Texans in Congress remember close calls and lives changed on 9/11

A plane approaches New York's World Trade Center moments before it struck the tower at left, as seen from downtown Brooklyn, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP photo by William Kratzke)

September 10, 2017

Sixteen years ago, it was a beautiful enough morning that Pete Olson, a staffer in the U.S. Senate, chose to drive from suburban Virginia into work with his Jeep’s top down. Just as the future Sugar Land-based congressman passed the Pentagon, his wife called to tell him a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center buildings.   

Instantly, he recalled to her the 1945 incident when a B-25 bomber struck the Empire State Building, and he assumed the crash was a pilot error, medical emergency or weather complication.  

He arrived to his job as a military adviser to then-U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm’s office on Capitol Hill to see the second plane hit in lower Manhattan.  

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He had one thought: “ATTACK!”  

Minutes later, a friend called to tell him the Pentagon – that building he passed less than  30 minutes earlier – was now a burst of smoke. Then his chief of staff burst through the door.  

“GET OUT! GO HOME!” the boss yelled.  

The Pentagon was surely hit and authorities believed that a fourth plane in the sky that morning on Sept. 11, 2001 was headed for either the U.S. Capitol or the White House.   

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Current and future Texans serving in Congress were in all three of those buildings. They were Republicans and Democrats, and they came here to Washington from every corner of the state. 

And yet, they all have shared memories of that frantic morning: they all believed at first the first plane was a freak accident; they remember the smoke plumes emerging from the Pentagon; they remember women running so fast on the pavement that lost high heels scattered the White House and U.S. Capitol grounds; they remember the jammed phone lines; and they remember the bridges into and out of the city closing.   

But mostly, they remember the moment when somebody screamed at them “Get out!”  

The Pentagon was the lone target hit in the Washington region.  

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U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry was there in the building, having breakfast with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.   

“I remember him very well receiving a note, so we decided to get out of there, he’s got things to do,” the Clarendon Republican told C-SPAN in 2012.  

The future U.S. House Armed Services chairman decided to drive to the Capitol, just in time to receive the news about the second plane and the evacuation order. 

Army Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, a Texas native, was also in the Pentagon that morning. The future state senator was only yards away from where the plane crashed and suffered severe burns.  

After the attack on the Pentagon, it was that fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, that wreaked further havoc on the city. Even years later, it is unclear whether the U.S. Capitol or the White House was the target of those hijackers.   

Young White House staffer Jodey Arrington was a longtime George W. Bush loyalist, going back to the new president’s time at the Texas governor’s mansion.  

Arrington, now the Republican congressman from Lubbock, was working in the White House on Sept. 11 tasked with interviewing appointees for high-profile positions in the federal government.  

It was in the middle of one of those interviews when a colleague interrupted with the news of the first plane. Arrington turned on the television, but kept the volume low and continued on with the interview. And then he saw the second plane hit.   

“It was less than a minute, and my door opens, and it’s a colleague of mine and he says, ‘A second plane hit. They think it’s terrorism. There’s a plane heading for the White House, and we gotta get out!”   

“People were running down the hallways screaming, and literally women were taking off their heels and running,” he added of the scene at the White House. “I remember feeling especially insecure … Here we were in the White House complex, and we were resorting to rudimentary protocol for emergency evacuation. There was no alarm.”   

The panic was just as frantic down Pennsylvania Avenue at the U.S. Capitol.  

Democratic U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas were in a room just off the members’ dining room for a meeting with officials from the Small Business Administration.  

Jackson Lee, too, went into the meeting thinking the first plane crash was a minor accident.  

“That’s a shame,” she thought. And then nearly everyone’s phones started ringing.  

“We had these flip-flop phones. No sophistication at all,” she said.  

Annoyed, she and her colleagues were confused and began turning their phones off.   

“Somebody snatched open the door and said, ‘We don’t know what’s happening. Get out!’” Jackson Lee recalled.  

“All we could see was people running. Shoes off their feet. We were able to see leadership being bodily carried out down the steps to the black SUV because they had to go to the underground,” she said.  

Jackson Lee ran with her colleagues across the Capitol grounds to the Library of Congress and was instructed to “hit the ground.”  

When her colleague, Johnson, made it outside the U.S. Capitol, she stopped and looked around, absorbing the uproar of people running through the streets and members staring in disbelief at the Pentagon clouds.  

Most members live near the U.S. Capitol. They simply walked home.  

But much of Washington couldn’t get home because authorities shut down the bridges across the Potomac that took commuters to the suburbs.  

Olson had to drive the opposite direction into Maryland to get home. Overhead, the former naval aviator watched an F-16 flying over the National Mall at supersonic, combat speed. He believes now that the pilot was Air Force Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, the pilot who had so frantically scrambled her plane she had no ammunition or missiles.   

Instead, she streaked across the blue sky on a Kamikaze mission to take down the last hijacked airliner.  

That drive home took Olson three hours. A universal blood type, he soon headed to the local donor bank.  

“No one was angered when I was pushed in front of everyone because of my blood type,” he said. 

But while most people were trying to get out of the city, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, was trying to get into the city.  

Hurd, who was then completing his first year as a CIA officer, remembered feeling a pervasive sense of unease within the agency leading up to the attacks.  

“I remember the months leading up to 9/11, where folks in the counterterrorism center were not going home. They were sleeping in their cars,” he said. “Folks that had been dealing with this issue were concerned that something major was going to happen.”  

“There was a nervousness throughout the entire building,” he added.  

After the second plane hit, the government building he was in also received an evacuation order. 

Hurd actually lived inside of Washington proper. He ended up ditching his car in northern Virginia and jogged back to the city. 

Hurd said “it’s hard to imagine” a day that had more impact on his career. “It was something that changed the focus of the CIA, it changed the focus of my career. I was supposed to go on a training element dealing with Venezuela.”  

“At 2. a.m that night, I got the phone call – report to the basement of the new headquarters building of the CIA.” He was now on the counter-terrorism beat and his focus was Afghanistan. Soon, he was involved in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  

For Olson, the realization that the world had changed came late that night. 

“My last memory was standing in my 17-month-old son Grant’s bedroom, looking at him sleeping peacefully without knowing that his life had changed forever,” Olson wrote to the Tribune in an email.   

[It was] re-enforced when [I] heard a jet engine loitering high above my house,” he added. “Since all commercial planes were grounded, only military fighters on combat air patrol were flying.”  

“[I was] stunned that the terrorists had taken the war into Grant’s bedroom.” 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2017/09/10/texans-congress-remember-close-calls-and-lives-changed-911/.

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