With the passage of two decades, it is getting harder and harder to find current congressional staffers who have firsthand experience of life on Capitol Hill the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks. But for those with those decades of experience, the memories of that morning and the events that followed remain clear.
Less than two months before terrorists in hijacked jetliners brought both towers of the World Trade Center crashing down, the House aviation subcommittee held a field hearing on air traffic congestion in the North Tower, a floor below the landmark Windows on the World restaurant.
Ben Rich, then a 24-year-old legislative assistant, had traveled up from Washington to staff his boss and hometown congressman, New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell Jr.
So Rich, who is now Pascrell’s chief of staff, knew something was wrong that day when he looked up at the TV in his seventh-floor office in the Longworth Building and initial news reports were saying a small plane had crashed into the North Tower.
“They’re saying it like it was one of those planes from Teterboro,” Rich recalled, referring to a general aviation airport with runways that practically intersect Route 46 in Pascrell’s district. “As someone who’s been in the World Trade Center … that’s a really big building, and this crash took up a lot of the width of that building, so it seemed like it was bigger than a small plane.”
Rich said the office started making calls to find out what was up, trying the Federal Aviation Administration and lobbyists for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the trade center complex.
“Then the second plane hit, and that’s when it clicked that this is something really nefarious, and we should probably leave,” Rich said.
Hitting close to home
David Carle, the longtime communications director and press secretary for Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, was already a veteran Senate staffer by 2001. He was working for Leahy at the time, following more than a decade as spokesman for Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.
Like Rich, he was watching the events transpire on television from his office, but when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, just across the river in Arlington, Va., it got much closer to home.
“I saw the second plane hit on my TV screen and a while later saw the smoke arising,” Carle said. “I had a window on the west front of the Russell Building, and we could clearly see the smoke rising from the Pentagon.”
Leahy, who chaired the Judiciary Committee at the time, had a morning meeting with the Judicial Conference of the United States, held across the street from the Capitol at the Supreme Court. Leahy heard the “boom” that turned out to be the plane striking the Pentagon, and he spoke with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist before returning to his Senate office.
“The senator came back to the office. We all consulted about what was going on,” Carle recalled. “[Leahy’s] strong feeling was that this was a terrorist attack, and he ordered the staff to vacate the office, which we all did, and the nearest place to relocate happened to be my house nearby on Capitol Hill.”
Carle’s residence, just a few blocks from the Capitol, became the de facto center of operations for Leahy and senior staff. Technology in 2001 made it far more difficult to communicate than in 2021. BlackBerrys became ubiquitous in the Senate in the years following 9/11 as instantaneous communication became more important.
Pascrell was not in his Longworth office on the morning of 9/11, but it was filled with huddling staffers trying to figure out what to do as it became clear that commercial airplanes were intentionally being crashed.
“I was like, we should go now. I think there’s something really bad happening, and we don’t know what it is, and it’s best not to be anywhere where we would be a target,” Rich said.
It likely was not clear at that point that there was in fact a plane, United Airlines Flight 93, being taken down by heroic passengers in the skies over Pennsylvania, that could have been bound for the Capitol Dome.
The staff walked down the seven flights but didn’t have a clear idea of where to go, so people ended up at Rich’s apartment, at First and C Streets Southeast. On the way, he said they crossed through increasingly crowded streets, with cars gridlocked.
“And you’re talking to people as you’re going, you’d run into people, like, ‘Oh, God, this is crazy, we gotta get out of here,’ and people would start saying crazy stuff like, ‘I heard they got the State Department. I heard [they are] going to the White House,’” he recalled.
Rumors made people afraid to take Metro home, or to drive, because they might drive past a building that was targeted. Rich said the staff also ran into Pascrell on their way and learned that members had been told to head to a location Rich is still not sure he’s supposed to disclose.
So people ended up at his place, watching TV, eventually calling their families to say they were OK. The next time he saw his boss was that evening, when House members and senators from both parties gathered on the House steps to show that Congress couldn’t be kept from gathering. They also sang “God Bless America” together.
A Capitol changed
The weeks that followed brought new policy challenges as Congress and the White House embarked on a response to the terrorist attacks, both through security upgrades and military intervention in Afghanistan.
Both Carle and Rich also recalled the anthrax attacks that came not long after 9/11. The sixth and seventh floors of Longworth were evacuated after a sweep found traces of anthrax in three offices, Rich said.
Leahy’s office, along with that of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., were targeted in the biological attacks.
“Our offices had to be evacuated,” Carle said, noting that they had to set up a makeshift workspace with wires running all over the floor.
The two decades that followed have seen significant enhancements in Capitol security, training and operations for staffers and lawmakers alike — many of which were put to the test during the Jan. 6 insurrection earlier this year.
“All of us, every single staffer, goes through training, is informed about what the proper procedures are, and that goes not only for our Washington staff, but for our Vermont staff, and our committee staff, ” Carle said.
Carle recalled a security alert ahead of a funeral ceremony for President Ronald Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda in 2004. That scare, prompted by a small plane’s unauthorized entry into Washington airspace, led to an abrupt evacuation that left people fleeing from the Capitol. (An iconic Roll Call photo from that day is often mistakenly assumed to have been from the morning of 9/11.)
Rich said that when he started working on the Hill, security was much looser, there were some magnetometers but not as many, and “you didn’t have to show your ID constantly.” Adding to the problem, he said, are the precautions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“You’ve got the mask on. Even if there was going to be a friendly face, you’re not going to see that smile. It’s just a different environment, for sure,” he said.
Rich also said he has found it disappointing that members and staff from across the aisle have not come together in the same way after Jan. 6 as they did after Sept. 11.
“When there’s this monumental … attack on democracy, an attack that really affects our workplace as 9/11 did … and you don’t see that same response, it’s sad,” he said. “You walk the hallways, and you can’t help but look askance at people, and you say to yourself, ‘What is going on? What are people thinking? Why can’t we come together?’”