American flags fly at half mast on the grounds of the Washington Monument in memory of the victims of the terror attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon September 17, 2001 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong—Getty Images
By Garrett M. Graff
September 11, 2019
IDEAS
Graff is the author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. He’s written for publications from Wired to The New York Times, and served as the editor of two of Washington’s most prestigious magazines, Washingtonian and POLITICO Magazine. His books include Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die, The Threat Matrix: The FBI War in the Age of Global Terror.

Nearly every American above a certain age remembers precisely where they were on September 11, 2001. For those on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., recalling the attacks carries a special poignancy—as congressional leaders, members, and staff today wonder whether their lives were saved by the brave passengers and crew aboard United Airlines Flight 93, who stormed the cockpit and forced their hijacked plane to crash outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. To this day, no one knows where Flight 93 might have struck.

On Capitol Hill, morning meetings were interrupted by an alert that an emergency situation was unfolding in New York City—sketchy initial reports grew worse almost by the minute as the morning’s news unfolded from 8:46 a.m., when the first airliner in New York struck the North Tower. Staffers, representatives, and senators quickly realized that what appeared to start as a tragic accident in New York was spreading into their own backyard—and that they themselves might be a target underneath the dome of the U.S. Capitol.

This excerpt from the new book The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 is based on transcripts of official oral histories, conducted by both the U.S. House historian’s office and C-SPAN, as well as original interviews by the author and other primary source materials. All interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Beth Cahill, chief of staff, Senator Edward Kennedy: The thing I remember most about Washington that day was the beauty of the day.

Hillary Howard, weather anchor, WUSA-DC TV: The sky was extraordinarily blue.

Tish Schwartz, chief clerk, House Judiciary Committee: Bright blue.

Brian Gunderson, chief of staff, Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas): Deep blue.

Eve Butler-Gee, chief journal clerk, U.S. House of Representatives: Cobalt blue.

Tom Daschle, Majority Leader, U.S. Senate: One of the most beautiful days of the year.

Julia Rogers, Page, U.S. House of Representatives: One of those days that you wish you could put in a bottle.

Brian Gunderson, chief of staff, Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas): As we walked into our morning staff meeting, I could see on the TV screen—like any congressional office, there were a lot of TV screens around—that a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. We assumed it was a small plane. I thought it was going to be more along the level of like a bad school shooting somewhere—the kind of event that dominates national news, but it doesn’t really change what Congress does that day.

Tom Daschle, Majority Leader, U.S. Senate: Senator John Glenn, a dear friend, came by. I said, “Did you see that? A pilot flew into the World Trade Center.” He said, “Pilots don’t fly into buildings. That wasn’t a pilot.”

Laura Petrou, staff director, Senator Tom Daschle: Everybody was watching the TV and they were showing repeated shots of the plane flying into the first tower. Then we saw the second plane go into the other tower. It was pretty frenzied. I just remember us all being kind of stunned and trying to figure out what to do.

Brian Gunderson, chief of staff, Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas): We went on with the staff meeting. Went through the floor schedule that week, went through other items, and after a few minutes our press secretary, who’d been in the other room briefing Congressman Armey, came in and said that another plane had hit the second World Trade Center tower and that it was dearly an act of terrorism. At that point, everything changed.

Rep. Porter Goss, Chair, House Intelligence Committee: I was upstairs in the committee room, which was then up in the House attic, with a few senators and congressmen. Senator Bob Graham and I were hosting a breakfast meeting for Mahmud Ahmed, the head of the Pakistan intelligence service. We’d been in Pakistan the week before and had invited him to Washington to continue the conversation. He was actually sitting there in our inner sanctum when my staff handed me a note saying a plane hit the Trade Towers. Then we got the second report. Ahmed turned absolutely ashen and was escorted out of the room. I think before we even left the room, the words al-Qaeda had appeared in our discussion.

John Feehery, press secretary, Speaker Dennis Hastert: Amid all the tumult, we were called down to the Speaker’s Office. The Sergeant at Arms gave us a briefing. It was a very strange, surreal experience because the Sergeant at Arms was telling us that everything was going to be fine, and then we turned on the TV and saw another plane hit the World Trade Towers. It was one of those mornings when everything was jumbled up.

Brian Gunderson, chief of staff, Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas): All of a sudden, one of the plainclothes policemen—he was part of the Speaker’s security detail—stood up and said, “Look!” He pointed out the window. He apparently saw, if not the fireball, at least the column of smoke rising in the distance from the Pentagon.

Brian Gaston, policy director, Majority Leader Richard Armey: The meeting broke up right then and there.

