Remembering September 11th
Posted on September 11, 2017
Here is an essay about how my day went on September 11th, 2001.
It was a clear, crisp September morning, the kind of day that makes Washington a glorious place to live in the Fall. I woke up later than I wanted to, knowing that I had to take care of two things: The Speaker’s Daily news summary and my NFL football pool sheet.
We were a week past the August recess, and I still hadn’t gotten into the old work routine. In my mind, I will still on recess time. Usually I wanted to stop by Starbucks on my way to work, but I was running too late.
I jumped into the clunky Ford Explorer, did the usual merge onto Slater’s Lane, turned left onto the GW Parkway, merged again to get on to 395 North (jumping ahead of 50 cars, as I did every morning) and merged once again at the Capitol exit, House side. It was the usual stressful morning, before I even got to work. I arrived at the office at 8:45 am, very late for me.
I turned on my computer. Should I do the Speaker’s new summary or should I quickly fill out the football pool? The Speaker needed his summary, but I needed to get this pool done before noon, otherwise I would automatically lose the week. And once I got into real work, I knew I would forget about the pool.
I made the fateful decision. Gambling that I could get back to the football, I started scanning the news, looking for news tidbits that would be of interest to the Speaker.
As I started the process, I turned on the television at my desk. CNN was reporting a breaking news story. Black smoke was pouring from one of the World Trade Towers. A plane had crashed into the building. Strange, I thought. Such a beautiful day. How could a plane go that far off course?
At that exact moment, another plane slammed into the other tower. Hmmm. No accident. Seems more like a horror movie. What the hell is going on here!
I called and then emailed Kerry, my ex-girlfriend. Turn on the TV. Something strange is going on in New York.
I went downstairs to the Speaker’s Suite of Offices, in H-236 of the Capitol. People were gathered around the television outside Scott Palmer’s office. He was the Speaker’s Chief of Staff.
Christy Suprenant was on the phone with the House Sergeant-At-Arms, organizing a meeting with the staff.
Moments later, we assembled into H-230, the Lincoln Room. It was full of memorabilia of Abraham Lincoln. Hastert was a big fan of Honest Abe. When Newt had been Speaker, it was called the Dinosaur Room, because he had an actual dinosaur head donated by the Smithsonian encased in the corner of the room.
Hastert, upon becoming Speaker, immediately decided that the dinosaur was not the best image for the Republican Party, and now the room overlooking the National Mall was filled with Civil War photos. Pretty appropriate that we gathered there to hear the Sergeant of Arms tell us of the attack on New York and the threats to the Capitol, one of the worst crises to befall Washington since the Civil War.
Bill Livingood is an ex-Secret Service man, not a political hack that had usually served the role of Sergeant-at-Arms in the previous Democratic administrations. “We think this might be a terrorist attack. We are taking all extra precautions. I assure you that we are secure here in the Capitol.”
Yeah, secure until a plane hits the dome. How do you defend against that?
Palmer motioned me over. “John, you might want to get a release together about this attack.” I agreed and went back up to my office.
I had a writer’s block and now a big headache. Senseless tragedy. Brutal attack. But who? Why?
CNN reports were frantic.
Two planes hit the World Trade Towers. Now a new attack. Explosion at the Pentagon. Could it be another plane? If a plane could hit the Pentagon, why couldn’t a plane crash into the very spot where I am trying to type this stupid press release.
What the hell am I doing here?
At that exact moment, a Capitol Police Officer yelled: “Get the hell of out the building! A plane is headed for the Capitol!”
Two of my assistants were already out the door. Jennie Page and Amy Alhoff, the speechwriter had already left. Peter Jefferies and Paige Ralston were on their way.
Ralston, stylish as always, was wearing heels, as we descended down the winding staircase.
“Paige, hurry up.” I was cracking under the pressure.
“I am trying,” she replied.
Ahead of her lumbered a big man, slowing us all down.
“What’s your hurry, boy?” bellowed Dick Armey, House Majority Leader.
“My hurry is that there is a plane headed for the this building. I want to get out of here!”
We reached the Memorial Door, the same door where two years earlier a crazed intruder entered with guns blazing, killing John Jacob Chestnut, and fatally wounding John Gibson, a member of Tom DeLay’s security detail. Gibson saved my life that day, by stopping the crazy gunman. And now I was going out the same door, trying to save myself from some crazed terrorists.
My headache was getting worse. Ba-doomp. Ba-doomp. Ba-doomp. The pounding wouldn’t stop. I should have stopped at Starbucks this morning. No coffee. Need coffee.
Chaos ensued on the Capitol Lawn. People didn’t know what to do. Most were milling around. This was the last place I wanted to hang out.
I heard another explosion. Somebody said that there was a bomb attack on the State Department. A Capitol cop told us to get away from the building. Sounded sensible to me.
