I will never forget the second plane banking sideways before hitting the tower, crushing all hope that the first September 11 crash was an accident.
We were at work on Capitol Hill going over the schedule when a staffer said "turn on the TV -- a plane crashed into the World Trade Center!" We thought/hoped/prayed it could be an accident ... but that suspension of belief only lasted 'til the second plane's wings banked. Ice cold dread froze my spine, like the moment I once knew I was about to get mugged and had no escape -- only magnified exponentially.
I filed out of the Cannon House Office Building with staff and our bosses to a Members of Congress' briefing at the Capitol Police HQ. Saw smoke rising from the Pentagon. Walked across the Capitol esplanade, eyes blinking from deceptively bright sunshine reflecting off military vehicles... thinking, "we are at war."
By the time we got to Capitol Police HQ briefing, the first tower had fallen. People were stunned: numb yet operational trying to find facts. We were told a plane was coming for the Capitol. All but chiefs of staff were sent home and members got the terrible details about the carnage. Initial estimates said 40,000 people could be killed at #WTC -- those first responders who ran in while others ran out saved thousands of lives.
Soon we learned the Pentagon facts and the Flight 93 tragedy. Details were contradictory as we tried to find out the fate of many constituents. By lunchtime a harrowing, horrifying reality was setting in. Thousands were killed, millions were terrified and there was no end in sight.
By mid-afternoon I finally caught up with my mom (Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi) who'd been in a series of briefings. For a minute, I was a relieved kid in her arms.
Then we were back to work -- I called my boss' district office in MA to find out about the hijacked planes from Logan and the family help lines.
At an ad hoc House Democratic Caucus meeting, people were stunned, angry and defiant, talking about sending a message that terrorists did not win. The military and police were wary of having Congress return to the Capitol since more attacks were possible -- but members insisted on a show of unity.
By the early evening of September 11, members of Congress, senators, staff, and families convened with anger, caring and courage at the Capitol. We took heart from vigils around the world, and headed to ours with leaders, staffers, and press back across the Capitol esplanade. Already concrete barriers, military vehicles, and security unseen since the 2001 inauguration were set up around the Capitol, some permanently.
By dusk on hundreds joined defiant, unified vigil of leaders on the Capitol steps singing
"God Bless America."
In the 12 years since September 11, 2001, I've remembered viscerally the horror of the second plane, the hug from my mom, and the harmony on the Capitol Steps. On this September 11 anniversary, I remain ever hopeful for that harmony as the fog of war and the fog of anti-war can cloud our better angels.