[I took this the morning of September 11, 2001. Senator John Kerry (D MA) joins the crowd evacuating the US Capitol – you can see the women are getting car keys out of their purses – as the Pentagon burns in the distance.]
09/11/10 I was in a taxi that morning going up to Capitol Hill to cover an historic hearing – the new First Lady, Laura Bush, was to testify before a committee that included her predecessor, newly minted Senator Hillary Clinton. Just as we pulled up to the Russell Office Building, the radio announced that a small plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. They guessed that a pilot had suffered a heart attack. “Keep your head down!” the cabbie joked as I got out.
Later, inside the hearing room, I got a call from my brother Tim (an editor at Reuters) to tell me a plane had hit WTC. I told him I’d heard that already and he said no ANOTHER plane and both planes were commercial airliners. This is the point when things became crazy and everything hit fast forward.
The hearing was canceled. Many of the other photogs left immediately for NYC. Laura Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy came out and talked about the loss of life in NY. As they were doing this, the Pentagon was hit. Pandemonium. The smoke could clearly be seen from the window of the building we were in.
The Secret Service took Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton out in separate convoys. They had their Uzis drawn. There was a bomb scare at the Capitol building which was being evacuated. I went there.
Cell phones had stopped working – a recorded message saying “All Circuits Are Busy” came on after dialing. The one time this had happened to me in the past was trying to use a payphone in the moments after President Reagan was shot 20 years before. I was filled with a feeling of dread. My cousin Sharon lived a couple blocks from World Trade Center and I could not get through to her.
The rumors flying were a mixture of truth, partial truth and flat out false. I heard that the OEB was on fire; that the State Dept was burning as was the National Mall. The Metro was said to be unsafe. When eventually I heard that the WTC towers had collapsed, I thought “bullshit.” I didn’t believe it. The rumor at the top of my mind was of a hijacked plane still in the air and headed for DC.
Dozens of people were milling around by the Senate swamp. There was a guy who had a mini TV working off the cigarette lighter in his car and the news was on. The Senate chaplain gathered some people together in a huddle and began praying. Senator Byrd was walking around and chatting with no police protection. At the time, he was President Pro Tem of the Senate – #3 in terms of presidential succession after the Vice President and the Speaker of the House.
I remember thinking “I’m here to take a photo if a plane flies into the Capitol dome but why in the hell are these people just standing here? It’s coming!”
Just minutes after that thought, a Navy fighter plane passed overhead and caused a sonic boom. This triggered a total, absolute panic on the ground. People were running and screaming with no idea where they were running to or what they were screaming. I remember looking at people’s eyes through my lens and their pupils were wide with terror.