Porter Goss wouldn’t be moved. The Chairman of the Intelligence Committee was conducting an impromptu press conference about 100 yards from the Capitol.
While I wanted to hear what he was saying, I also wanted to flee.
The headache persisted. Ba-doomp. Ba-doomp. Ba-doomp.
The Speaker’s staff had scattered. Some had jumped in their cars and headed home. Paige and I headed up Pennsylvania Ave. “I need some coffee. Let’s go the Starbucks.”
Thousands of other staffers headed in the same direction. Television producers and reporters were trying to nail down the story. Cops were trying to direct traffic.
The panic was palpable.
And I wanted that damn cup of coffee.
Ba-doomp. Ba-doomp. Ba-doomp.
We got to the Starbucks. Closed! How could it be closed so quickly?
Paige had an idea. Let’s go to Jennie’s House. She lived on East Capitol, four blocks from the Capitol building. She lived with three other younger staffers. I hope the plane doesn’t hit us here by mistake, I thought.
The staff gathered around the television, watching the grim news from New York.
Two towers were on fire. The Pentagon was on fire. No news about the plane headed for the Capitol.
I asked for some coffee. Sadly, they too were out of coffee. Water was offered and gladly accepted. The headache persisted.
I watched the news coverage, just in time to see one of the towers fall. Those poor people! How many had died? They went to work on a beautiful sunny day, and now they were crushed by tons of debris. My God, how could this happen?
I was exhausted. I didn’t want to move.
My cell phone wasn’t working. I saw a land line that was free and grabbed it. I called Dad. “I am fine. Let everyone know!”
I tried calling Kerry.
We had broken up six months before, after dating for seven months. I wanted her to know that I was fine, and I wanted her to be fine. I wanted to be with her. I couldn’t get her on the phone, but we emailed each other via blackberry. She was in Virginia and was going to her friends Jen Englhardt's and Allison Feldman's house. She left a number to call there.
At that moment, I got a page from Ted Van Der Meid, the Speaker’s counsel and chief security officer. “Come to Police headquarters!” it read.
I departed Jennie’s house, and ventured towards the Capitol. Where is police headquarters, I wondered. I saw a cop and they directed me towards the building next to the Monocle.
On the way, I saw Deb Fiddelke, a top staffer for Senator Chuck Hagel. I lost a recent bet to her on the Notre Dame-Nebraska game. ND lost in overtime. As we commiserated over the astonishing turn of events of the day, I promised to make good on the bet.
I got to police headquarters. Complete chaos. Members of Congress were running in and out. Nobody knew what the hell was going on. I told the desk who I was, and was directed to the 9th floor. Tom DeLay and JC Watts were there.
DeLay thought it was a bad idea for all the members to be in the in same place, so close to the Capitol. Clearly, there was no plan to deal with this kind of situation.
Van Der Meid told me that I had to coordinate the media. How the hell was I going to do that, I wondered. There were all over the place. We had no access to computers or my press lists. I huddled with Dan Nichols, the Capitol Police spokesman.
What are we going to say, we wondered.
Van Der Meid motioned to me. “Scott wants you to join the Speaker in the undisclosed location.”
“Sounds good to me.” I agreed with DeLay. I wanted to get out of there.
At that moment, members of the leadership, including DeLay, Watts, David Bonior and others were being ushered out. The Speaker wanted the leadership team with him at the undisclosed location. They were going to Andrews Air Force Base.
I was going with a different group.
Members of the Speaker’s security detail led me to a black Ford Expedition. I joined Sam Lancaster, the Speaker’s scheduler, and Porter Goss in the back of the SUV, and we sped off to the secret location. We were joined by two other cars in a convoy. It creeped me out.
The streets strangely silent, with black smoke from the Pentagon soaring into the sky as we sped into Virginia and the secret, undisclosed location, I thought I was in a war zone. And in a sense I was, because for the first time since the War of 1812, the war had come the Capitol.
Goss tried to reassure us and we headed west on I-66. An ex-CIA agent, and an all around good guy, Goss was a loyal and important lieutenant to Hastert. And Denny turned to him whenever he needed a hard-working, task oriented guy. Goss was Hastert’s point guy on health care, for example, an assignment that can only be described as a royal pain the in ass. Dealing with doctors in the Congress is kind of like dealing with lawyers in the operating table. They may be smart, but they don’t know what the hell they are doing. And the Speaker’s Health Care task force had several doctors.
But what Porter really loved was the intelligence game. And now he was driving with me to the undisclosed, secret location. “This is a group of terrorists who are bent on creating havoc. Right now, they are playing the misinformation game. We are going to hear a lot of strange rumors. We will all have to keep a level head.” Goss was reassuring. He didn’t seem particularly shocked by the attack. I guess he had read the intelligence reports.
