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‘They’re always there’ — memories of evacuating Capitol Hill on 9/11

Word spread fast through unofficial channels of potential danger

Aimee Steel Lubin remembers evacuating from the Capitol complex on 9/11, as people ran for the exits and slipped on the marble stairs.
Aimee Steel Lubin remembers evacuating from the Capitol complex on 9/11, as people ran for the exits and slipped on the marble stairs. (Courtesy Aimee Steel Lubin)

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Aimee Steel Lubin drove from her home in Alexandria, Va., to her job on Capitol Hill, planning to wrap up a press release she’d been struggling with.

“I remember it being the most gorgeous blue sky day, no clouds, no humidity,” she recalled. “And I’m dreading going to work. I’m on 395, and I hadn’t yet finished my draft press release. It was for a hearing later that day on the Export-Import Bank.”

Lubin, at the time Aimee Steel, was press secretary to then-Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who is now a senator. She worked in the Cannon House Office Building, and her brother, Deacon Steel, worked for another congressman in the same building.  

She and other Toomey aides huddled outside the congressman’s office awaiting a 9 a.m. staff meeting. Breaking news on the office TV drew their attention: A plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. 

“So we’re all thinking what everyone else is thinking: must be a prop plane,” she said. “And then, we’re all standing there watching this breaking news when we see the second plane come in. I remember the congressman and his chief of staff coming out and everybody standing there with their jaws dropped. We all had the chills.”

Her mom called repeatedly, begging her and her brother to leave Capitol Hill. “She said, ‘Get your brother, and get out of that building,’” Lubin said. “The congressman hadn’t said what to do yet. I called my brother, and he said they were watching.”

Another congressional aide, who was dating a White House staffer at the time, passed along news from her boyfriend, warning them to leave at once because the Pentagon had also been hit. “I remember ripping back the curtain, and you could see in the distance, smoke, and I’m like, ‘I’m out of here,’” recalled Lubin, who is now director of media and political affairs at the lobbying and law firm Holland & Knight. “Then, I remember the congressman coming back and going, ‘Everybody get out of here.’”

Lubin lost track of her brother in the chaos of evacuating Cannon. “It was pandemonium. People were running down the halls. Some of the women were slipping and falling on those marble steps. I remember seeing a couple of people kicking off their shoes and just running,” she said.

She drove alone back to her home in Alexandria. Neither her congressional-issued BlackBerry nor her personal cellphone worked. “I was parked at Rayburn,” she said. “I raced out of there and was one of the last cars, apparently, that they let over the 14th Street Bridge before they closed it. You cross the 14th Street Bridge, but what do you see? You see the Pentagon burning, plumes of smoke and then the wind shifted and this smell came into my car. This is like the end of days.”

Once home, she spent much of the day trying to connect Toomey with Pennsylvania press outlets, even though she didn’t know where her boss was at first. 

Her brother, she learned, had made it to Maryland.

Toomey’s office told all staffers that it was up to them to decide whether they wanted to return to the office the next day, Sept. 12. 

“We all independently made the decision to come back,” Lubin said. “I remember coming in, and the way the curtains were, all disheveled because we had ripped them back away from the window.” 

It wasn’t until after she evacuated Cannon that Lubin heard the news about flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers were said to have fought back their hijackers after learning of the other planes. That flight may have been headed for the Capitol. 

“If they hadn’t tried to overcome the terrorists, that plane, who knows, that plane could have taken out the Capitol. I just feel like those people on that plane saved us,” she said. 

Lubin left the Hill for a K Street job in 2003, following a common path of Hill aides past and present. Though she didn’t leave the legislative branch because of 9/11, she said she’s grateful that she stopped working in a federal building: “Those memories, they’re always there.”

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