Tish Schwartz, chief clerk, House Judiciary Committee: I froze. You could literally see the smoke billowing up. Everybody was numb: Oh my God, what’s going on? There were no bells going off, there was no panic, screaming, anything like that. Everybody was very calm, but stunned, and in disbelief. The word surreal is used a lot, but that’s what it was.

Tom Daschle, Majority Leader, U.S. Senate: And there began the chaos.

Dennis Hastert, Speaker, U.S. House of Representatives: I was trying to contact the vice president to see what he thought we should do. It was very frustrating because at that time we had these secure phones, which had a key and buttons that you had to push, and between the two of us, we didn’t connect. I had two phones on my desk—a secure phone to the White House and this regular old red phone that I took all my calls on. All of a sudden, I see the red phone flashing, and I said, “Well, they probably put the call through on the red phone.” I picked it up, figuring it was the vice president. There was a guy on the other end of the line, “What are you guys doing up there on Capitol Hill … taxes are too high … pollution all over the country,” on and on, ranting and raving. I said, “Whoa, wait a minute. Who is this?” He said, “Never mind, who is this?” I said, “This is the speaker of the house—I think you have the wrong number.”

Rep. Porter Goss, Chair, House Intelligence Committee: I raced down the stairs to brief the Speaker. I found him in his office staring down the Mall at the smoke from the Pentagon. I said we had to evacuate immediately. He agreed, saying, “On the way out, I want to open the House for a quick session and a prayer.”

Dennis Hastert: I decided to cancel Congress.

Rep. Porter Goss: We walked onto the House Floor about ten minutes before 10, and the Parliamentarian said we couldn’t open the House yet because the call was for 10 a.m. I turned around to say something to the speaker, but he wasn’t there. He was being removed by security to a secure location.

Dennis Hastert: All of a sudden, two of my security guys—one on each side of me—picked me up and whisked me away. I said, “What’s going on?” They said, “We think there’s a fourth plane and we think it’s headed for the Capitol.”

Rep. Porter Goss: I told the Parliamentarian, “We’re doing this now, because we’re going to evacuate.” There was no question we had to get out of there.

Father Gerry Creedon, guest chaplain, House of Representatives: The House chaplain, Reverend Dan Coughlin, advised me that I would do the opening invocation, and then Congress would be dismissed. I got a piece of paper, and wrote—using his shoulder as a desk—a new prayer. Porter Goss said to me, “I don’t care what your prayer is, as long as it’s brief.” I read the prayer, the gavel was hit, and the House was dismissed.

Dennis Hastert: People were told to get out—run. There were 5,000 people that work in or around the Capitol.

Tom Daschle: There was a mad scramble, literally running out of the Capitol building. I saw young staff, I even saw Senator Robert C. Byrd, carrying a couple of books, and having some difficulty walking quickly, but nonetheless evacuating.

Eve Butler-Gee, chief journal clerk, U.S. House of Representatives: I went down the hall, coming at me, was this entire wave of blue uniforms. It looked like thousands of them, all coming straight at me.

Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO): It was obviously a very confused situation. The Capitol Police came through the corridor and said, “Everybody out!” with a real state of urgency. Then Mr. Gephardt, his security detail took him and disappeared. The rest of us were on our own.

Tish Schwartz, chief clerk, House Judiciary Committee: The fire alarms went off. Now, what you have to understand is, the best plan we had at the time was a fire evacuation—that was it.

Brian Gaston, policy director, Majority Leader Richard Armey: It was a very haphazard—we don’t have the system that’s in place today. We didn’t have an evacuation system. It was just basically Capitol Hill policemen, running to offices, and knocking on everyone’s door, coming in and saying you need to leave the Capitol immediately.

Julia Rogers, Page, U.S. House: I was really scared. You could sense the tension in the police officers. They weren’t their normal selves. You could see the fear on their faces and in their eyes, and that further frightened me.

Rep. Porter Goss: There we were, standing at the bottom of the steps of the Capitol wondering if the building would be there the next time we came back.

Brian Gunderson: I remember seeing a network news crew, and the producer was frantically telling his crew to get that camera pointed at the Capitol Dome. He had assumed—as we all did at that time—that there might be another jetliner heading for the Capitol, and he thought it was important that his camera was in a position to get the shot of that jet smashing into the Capitol Dome.

Tyler Rogers, Page, U.S. House: One of the page responsibilities is delivering flags—when you fly them over the Capitol, the pages pick them up and deliver them to the Members’ offices. We have these big mail carts full of flags. One of our colleagues was on flag duty that morning, and she had her cart full of flags. She was told to evacuate and she didn’t have anywhere to put the flags. She’s rolling down the street with this gigantic thing. She was one of the smallest pages, but she has this gigantic cart full of flags. She was like, “I can’t leave these. I couldn’t ditch them.”

