9/11: A View from the Capitol

I’ve never blogged my 9/11 experience before, but I decided to do it this year because I’m worried that as 9/11 moves further into our collective rear view mirror, too many people have forgotten what happened that day. I want to write this down and share it because I remember – and because we all must.

I worked for a Member of Congress from California, and my office was about a thousand feet from the Capitol. As on most days, I got to the office somewhere around 8:00. I was going through the morning news and getting ready for the day when I saw on CNN that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Looking at the live camera – without much sense of perspective – I thought it must have been a small plane – a cessna or something. I wondered what could have happened to the pilot to allow such a crash on such a clear morning.

I called my cousin – a fellow New Yorker who now worked adjacent to the Pentagon. He left his desk to go find a TV and watch the developing story. He later told me that the window above his desk looked straight out on the western part of the Pentagon. Had he been sitting at his desk, he probably would have watched American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon a short while later.

Returning to my desk to watch the news again, it was only a short while before the second tower was hit, and we all realized this was no accident. The Capitol Hill police soon went walking through the building, asking everyone to stay in their offices in case some chemical or biological attack was planned for the area around the Capitol.

It seemed like we waited in our office forever – trying to figure out what was happening and what we should do. I was on the phone a few times with my cousin and my fiancee, trading rumors of car bombs at the State Department and bombings on the mall. My boss and all of his office staff agreed it made sense not to risk heading out into the streets as long as we were safe in the building. Then we heard the Pentagon had been hit.

And while I felt like we sat in the office watching the news in a stupor for hours, I know I know it was only a few minutes later that the Capitol police ran through the building – telling us to drop what we were doing and get out immediately. The rumor was that another plane headed toward the Capitol. Hundreds of House staffers flooded out of the buildings onto the adjacent streets – jogging and running past the Library of Congress. The Capitol Police ran after us – yelling for us to get away from the complex. The whole thing was incredibly surreal.

My office staff had agreed to meet at the apartment of a coworker about 8 or 10 blocks from the Capitol. That way we would be close enough to come back in an hour or two if it turned out that this wasn’t as significant as it seemed. Shows you how little we understood what was happening. As we approached her apartment, I glanced in the window of a home nearby and saw one of the Twin Towers collapse. We turned on the news and watched for an hour or two – long enough to learn that Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania. We spoke with our boss, who told us all to go home until further notice.

I had parked my car in its spot under the House office building; there was no question of going back to get it. And given the fears of follow-up attacks, there was no way I was going to use the Metro. So I started walking.

This was the strangest part of that day for me, and probably the part I’ll remember best. My apartment was over in Arlington – somewhere over 5 miles from the Capitol. And while I knew the best way to drive there, I didn’t know the best way to walk. So I headed in the right direction and meandered a little bit. I gave wide berth to the crowded subway stations, and to federal buildings. That meant I wandered a little bit.

I walked past a restaurant with an open patio. It was a stone’s throw from the FBI. The place was crowded with people – all tuned to the TV, of course. I remember seeing more police and police dogs than I ever have before. A half mile or so from the White House, I ran into a lobbyist who’d been trying to corner me for weeks to ask for help on some project. I talked to him for a few minutes about what news and rumors; he never mentioned his issue. (I called and talked to him about it the first day back in the office.) I walked past the State Department – no sign of a car bomb. I walked past part of the mall – no sign of any bombs there, either. In all these places, there were fewer people than I expected. There were some people walking, like me. And there were plenty of police cars. But apart from that it seemed much of the District was already shut up in their homes.

I remember walking across the Teddy Roosevelt bridge; it felt like the strangest thing ever. I’d only ever seen joggers on the walkway as I drove past, and here I was in suit and tie. I was glad my shoes were comfortable enough, but I wondered about all my friends and family in New York. I had called a few early on in the day, but then the networks got jammed quickly. Offhand I couldn’t think of anyone I knew in (or near) the Twin Towers, but I really didn’t keep track. I later learned that none of my close friends or family had been in the buildings that day.

I got home before too long and watched the news for the rest of the day. Like almost all staffers, we stayed away from the Capitol for a few days. In fact, I don’t think we went back until the next week. I retrieved my car on September 13 or 14. I cancelled the bachelor party I had planned for the weekend (I got married in November).

As for my lasting personal take-away from the day, here it is: Todd Beamer and the heroes of Flight 93 may not have given their lives that day – not exactly, anyway. They knew that American Flight 93 was going to crash. But because they were brave enough to try to retake control of the plane, they stopped it from crashing into the Capitol, or the White House, or the CIA. I suppose we’ll never really know which one. But I worked next to the Capitol, and my fiancee worked in another targeted building. So without their courage, either my wife or I would probably not be here today. And my children wouldn’t be here. Whenever I think about 9/11, I thank those heroes for what they gave to me and my family.

I also thank the heroes who have kept us safe for 8 years since then. First and foremost I thank my brother, who was a New York City cop at the time of the attack. He was called on duty a few hours after the Towers fell, and worked with rescue teams for days – until he was activated by the New York National Guard, after which he spent weeks at the World Trade Center site. Some months later he was activated and sent to Iraq – where he served one tour after major combat activities had ceased.

As my children get older, they’ll know about the heroes whose sacrifice made their lives possible, and who protect them to this day.