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

AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert
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Aug. 31, 2002, 8 a.m.

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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