Dennis Hastert: I was whisked down the elevator. The next thing I know, I’m in the back of a Suburban, headed to Andrews Air Force Base. It was bizarre. I remember this car was just going a hundred miles an hour, very fast.

Brian Gunderson: There were very elaborate plans, of course, for the Speaker, because the Speaker’s in the line of presidential succession. The Majority Leader is not. His security detail very quickly hustled him out of the Capitol, then they got into his official vehicle, and left. But he didn’t have any particular place to go. There was no assigned relocation position.

Rep. Porter Goss: There wasn’t any plan. You’ve now taken 535 of the most important people in the country and put them out on the lawn.

Rep. Martin Frost, chair, House Democratic Caucus: No one told us to either stay or to leave. That was the interesting thing. Each of us acted on our own. My instant reaction was to get away from the Capitol. We were as much in the dark as anyone else.

Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-NJ): I was walking past the Supreme Court. All of a sudden, there was a very loud boom. Looking back, it was a sonic boom from one of the military aircraft that had been scrambled over Washington. When that happened, I and everyone around me stopped, winced, and paused for about two or three seconds. Then everyone started to run.

Eve Butler-Gee, former chief journal clerk, U.S. House of Representatives: We went about three quarters of the way down the Mall and didn’t know what to do. We were told we needed to be prepared to take cover. My colleague Gigi Kelaher and I were standing there looking at each other, thinking, “This is the Mall. There are no trees. Take cover?” We tend to make jokes when we’re nervous, and we looked at this little reflecting pool that was part of the decoration of the Mall. It was about five feet by four feet in diameter, and we said, “Well, if worst comes to worst, we’ll dive in here.”

Brian Gaston, policy director, Majority Leader Richard Armey: No one knew what to do.

Brian Gunderson, chief of staff, Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas): Communications on September 11th were a real problem. Back then, communications were somewhat primitive by today’s standards. We had BlackBerrys. We had moved out of the Capitol so quickly that a lot of people were stuck—women were stuck without their purses, men didn’t have their suit jackets, and a lot of people didn’t have their cell phones and their BlackBerrys.

Tish Schwartz, chief clerk, House Judiciary Committee: BlackBerrys were working. Cell phones weren’t.

Tom Daschle, Majority Leader, U.S. Senate: The members were taken to the top floor of the Capitol Police building, which is very near the Capitol campus. They pulled the shades down, which I always thought was an odd thing to do. Our most immediate concern was to try to connect with our families. The cell phones weren’t working, so we all stood in this rather lengthy line—House and Senate, Republican and Democratic. I recall feeling almost like a refugee, standing in line waiting to get my turn to use the landline to call my wife.

Rep. Martin Frost, chair, House Democratic Caucus: I went back to my townhouse. I turned on the television and watched the news.

Tom Daschle: There was discussion of going to the secret location, some suggested going to Andrews Air Force Base. Some suggested that maybe we shouldn’t concentrate all the leadership in one location. There was a great difference of opinion. Ultimately, we decided to disperse. I went to the office of one of our consultants and stayed there for a while, watching developments on the TV screen.

 

The day’s attacks activated a secret system, known as “continuity of government,” aimed at preserving the leadership of the United States, a system never before used. Within hours, the congressional leadership had been whisked to a mountain bunker originally built for the Cold War. For the first time in history, helicopters from the Air Force’s 1st Helicopter Squadron swooped up congressional leaders from the west lawn of the Capitol and from Andrews Air Force Base. Over the course of the day, other staff and personnel also flowed out to Mount Weather, in Berryville, Virginia, 80 minutes west of Washington, and to Raven Rock, the backup Pentagon built in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, near Camp David.

 

Dennis Hastert, Speaker, U.S. House of Representatives: I was heading out to Andrews Air Force Base. I finally talked to the vice president. He was still in the White House. He said he brought all the planes down. After having a discussion with the vice president, he said, “You’re going to an undisclosed location.” Next thing, I was in a helicopter, flying over the south side of Washington. We flew over Reagan National Airport, and there’s nothing moving on the tarmac. I looked out the other side of the helicopter and there were flames pouring out of the Pentagon building and blue-black smoke.

Tom Daschle, Majority Leader, U.S. Senate: I was called and told that the decision had been made to evacuate to this undisclosed location. I could bring one staff person, Laura Petrou.

