Tuesday, September 11, 2001. It was like every other day working for then-Congressman John Thune on Capitol Hill. I was a staff assistant at the time and our office, the Longworth House Office Building, was located adjacent to the Capitol.
A few minutes past nine the phone rang – it was our Chief of Staff – he was in South Dakota and the first thing he said was “turn on the TV and get me John.” I could tell right away something was not right. I rushed to the Congressman’s office and turned on the TV – the first tower had been hit. As the staff gathered around the TV, like the rest of the world, we thought it was a pilot that lost his way or had a heart attack mid-air – an accident. Then the second plane hit – this was no coincidence.
There was no game plan for a situation like this. Most of us didn’t have cell phones, and there was no social media. We all assembled in the Congressman’s office and determined we should hunker down at the office. But soon enough, one of the legislative aides came rushing in. Her husband had called her frantically. While waiting at the mechanic he saw a plane hit the Pentagon. “You guys need to evacuate,” he said. At this point it had not made the news that a third plane had hit the Pentagon. Immediately, reality hit home that Washington was under attack and there could be more planes.
We decided as an office we were going to go take shelter at our Deputy Chief of Staff’s home as he lived only a couple blocks from the Capitol. All 9 of us, including Congressman Thune and his wife went outside. We’d only walked a block when we heard a sonic boom – looking to the sky someone yelled “Don’t worry, it is one of ours!” I remember feeling immediate relief knowing our airmen had the skies covered.
The rest of the day was surreal. We hunkered down in one apartment watching the coverage and providing updates to John. He held an impromptu press call with reporters back in the state to let them know what was going on. In the middle of this crisis, he’d found a Bible and was reading it in between getting updates and fielding calls. I was proud to work for a man who in a time of tragedy turned to Jesus for strength.
Phone lines were jammed most of the day – it wasn’t easy to get ahold of family to let them know we were ok. I lived near the Pentagon and took the metro to work – with all public transportation shut down, my coworker graciously drove me home.
Work changed after this, all of Washington drastically changed. The first day back at the office there were concrete barricades everywhere, you could not get within a block of the House office buildings. Police were standing on the corners with weapons. It was a ghost town.
White House tours stopped, Capitol tours stopped, and the way we did business significantly changed. The more information we learned in the days following made us realize how lucky we were – I can never fully express my gratitude for those who sacrificed themselves taking down flight 93 into the Pennsylvania countryside. Experts say it was likely heading towards the Capitol. My day would have been quite different if those brave souls didn’t take on the terrorists.
For a city that is normally divided, Washington was united. Members of Congress spontaneously sung God Bless America on the Capitol steps just hours after the attacks, prayer services were offered and encouraged for any congressional staffers to attend, American flags popped up on homes all over the country. We were Americans. We were united. We thanked God.