20 years later: Washington policymakers remember 9/11
They were members of Congress or White House staffers or town mayors or doctors in private practice. Some had been in Washington for years, while others would not arrive for many years later.
But they all have a story about 9/11.
As the country on Saturday mourns the victims and honors the heroes of the fateful attacks of 20 years ago, here are the recollections from a handful of figures with a unique connection to the tragedy.
Jaime Harrison, Democratic National Committee chairman
“I remember the shock of hearing that the planes hit the towers as I drove to work that day. I remember huddling around the television in our office and the whispers about whether more attacks are coming our way. And I will never ever forget driving past the Pentagon on my way home.
You could actually smell the ash in the air before you could see the smoke. It got stronger as I got closer, and once I saw it — once I saw one of the enduring symbols of our nation’s security under siege — I couldn’t take it anymore. I was overwhelmed. I pulled over to the side of the road, and I cried.”
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Leon Panetta, former Defense secretary and CIA director
“I was chairman of what was called the Pew Oceans Commission. I was on Capitol Hill briefing members of Congress on what the commission had been working on. It was in the Cannon Office Building. One of my commission members … she leaned over to me and said that she had just gotten a message from her New York office that one of the trade towers had been hit by a plane, and we both kind of assumed that it was just a tragic accident until a few minutes later [when] she got another report that the second plane hit the trade tower, and it was clear that there was a terrorist attack, at which point I informed the members who were at the meeting. I thought it would be important for all of them to get away from the Capitol area as quickly as they could. The meeting broke up, and they all left. I got in a car, and as I was driving away from the Capitol heard the news that another plane had struck the Pentagon, and I could see the smoke.
I was obviously stuck in Washington, but I was able to rent a car and got in the car the next morning and started driving to California as quickly as I could. But it was in many ways a really impacting trip. I could see how the people of the United States were reacting to the 9/11 attack. There were signs up: ‘USA,’ ‘USA.’ There were flags flying, and you really got a sense from riding across the country that no matter where, the American people were unified in facing those who had attacked the United States. It was a fascinating trip to take the day after 9/11.
It was the fastest drive I’ve ever done — a day and a half. I just stopped once. The attack happened Tuesday. I was home by Thursday afternoon. I was moving like a son of a bitch.”
Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.)
Jimmy Panetta, Leon Panetta’s son, is now a member of the House occupying his father’s old seat. In a separate interview, he confirmed the elder Panetta’s lead-footed race across the country.
“The flights were canceled, so he drove across country — all the way back to California. … People wanted to be with their family, and that was the important thing. … I want to say it was less than two days. You remember, they weren’t pulling people over. You know what I mean? … He was driving pretty fast.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas)
“I was here, and the most vivid recollection was after we’d all gathered on the Capitol steps to sing ‘God Bless America,’ four or five of us went around to the West side of the Capitol and just sat together on the steps and looked down the Mall. And it was just an impossibly beautiful day; you could see — in contrast to the smoke coming up from the Pentagon — literally everything was quiet. I mean, there wasn’t a car moving. There wasn’t a plane going. And we just prayed for the country. … It was like a scene from a movie set where they’ve removed everyone from New York City.
At the time, I was living in my office, so I didn’t really have anywhere to go. And the Capitol Police would come by my office after everything was evacuated and just give an update. And finally they just said, ‘Congressman, that plane was headed this direction; you’ve got to get out of the building.’ I thought I might be able to stay. All our staff was out, all that. But they just finally said, ‘It’s headed this way. We’ve got to go.’”
Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and and Afghanistan Veterans of America
“I was on active duty [Navy] on my first deployment on the USS David R. Ray destroyer, and we were on a counternarcotics deployment with the Coast Guard off the west coast of South America. I distinctly remember heading to watch, and someone walking past me said a plane just hit the World Trade Center. And it was general confusion of ‘that seems impossible.’ 20 years ago, we had very, relatively speaking, rudimentary ways of knowing what was going on, so it wasn’t as if we were just able to turn on a TV; it was radio traffic that we got from other ships.
It very much felt disconnected. My then girlfriend, now wife, was at Columbia University in Manhattan at the time, and so I was able to use our ship’s satellite phone — I had to go climb up to the top deck of the ship to get a signal. I wasn’t able to get through to her but was able to get through to her mother, who was in Wisconsin at the time, to find out she was OK. I think it was a few days before I was able to talk directly to her.
Overall, it was very, very surreal because we were so disconnected, both by distance but then also just in the ability to get updates as to what was going on.”