Laura Petrou, staff director, Senator Tom Daschle: We were told to report to the West Lawn of the Capitol. The helicopter was right there, with several armored vehicles around. I was already in the helicopter or about to get in, when somebody looked at me and said, “You have clearance, right?” I said, “No.” They said, “Well, doesn’t matter.”

Brian Gunderson, chief of staff, Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas): We all piled into this helicopter, and the safety instructions were shouted at us over the helicopter’s engine.

Laura Petrou: I remember thinking, I have no idea where we’re going or how long we’re going to be there.

Dennis Hastert: I ended up at an undisclosed location. Senator Lott was there, as was Senator Daschle, and Dick Gephardt, the Minority Leader, other members of the leadership.

Brian Gunderson: We went deep in the countryside and then landed at the undisclosed location. We got out, and this gentleman walks up to the helicopter who I gather was the mayor of this facility. He said something very chipper, something along the lines of “Welcome to—,” and the name of this place. I remember being impressed that even though it’s this guy’s job to be ready for an event like this, he was, in fact, ready, and very calm about it. This day starts like any other, and next thing you know, he’s got all these government officials descending on him in these Huey helicopters.

Laura Petrou: There’s a web of people within the government who take over. They tell you what to do, and you do what they say.

Brian Gunderson: There were these guys standing in the landing zone wearing their gray urban combat uniforms, holding their M-16s.

Laura Petrou: They split our group up and put us in the cars. It was pretty odd driving into this underground place.

Tom Daschle: It’s a very stark place. Rooms that are very nondescript—white walls, very basic chairs and tables.

Laura Petrou: It was very spartan. It was basically different shades of gray everywhere. We were taken through some tunnels and eventually into a room filled with cubicles, desks.

Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO): There was a group of people there who had been staffing that location who had been waiting since the Cold War for somebody to show up.

John Feehery, press secretary, Speaker Dennis Hastert: It was a sense of wonderment that, “Oh, boy, so this is what we have for the nuclear winter.”

Brian Gunderson: There were obviously preparations for us to stay for a long while if we had to. As we went through it, we crossed through one room that had a set of law books, a set of the U.S. Code, in case we had to do any legislating while we were there.

Tom Daschle: We were put on a speakerphone with the president—I think the president first, then the vice president second—to talk about circumstances. Basically, they recounted their own experiences, where they were, what they knew from intelligence briefings they had been given.

Brian Gunderson: They made some snacks available—I remember that there were a few bags of Cheetos or Doritos, and a few sodas that had been cracked open—and we all sat around and looked at the TV screen, and watched the tape of the towers coming down. That’s where we stayed for several hours.

Steve Elmendorf: While we were at the secure location, the main thing that struck me was our main source of information was CNN—still. We sat in a room—the top leaders of the House and the Senate together—and we watched CNN. Cheney called several times and briefed people, but I don’t remember receiving any information that was any different from what I was watching on TV.

John Feehery: There was this sense of shock. There was also a sense of confusion. The Members felt very nervous. The leadership on both sides—the House and Senate—were isolated from the rest of their members, and that’s not where you want to be.

Laura Petrou: They didn’t feel good about being separated from their colleagues and their families. Almost from the moment they got there, they wanted to go back.

Steve Elmendorf: One of the phone calls with Cheney, Don Nickles, who was the Senate Republican Whip at the time, suggested that we ought to leave. He was agitated, asking, “Why are we all here? The situation is clear. We need to get back.” Cheney was clearly annoyed by this, and his voice came out of the speakerphone in the middle of the table and said, “Don, we control the helicopters. We’ll decide when you leave.”

Brian Gunderson: I got calls from other leadership staff that were still at the Capitol Police headquarters, with other Members of Congress. They basically were calling up saying, “Well, the mood’s actually pretty ugly here.”

John Feehery: One member of Congress told the Speaker that he thought he was a coward for not coming back. It was decided that we were going to have a press conference on the Capitol steps to show the American people that we were not going to let the terrorists win.

Brian Gunderson: At that point, all civilian air traffic had been grounded, so there were no non-military aircraft flying over U.S. airspace. There was a feeling that the security situation had stabilized. That there was some confidence that there weren’t going to be follow-on attacks, at least not immediately, and so that it was safe to go back. Eventually the decision was made that yes, it’s time. We can get back in the helicopters.

John Feehery: I called one of my assistants, Paige Ralston, who was back in the Capitol Police, and she helped organize this press conference on the Capitol steps. Trent Lott wanted it only to be the leadership involved. I made the call that we were going to have all the Members there.

Dennis Hastert: We didn’t know what was facing us but we knew that there was a lot of legislative things that we had to do. We got the word that the President was going to come back and land in Washington at 6:00. We figured we’d come in right behind the President.

