediately made the response, "We need to get back to Washington." But, apparently, we had inadequate fuel to turn around in the air. I turned to the staff and said, "Our world has changed forever."

We landed in Milwaukee. And, literally, you could see the world was different. It was just the kind of security surrounding the plane. We had the refueling operation. We weren't aware of the full extent of the tragedy, and we weren't sure whether we could come back. After we were back in the air, we spent some time in a holding pattern until we could be attended by a military fighter jet. I believe I said, "We have to be prepared to act and to protect America in whatever way possible and to resolve and curtail this disaster."

The first sight of the city was the smoke rising from the Pentagon. That's a very, very distressing thing. It's not only the nation's capital, but the headquarters of our ability to defend ourselves. And it had been struck.

I was not yet aware of the complete details of the disaster of the Pentagon. [He points to a photo taken during his confirmation hearing; it includes Barbara Olson, wife of Solicitor General Ted Olson.] Barbara was on the plane and had called her husband twice from the plane. We were with the Olsons-less than a week before-at their home. We lost a very good friend, and Ted lost a wonderful, wonderful wife.

I'm not sure just when I heard about Barbara's death. You know, there was this litany of calamities. There were lots of things going through my mind. You're trying to assess how to respond-what can be done, how to limit the potential of additional harm. I was interested in where my wife was. When I landed, she was there to meet me.

I immediately went to the Strategic Information Operations Center. We were working on gathering as much information as possible about any airplanes that were still question marks. Those early moments were filled with con- ference calls-identifying passenger lists, identifying who might have been responsible on the airplanes for this kind of tragic activity, trying to answer questions that we had ourselves about what actually had happened. I stayed there for the next 60 days, practically. I wouldn't spend a day in the Justice Department for at least two months.

The president made it very clear in the earliest moments of my opportunity to meet with him that he didn't want this ever to happen again. He let me know that that was a substantial charge to me-that I should do everything possible that this should never happen again. Every once in a while, you find yourself lapsing back into pre-9/11 sort of thoughts, and that's good. We want to return to normal, but we never want to let our guard down.

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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