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From young officer to captain: Capitol Police veteran reflects on 9/11

Sean Patton remembers where he was 20 years ago

Captain Sean Patton of the U.S. Capitol Police is photographed in front of Longworth Building on Tuesday. He was a Capitol Police officer on Sept. 11, 2001.
Captain Sean Patton of the U.S. Capitol Police is photographed in front of Longworth Building on Tuesday. He was a Capitol Police officer on Sept. 11, 2001. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

On Sept. 11, 2001, Sean Patton and about 100 other Capitol Police officers were ready for a day of civil disturbance unit training at the military base in Anacostia when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

A television was wheeled into the large room where the officers were gathered. A second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, collided with the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and the base went into lockdown.

“And then, all of a sudden, when the second plane hits, then we realize it’s not pilot error, and that it’s under attack and then we all get up and come back to the Capitol,” Patton, 46, now a captain in his 22nd year with the department, recalled in an interview Tuesday.

When the officers, who were dressed in plain clothes and unarmed for that training session, got orders to return to Capitol Hill, they headed to the department’s gun range, not knowing if the Capitol itself was a target or what sort of threat they faced as another hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon.

“The first thing we all do is respond back to the range and everybody armors up,” Patton said. “So you’ve got personnel down there just filling magazines with bullets.”

Capitol Police Officer Sean Patton stands guard on New Jersey Avenue on Sept. 12, 2001.

Patton, who was working on the House side at the time, remembers a hectic time as the department closed streets around office buildings and the Capitol.

“Traffic is backing up, people are running out of gas. People with gas cans to get gas are getting stopped because we’re looking for more explosives, and you know there’s fears that other planes are going to come into the Capitol. Of course, Flight 93,” Patton says, referring to United Airlines Flight 93, which was also hijacked and headed toward Washington, D.C.

Ultimately, heroic passengers fighting back helped divert that plane, which the terrorists crashed in rural Pennsylvania. 

On Capitol Hill, all officers were working to help where they could.

“Everyone’s trying to assist people, push people away and that was what our real direction was. Push the public back. Push people away from the buildings. Keep your eyes peeled, because we thought we were going to be attacked,” he said. “And then there were numerous reports that day, thankfully false, that there were planes coming to the Capitol.”

After a grueling day, Patton was back at work on Sept. 12, 2001, working between the Cannon and Longworth House office buildings.

“Even the day after, we still didn’t know the extent of what happened the day before. Information is still coming in and we still think that we are under attack. So you know everyone has a heightened sense of awareness,” Patton said. “Everyone’s on alert.”

Each Sept. 11, the department honors the lives lost on that tragic day.

“We do have moments of silence on the Capitol Police radio,” Patton said. “As a department, we honor everyone’s sacrifices and losses every year on the 11th.”

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