One Year Later: Working in the Bull's Eye

July 7, 2008 - 7:29 PM

Editor's note: Congressional Bureau Chief Jeff Johnson prepared for his coverage of the Sept. 11 anniversary by re-interviewing elected officials, government employees, and witnesses to the Pentagon attack who he had originally interviewed on September 11, 2001. This is the first installment in his two-part series "One Year Later."

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Americans may never know whether United Airlines Flight 93 was bound for the U.S. Capitol or another target in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. Regardless of the plane's intended target, many of those who work in and around that national landmark believe they owe their lives to the passengers of Flight 93 who fought back, forcing their terrorist hijackers to crash the plane in rural Pennsylvania.

One year after the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, more than 10,000 people still come to work each day in the U.S. Capitol and seven surrounding House and Senate office buildings. What was going through their minds that day, and how do they feel now, looking back on the event?

Waiting for Word

It was just after 11 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when CNSNews.com talked with Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), who was sitting on a park bench on the Capitol grounds between the Russell Senate Office Building and Washington's Union Station.

"The Capitol Police have asked everyone to evacuate the Capitol buildings and area as a precaution, in the event that it would become a target for what has happened today," he relayed.

Officers gave him no further instructions, and his only working method of communication was a "Blackberry" wireless email device.

"I was one of the few members that had a Blackberry September 11, [2001]. Most of the members hadn't really gotten involved with them yet," he explained.

At the time, however, Andrews was not getting the information he most needed via the device.

"I have no official information as of yet. I was in New Jersey this morning in my district. I was on a train when the attacks occurred, so I arrived here about 10 o'clock and was never able to get to my office," he said that morning.

"I have received emails from my New Jersey office periodically and I'm sure that when some official news comes through it will come through there to me here," he added.

That official information finally came, telling the six-term congressman where to meet with his colleagues, and sharing a disturbing warning.

"The Capitol Police strongly advised us to gather our families in one place, under one roof, because they weren't really sure whether a follow-on to this attack was going to be some sort of attack on public officials and their families all over the country," he said in an interview Monday. "They just didn't know."

Andrews' daughters - Jackie, then eight, and Josie, then six - were in school in New Jersey. But his wife Camille was unable to get to them, so another relative picked them up.

"They knew something was up, but they didn't know what," he remembered. "They just didn't believe that I was okay. They thought something had happened to me."

'Who's to say we're not next?'

One House staff member, who asked not to be identified in this story, told CNSNews.com that he and his coworkers didn't realize the severity of the situation until they saw live video of the damage to the Pentagon.

"We haven't heard that the Pentagon was hit," he insisted, arguing with a friend who called from out of state that morning to urge him to leave Capitol Hill. "I flipped the channels and eventually found one that had just switched to the Pentagon. I saw it smoking and, at that moment, I said, 'Oh. Boy.'

"The dread hit," he continued. "This is obviously very big, it's not just New York and, if they're hitting the Pentagon, who's to say we're not next?"

His slow reaction then, in spite of that realization, brings self-criticism now.

"It wasn't like we scurried out of the building. I changed my out of office email reply and changed my voice mail to say, 'Hey, we're evacuating,'" he continued. "The reality is, it really took a long time for it to soak in that A: We're a target and B: We have to get out of here."

Reconnecting with Family and Friends

Andrews did not hesitate when asked to recall his most vivid memory of the day.

"The tremendous feeling of relief when I was able to talk to my wife and children on the phone. The phones were jammed, effectively from about nine o'clock until that afternoon. You really couldn't get a call through," he explained. "The ability to get on the phone and reassure them that I was safe was the most meaningful thing that happened to me personally that day."

The House staff member had a similar experience communicating with friends and coworkers when he returned to his office the next day.

"The volume of email just skyrocketed," he recalled. "Everybody was just trying to touch base with everyone else and sharing their thoughts and feelings of that day. September 12 [2001] was just a lot of coping type emails, 'Are you there? Are you okay? How do we go on?'"

Returning to Work, Defeating the Terrorists

Returning to work in his House office, while it may have seemed strange to those outside Washington, was both necessary and therapeutic to the staff member.

"We came in to work Sept. 12, [2001], 9 a.m. and just, kind of got to work, and proceeded as normal. This is just what we're supposed to do," he said. "The horrendous attacks had already happened. What was sitting at home going to do?"

Andrews said not just those on Capitol Hill, but all Americans had to go back to work, as one way of defeating the terrorists.

"Osama bin Laden himself, in one of the videotapes that came out at then end of '01 literally said that the purpose of the attacks was to defeat the American economy," he remembered. "If we permitted ourselves to walk away from the activities of our daily lives, we would have let them accomplish what they set out to do. We're not going to do that."

But with the threat of terrorism looming and the Capitol complex offering such an inviting target, how did Andrews encourage others to come back to work?

"You do it yourself. I'm going to Washington at 4 o'clock this afternoon. I'm going to stand in the Capitol building at 6 o'clock," he said. "The best way to show that you're confident the country can defeat this threat is to show it, not to say it."

Andrews quickly shifted the focus from himself to others who he believes have exhibited leadership by example in this area.

"I think the president's done an exemplary job of that. I think leaders of government, business and the media have done an exemplary job of that," he said.

What's Different Today

From the perspective of the House staff member CNSNews.com interviewed, not much has changed on Capitol Hill, "other than a few new barricades."

"Day to day, you still just go about your job and life as if nothing ever happened. Mainly, I think, [that's] because the Capitol wasn't hit ... even though it hit the Pentagon across the river." he said Friday. "The only thing I think about sometimes is Flight 93 that went down in Pennsylvania. Was that headed for the Capitol?

"When I think about that, you know, that can sometimes be nerve-wracking," he continued. "But, in a way, you can't think about that."

Andrews said there is "a much better level of preparation than there was a year ago" to respond to emergencies on Capitol Hill.

Politicians, he said, also seem more appreciative of those who serve in the military, police, fire, and emergency medical services as a result of the tragedy.

"It's always been part of the ritual of American politics to praise the military or the police department or the fire department," Andrews admitted, "I think people really mean it now in a way that they did not before.

"The idea that these firefighters knowingly walked into a situation that was probably going to kill them, but doing so, so that they could rescue innocent people is overwhelming, just overwhelming," he added. "People have a new respect."

Looking Ahead, But Never Forgetting

The New Jersey Democrat is concerned, however about one thing he believes has not changed that should.

"I'm troubled by the fact that the American government has not yet absorbed what really changed on September 11th. And that is that we are in a constant war against people who will strike at any time, in the most terrifying way, in the most vulnerable place," Andrews warned. "I don't think we've really adjusted to that yet."

Andrews believes at least some Americans, including himself, have taken the country's past freedom and peace at home for granted.

"My generation, I think, raised in the comfort of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, didn't really understand in our gut that, that freedom has to be defended, until September 11," he admitted.

Andrews looks forward to the day when he can tell his oldest daughter, who was then only eight years old but still somewhat aware of what was happening on September 11, 2001, that such threats are only memories.

"I hope I'm able to reassure her when she's 18 that terrorist cells, which operated for the sole purpose of killing Americans, no longer have any place safe in the world to do that," he said.

Andrews will also remind his daughters of that phone call he was finally able to make on September 11, 2001.

"There were a couple of thousand people who wanted to make that phone call that day and could not; people who died in those buildings or crashed in those planes, or firefighters who went into those buildings, their families were anxiously waiting at home for that call and it never came," he concluded solemnly. "Those of us who were able to make it are profoundly grateful and thankful that we could."

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