We kept driving west. The further we got away from the Capitol, the more life seemed to be returning to normal. While many Americans were glued to their television sets, watching the drama, many others were going on with their lives.
I was exhausted. I wanted to sleep. I wanted this nightmare to end, so I could get back to life before September 11.
We entered a mountain location. State troopers were on either side of the road. We entered the gate, we saw soldiers with semi-automatic weapons. They looked grim.
We drove up into the mountain. We entered the Bunker. It was like a scene out of “Get Smart”. Doors opened, we moved forward, doors closed behind us. We went through three sets of doors, into a deep cavern. Talk about surreal.
I wondered if this was the nuclear attack site. Would this location protect us from nuclear fallout, I wondered. Cool, damp and dark. I was already looking forward to leaving.
We got out of the car and proceeded through another set of doors. As we entered through a narrow hallway, we could see a small office on either side. Led by security, we kept walking until we came upon a bigger room, a wall covered with television images from a projection television. CNN, Fox, MSNBC were playing on the wall. There was only one story.
Hastert greeted Goss, Sam and I as we entered the room. The others leaders were there. Gephardt, Armey, Bonior, DeLay, Watts. All legislative enemies before, now Americans under siege together.
The members were calm. They were watching the television and making small talk.
I was hungry. No breakfast. Tuna and chicken salad sandwiches and potato chips were on a table near the door. I doubled back to grab a bite to eat. These people are pretty well organized to be able to get this food to this secret location so quickly. Impressive.
As I munched on my sandwich, Karen Hughes came on the television set.
She made a short statement from the White House situation room. The atmospherics were bad. The picture was dark. She didn’t look good. To me, it looked like the government was under siege. Where the hell is the President?
Moments later, the Senate leadership streamed in. Lott, Nickles, Daschle, Reid. Robert Byrd, the President Pro Tem, didn’t join us. Just like Byrd, I thought.
The leadership assembled and the Speaker took charge. He asked staff to arrange a call with the White House. The President wasn’t available.
The Vice President took the call. Better than Karen Hughes, I thought.
Cheney gave a cool assessment of the situation. The President’s plane was still in the air. FAA had forced every plane in US airspace down. His suspicions of who did this. President was safe and staying away from Washington. Stay in the bunker for the foreseeable future.
Nickles wanted to get out and return to Washington. He was not happy that he was being ordered around by the White House. The Vice President remained firm. Stay in the bunker.
The call concluded with Nickles mumbling under his breath about the separation of powers. I thought he had a point. I wanted to get back too.
CIA analysts came into the room to give us their assessment. They fingered Islamic terrorists, probably linked to Osama Bin Laden. While most had heard of Bin Laden, none thought he could pull something like this off.
Hastert didn’t like being isolated from the rest of the members. He wanted to arrange a conference call. It was to be bipartisan, but not bicameral.
Hastert and Gephardt wanted to show unity to their members. Many House members had been back at Police Headquarters, complaining loudly. They wanted to do something. They wanted information. They wanted to go back into session.
Hastert and Gephardt had a tenuous relationship. Gephardt wanted Hastert’s job, and he showed he would go to any length to get it. A week after Hastert was sworn in, Gephardt held a rally saying that he was running for Speaker. The Hastert team thought it was abnoxious way to thrown down the gauntlet to the ex-wrestling coach who never dreamed he would be Speaker a month before he was sworn in.
The relationship only got worse after the Chaplain incident. Since the dustup over appointing the Chaplain of the House, a non-partisan event that turned fiercely partisan, there was no relationship between Hastert and Gephardt. But in the bunker, confronted by a bigger, more deadly enemy, they started to work together, and in my view, they started to bond.
Now they confronted an angry mob of Members who were back in Washington, who had no information and had nothing to do.
Both Republicans and Democrats gave it to their leadership. Undoubtedly, the fact that the rank and file members were out in the open while the leadership was sequestered in a bunker had something to do with it.
What cowards, the rank and file felt about the leaders. And some of the leaders were getting mighty irritated that they were put in this position by the White House.
The common demand was that the House go back into session.
Doug Ose and Dana Rohrabacher were particularly harsh in their criticism, stating that the leaders were cowards.
The Speaker rejected the suggestion that the House go back into session. Nobody knew what other attacks were in the works. Hastert didn’t want to put the staff and members at additional risk. The Secret Service and the Capitol Police were dead-set against going back into session today.
The Speaker made the call. “We will go into session tomorrow. Not today.”
After the conference call, it became more critical that the leaders end their seclusion and return to the Capitol. If not, who knew what the rank and file might do.
When the Senate came back from their conference call, they all agreed that they had to return. The Speaker wanted to tell the Vice President immediately.
