For a former congressman, 9/11 quickly became up-close and personal
Sept. 11, 2001, will be forever etched in the memory of Americans, particularly those with any connection to the actual events of that horrendous day and the weeks and months that followed. As a congressman who lost more than 100 friends, neighbors and constituents at Ground Zero, my memories are especially vivid on this 20-year anniversary of 9/11.
Driving to the Capitol that bright, sunny Tuesday morning 20 years ago with my chief of staff, Rob O’Connor, my focus was on the White House barbecue that evening for which my wife, Rosemary, was flying down on a Delta flight leaving LaGuardia at 8:30 a.m. As we approached the Capitol at about 8:55 a.m., a report came across the radio that a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center just a few minutes earlier.
Not overly worried, but to get reassurance that it was not my wife’s flight, Rob called Delta’s Capitol Hill desk, but was told there was no information on that flight except that it was thought to be still on the runway. Not terribly reassuring or definitive.
To save time, Rob dropped me at the Cannon Building’s northeast corner on Independence Avenue and 1st Street. Entering the building, I was greeted by two friendly Capitol Hill police officers who showed no concern. In the hallway outside my fourth-floor office, I saw young staffers and interns drinking coffee from Starbucks cups encased in Java jackets and working out their lunch plans.
Opening the door to my outer office at 9:03 a.m., I saw on the large television screen directly facing me the video of a large plane crashing into a Trade Center tower. My immediate reaction: This must be a tape replay of the earlier crash, and the plane was larger than expected. Turning up the volume, I realized this was a second plane and it was the South Tower!
Our world had changed: This was a terrorist attack.
I made sure the staff was aware and asked them to find out whatever they could. Going to my office, I called my wife’s cell phone several times but it went directly to voicemail. Then, at 9:21 a.m., Rosemary called me. As I started to ask how she was she asked, with obvious irritation, how she was supposed to go to Washington after being told she would have to get off the plane and that all flights out of LaGuardia were cancelled? “Don’t you know what’s happening?” I asked before hearing myself say: “New York is under attack!”
Just then, in the background of her call, I could hear the pilot make an announcement and passengers yelling “No! No!” Moments later my daughter Erin called to tell me her husband John, who worked just north of the Trade Center and had seen the plane crash into the tower from his 28th floor office window, had safely evacuated and was walking uptown. I told her not to worry, that the NYPD knew exactly how to handle a situation like this — even though I knew New York never had had a situation like this.
Then, at 9:43 a.m., it was reported that the Pentagon had been attacked. It was no longer just New York, and I told the staff (except for Rob and Kevin Fogarty, who was my legislative director) to leave the building immediately.
Moments later came the report that a fire bomb had exploded on the Washington Mall, near the Commerce Building where my son Sean worked. I called Sean three times and each time his line was dead. Then he called me to say it was a false report and all was well. What a relief: My wife, son and son-in-law were safe. For a fleeting moment it seemed all was well — until, of course, my mind jarred itself back to reality and the horrible enormity of what was happening, to the thousands who had been murdered and the suffering imposed on so many good people which would continue for so long.
I have myriad memories of those first days, including:
-being caught in a traffic jam with Kevin near Union Station as we were driving from the Capitol and paying little attention to a radio report about a plane crashing somewhere in Pennsylvania, which we later learned was Flight 93, heroically brought down in Shanksville;
– going back to the roof of my apartment house that evening and seeing the Pentagon in flames;
– getting the news on Sept. 12 that Fire Department of New York firefighter Michael Boyle, the son of my longtime friend Jimmy Boyle, had been killed in the North Tower;
– being in the White House Cabinet Room on Sept. 13 when President Bush met with senators and congressional members from downstate New York, northern New Jersey and northern Virginia and told us that we had to simultaneously urge Americans to go back to normal living as quickly as possible while telling them they would have to be constantly vigilant far into the future;
– being at the ruins of Ground Zero with President Bush on Sept. 14, where he rallied America and was embraced by cops and firefighters;
– picking up my car at the now-empty US Air parking lot at LaGuardia Airport, which had been packed full on Monday morning, and then driving home along Grand Central Parkway with the almost deathly silence broken only by F-16 fighter jets flying low overhead;
– attending the wakes and funerals of so many cops, firefighters and financial services employees who perished in the World Trade Center;
– meeting with the families of 9/11 victims and fighting to ensure that they received fair compensation.
In the years that followed, there would be struggles to get the homeland security funding that New York would need to protect itself against terrorist attacks and to enact 9/11 healthcare legislation to treat the deadly illnesses afflicting first responders that were caused by poisonous toxins at Ground Zero.
But it will be the jarring moments of those first days that once again will be in my thoughts this Sept. 1, when I attend the annual commemoration ceremony at Ground Zero, when Rosemary and I visit the graves of friends at the 9/11 memorial site at Holy Rood Cemetery, and when we conclude the day at Seaford High School, where every year, more than 100 residents gather to honor the school’s graduates who died on 9/11. We must never forget!
Peter King retired in January as the U.S. representative of New York’s 2nd Congressional District. He served 28 years in Congress, including as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Follow him on Twitter @RepPeteKing.
Editor’s note: This piece was updated to reflect that a meeting took place in the White House Cabinet Room on Sept. 13, 2001.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.