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.)
“I had a Democratic primary for Nassau County executive, and I was the mayor of my hometown of Glen Cove, Long Island, and we commandeered the ferry that we had at the time. That was a ferry that went to Manhattan but also went up to Foxwoods Casinos. … I was on CNN to the world asking for volunteers — for doctors, nurses, firefighters, EMS [emergency medical services]. And I was coordinating with the city of New York, and we were going to bring doctors and nurses and firefighters and EMS into the city. And we were going to bring bodies — or injured people, I should say — out from the city, out to Long Island to our local hospital. And we evacuated about 6,000 people, people coming off the boat from all over the tri-state area. …
People had to get out of Manhattan. They called them the ghost people — people covered in soot and dust and bleeding from a cut on their head or something like that. We had volunteers helping people, driving them to where they had to go and buses to go to other places. And at about 3:30 that afternoon, the director of emergency management, a guy named Richard Sheirer, said, ‘Don’t send anybody in. There’s nobody to treat. There are no survivors.’ And I had all these hundreds of doctors and nurses and emergency management people who were like, ‘You know, we’ve got to go in! We’ve got to go in!’ … And we ended up sending a few people in just to go scope out what was going on. And there were no people to be treated.”
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Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands)
“I was a staffer [with the] House Ethics Committee. Our offices were in the Capitol. … Came in kinda late that day — it was a beautiful day — and was sitting at my desk and turned on the news on my television, and just no one actually said anything. Staff just figured we’d better evacuate the building as we saw the second tower burning and could see the smoke coming from the Pentagon out on the Mall. … And then the only thing I can always remember is the fact that, you know, knowing that that building was the target of United 93, just always feeling so incredibly grateful to the people on that plane.”
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio)
“I was in the clinic [outside Cincinnati] seeing patients. And I remember one of the medical assistants coming by as I was dictating a chart saying a plane just hit the World Trade Center. And I said, ‘Like a small plane?’ ‘Oh, no. It was an airliner.’ I was like, ‘That doesn’t sound right.’ And then obviously when the second one hit, we knew what was going on. And it was kind of numbing. And as a reservist I thought, ‘Well, I’ll be getting a call soon.'”
Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush and special assistant to President George W. Bush
“That morning being told to run for our lives and take off our shoes and go. When asked, ‘Where do we go?’ ‘Just as far away from the White House as possible.’ One of the lessons from that too is there was no plan because this was an unprecedented experience in White House history. The departure from the White House, although somewhat chaotic, it was really swift. From East Wing and West Wing, the gates were thrown open on both of the avenues. The agents were telling people to run. People saw agents retrieve weapons from hidden closets that we didn’t really know were there.
Even despite not having a foolproof plan, the evacuation happened very, very quickly … whether it was through direction from the agents or word of mouth. It was a range of ways people were informed to run, but run they did and then scattered in different places. In my particular place, standing in Lafayette Park and really realizing there were very senior people around me and realizing they should be in another location.
There is this sense of responsibility to keep doing your job, even in a circumstance like that. I took people over to the DaimlerChrysler office at 14th and H Street because that’s where my husband worked. And people worked there all day, about 70 people, including speech writers who began drafting and researching the president’s speech that night.”
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Retired Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, former head of Marine Corps Reserve
“I was in my Marine Corps office on the fourth floor of the Pentagon, which is on the east side, [for] an early morning meeting, [but] I was not in the Pentagon when the plane hit the west side because we had gone about 10 minutes away to a meeting of the secretary of Defense’s Reserve Forces Policy Board [at the at Army Navy Country Club]. Someone came running in and said, ‘Turn on the TV! Turn on the TV!’ And we did, and it was the shot of the towers.
It wasn’t until a little bit later somebody came running in: ‘The Pentagon’s been hit.’ We all went outside. You could see this huge plume of smoke. My first concern was for the people at the Pentagon. We could see what side it had hit, and I knew a lot of Marines who were on the fourth and fifth floor of that side of the building.
One of the responsibilities of an F-18 squadron [at Joint Base Andrews], a Marine Reserve squadron, is protecting the airspace around Washington. As the head of Marine Corps Reserve, I got on the phone right away, called that squadron and told them to get airborne as quickly as possible to put up a 360 around Washington, in particular, emphasis on not letting anything near the Capitol, White House or the Pentagon. I didn’t ask anybody’s permission, and obviously the higher-ups at the Pentagon must have thought it was OK.
It was just going to be, basically, take ’em out by flying into them if that had to happen.”