The Vice President wasn’t convinced that the members should return. There will still planes coming in from Europe. Safety couldn’t be guaranteed.
The Congressional leaders insisted. Don Nickles piped up again. “Mr. Vice President, with all due respect. We are a co-equal branch of government. You can’t keep us here against our will.”
That point being made, attention turned to negotiating a time for the exit. It was agreed that choppers would take the leaders back in an hour and a half.
Scott motioned me over. “We need to get a press conference organized.”
“Where do we want to do it?”
“I would say the Capitol steps.”
I called to the Capitol headquarters and got Van Der Mied on the line.
“We are doing a press conference. Get me Paige.”
Paige got on the phone. “We are doing a press conference on the Capitol steps.”
“Probably around 6:30 or 7. Let me talk to Livingood, and so we can get security in the loop.”
“Do you want all the members there?”
“I don’t know how you will keep them out. The more the merrier.”
I knew some Senators wanted to keep the press conference small, but that was impossible. Trying to keep the members out would not only be an exercise in futility, it could spark a rebellion. And worse, it would be a lousy picture.
There were several choppers ready to take us back. As we left the bunker, a glorious fall day confronted us. How could it be so beautiful and so awful at the same time?
I climbed on one of the helicopters with Tom DeLay, his security group and David Bonior. It was a quiet ride back, except for the thwack, thwack, thwack of the propellers.
As we inched up, the sun inched down. A golden hue splashed across the Virginia countryside. Trees were just beginning to turn color. Up on high, Middle America seemed unchanged and unconcerned with the tumult facing Washington and New York.
As we drew closer to Washington, a black cloud could be spotted billowing over the Pentagon. Tears threatened to break through.
How could this happen to us in America? Who could do this to us?
We circled above the Capitol building, shimmering in the evening sun, waiting for others to disembark. A terrible, beautiful sight.
As we landed on the West Capitol lawn, the scene was bizarre. Dozens of soldiers, decked out in full battle gear, surrounding the landing zone. And this is Washington DC?
I got a ride back to police headquarters, where Paige and I finished organizing the press conference.
We originally thought that the four leaders would speak, then it was decided that only the Speaker and the Senate Majority leader, Senator Daschle, would give statements.
Lott said quite shortly: “I don’t need to speak. “ Gephardt’s people reluctantly agreed to leave the stage to Daschle and Hastert as well.
As we got ready to move from police headquarters to the sight of the press conference, it became clear to me that the Speaker’s car was full. Since Paige knew the drill, and because none of Denny’s other people would step aside, I volunteered to walk the whole two blocks to the press conference.
As I hustled over, I started to freak out that I would be late. Police barricades were all over the place, and I couldn’t get through. Finally I convinced a Capitol Hill cop that I had to be at the press conference.
I ran to the Capitol steps just in time to hear Hastert start. Dusk was falling, and the lights gave off an eerie glow.
He didn’t use my talking points. He spoke from the heart, and he was strong. “We will stand together as Americans to make sure that those who brought forth this evil will pay the price.”
Daschle followed. He had a good sound bite, as always. He was more polished, but he didn’t have the same strength as Denny. “We, Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, stand strongly united behind the President, and we will work together to ensure that the full resources of the government are brought to bear in these efforts.”
As Daschle concluded, members broke in song. “God Bless America, land that I love…” Even members of the hard-bitten press corps joined in. What a way to end a tough day!
I mingled with some reporters after the press event ended. They were as drained as I was. Some wondered about the bunker. Since I was sworn to secrecy, I couldn’t tell anybody where it was (of course, it showed up in the Washington Post the next day). But mostly, they wanted to trade stories.
I went back to headquarters. Members were milling about, but they weren’t happy. They wanted more information. The Speaker was trying to line up the Attorney General to do a briefing.
I called Jen and Al’s house, which Kerry had left on email. “Hey Jen, this is John Feehery.”
“I know John. Let me get Kerry.”
Kerry and I had barely spoken over the last seven months. But I needed to let her know I was ok and see how she was doing.
We made some small talk and promised to catch up soon.
Next, I called my dad.
“Hey dad, I am doing fine.
“Great to hear your voice, John. By the way, I got some good news.”
I was perplexed. What good could come from this day?
“Neil Koepp called and he's going to give you an extra day for your football picks.”
Shit. I forgot to call in my picks. I knew I would. Then I laughed. That was good news. And I was glad to get it.
I asked him to call everyone and let them know I was ok.
I milled around a few more hours at headquarters. The White House sent the Attorney General and others for a briefing. They seemed to think it was Bin Laden, but they had nothing solid.
I decided to go home. The roads were clear. I made my way back to Virginia, and I got ready to exit onto the GW Parkway, I saw the bright flames still burning in the Pentagon.
What a horrible sight. What a horrible day.