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Remembering a Morning of ‘Chaos’ on Capitol Hill

U.S. Capitol; Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

On the morning of 9/11, I was in the House gallery broadcast booth readying for the day. It was a day much like any other. While driving in, I remembered remarking out loud what a crystal blue day it was. Watching CNN, while reading Cap Hill trade publications, I saw the first plane plummet into the World Trade Center. I listened for a few moments to gather a sense of the story, grabbed my tape recorder and headed outside to look for members of the New York congressional delegation. I wanted to get some reaction to what appeared to be a plane accident. Just as I got outside, my phone rang. It was my assignment desk announcing that the United States was under attack. By this time, the second plane had hit. It was 8:45 in the morning.

A minute or two later, chaos ensued.

Capitol Hill police officers, normally stationed at various locations inside and outside the building, were screaming at full lung capacity for everyone to “run like hell,” just as they were doing. Run like hell we did, as far away from the building as we could get. There was no orderly evacuation procedure, as all who worked in the building had practiced many times before. Members of Congress, staffers in suits, dresses and high heels, cafeteria workers, people with disabilities, members of the press, elevator operators, people on official business inside the complex, all trying to get away from the Capitol as fast as their legs could carry them.

While running, I looked back over my shoulder towards the National Mall in the west, I could see billowing black smoke rising over the horizon. I found out later, it was coming from the Pentagon, also under attack. In that moment, I bumped into our TV crew. In the confusion, the cameraman had been separated from his audio technician, but he continued to shoot pictures of what was happening. When I connected with him, he was shooting video of what looked to be an unmarked plane flying remarkably close to the dome of the Capitol, a tape that our bosses turned over to the FBI. We later learned that the Capitol was indeed a target.

We spent the rest of the day in shock, interviewing anyone standing around who would talk to us on camera, everyone looking for reasons and answers. We were all unable to go back to work because no part of the complex had been secured, including the garages. We couldn’t come and we couldn’t go, so we just stayed all day standing blocks away from the building in limbo, trying to cover the story of the century and desperately trying to process what had just happened to all of us.

As the day wore on and night began to fall, we received an “all clear” to return to our work stations, but most of us gathered on the steps of the Senate. Then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle gathered the members of Congress and many others on the steps to hold hands and sing “God Bless America,” in what many would say was one of the single most poignant moments that has ever happened in what is normally a partisan, vitriolic Washington. It actually felt like all lawmakers and everyone affected by the day-long tragedy were on the same page.

For those of us who work inside the Capitol complex and who must come and go daily, our world is much different than it used to be. There are far more security checkpoints to negotiate just to move about each building, and no one is given a free pass, even if security officers see you every day. My car is searched coming and going and my identification is checked at least four or five times a day. Moving freely from building to building to building is a thing of the past. Any guest or visitor is thoroughly checked. Couriers making deliveries are no longer allowed in the building and tours are restricted. Under my desk, I keep a run bag equipped with sneakers, water, snacks and a full-on gas mask, just in case.

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