 

With the president en route to Washington, scheduled to arrive in D.C. around 6 p.m. ET, the congressional leadership hidden at Mount Weather began to make their way back to the capital as well. In the early fall darkness, they gathered at the Capitol around 7:45 p.m.

 

John Feehery, press secretary, Speaker Dennis Hastert: We took a helicopter ride back from the secure location. Beautiful Virginia sunset, beautiful day, and seeing the flames still leaping up from the Pentagon. It was really quite a sight and quite emotional.

Tom Daschle, Majority Leader, U.S. Senate: Yet with that soft September light was chaos all around. Smoke still billowing from the Pentagon. Fire trucks below, jets above, tanks and all kinds of security—just an amazing transformation of what started as one of the most tranquil and beautiful days of the year that morning.

Brian Gunderson, chief of staff, Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas): You knew something was very wrong with the world that day. We passed over some office buildings in Northern Virginia that had dump trucks parked at the entrance to their parking lots to prevent possible car bomb attacks.

Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO): It was very surreal to fly in in helicopters, see the smoke coming out of the Pentagon, land on the Capitol grounds with a heightened level of security. At that time, it was very rare to see the Capitol Police with a machine gun or a shotgun or anything remotely like that. We landed and there were all sorts of people with automatic weapons and SWAT gear surrounding us, surrounding the helicopters.

John Feehery: It had really become a fortress.

Rep. Martin Frost, chair, House Democratic Caucus: At some point, there was a report on television that members were going to come back and meet at a certain time, so I did along with everybody else.

Dennis Hastert, Speaker, U.S. House of Representatives: We walked across the East Front of the Capitol and there were probably 200—maybe 175 or 225—Members of Congress on the front stairs of the Capitol. Wow, it’s pretty amazing. Members of the House, members of the Senate, Democrats, Republicans.

Tom Daschle: I don’t recall seeing a smile the entire evening. It was facial expressions that were somber—very, very grave.

Eve Butler-Gee, former chief journal clerk, U.S. House of Representatives: By then, of course, we had learned about Flight 93. It was very bittersweet because our sense was that that plane was headed for the Capitol building. Had it not been for those people, it could have been much, much worse. They gave their lives to save ours.

Dennis Hastert: Daschle came up and spoke for a couple 20 seconds or so. I got up and basically said, “Look this country will be okay, we’re going to stand up, we’ll be back to work tomorrow, we’ll do the people’s work and get this country going again. And we’ll find out who did this and protect our country.”

Tom Daschle: After the two speeches, there was a moment of silence that wasn’t scheduled. Nobody really wanted to leave. People started holding hands. Somebody started to sing.

Dennis Hastert: As I turned back to go back to the place I was standing, somebody broke out in the crowd of Members of Congress in “God Bless America.”

John Feehery: I think it was [Rep.] Jennifer Blackburn Dunn who started breaking out in “God Bless America.”

Tom Daschle: It didn’t take long before everybody began singing along. It was probably the most beautiful part of the entire experience, totally unplanned, totally spontaneous. But probably more powerful than whatever the speaker and I said.

Dennis Hastert: I remember the chills going down my spine. I remember thinking, This country will be okay. We’ll stand shoulder to shoulder.

Eve Butler-Gee: I cried. That was the moment when I really lost it, watching that happen. The feeling was, no matter what happens, nobody’s going to defeat us, either psychologically or in actual fact.

Celine Haga, staffer, U.S. House of Representatives: In the hours and days and weeks later when it was replayed on TV, it felt trite and corny but in that moment, that night, it felt like we were clinging to something, like a lifeline.

Rep. Martin Frost: Then we dispersed.

Brian Gunderson, chief of staff, Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas): As we came back to work to the Capitol on the morning of the 12th, there were a lot of changes. There were new security barriers that were thrown up, there were military Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns on top, with soldiers manning them. At a glance, it looked like there’d been a coup.

Mary Beth Cahill, chief of staff, Senator Edward Kennedy: When I first came to Washington, you could walk up to the Capitol, to every monument. You could walk in to talk to your representative, without having your bag searched. Now, we take for granted the way in which life has changed—and changed necessarily. It was a different world.

 

NOTE: The story of 9/11 similarly captures only a snapshot of a single moment in time. One of the key players on Capitol Hill that day, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, the man who would become the longest-serving Republican speaker in history, was afterwards sentenced to 15 months in federal prison based on a plea deal stemming from sexual misconduct charges from his days as a high school wrestling coach. He was released from prison in July 2017.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

Read More From TIME

EDIT POST