September 11, 2001: All History is Personal

[Prologue: The following is merely a rendition of my personal experience on September 11, 2001. It is not particularly poignant or profound; merely observational. There are no stories of extraordinary heroism or the like. It is, however, a bit out of context, since like all historical pieces, it’s part of a larger story about being in Washington–that is, official “Washington,” in the four years after 9/11/2001, a story I’m just beginning to tell.]

I flew into town arriving late that night. At the hotel, the desk clerk told me that there had been some mistake in my reservation and I could stay there just one night and I’d have to find accommodations elsewhere for the remainder of my stay.

I made a quick call to one of my contacts and she said that they would work the issue in the morning, but that I should bring all of my luggage with me because I’d be moving to another hotel. They wanted to see me in the office at 8:00 a.m.

Certain that the greatest adventure of my life was about commence, I hurriedly readied for bed to get a good night’s sleep. The President of the United States about a week earlier officially had informed the Senate that he was nominating me to be Assistant Secretary of the Interior, in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. And now the Senate had scheduled the first of two committee hearings on my nomination. It would be in four days.

As I drifted off to sleep in Alexandria, Virginia, I glanced at the clock. It was 11:30 pm, September 10, 2001.

*** *** *** ***

I took a taxi to Main Interior, located about equidistant between the White House and the State Department. The area was becoming familiar, as I had been there several times since the President had announced his intent to nominate me in August.

I was escorted to an office on the sixth floor where I would “live” while being briefed and prepared for the Senate hearings. As I settled in (with all of my luggage in tow!), I was struck by the surreality of it all. I was not rich or famous; I was just a guy from suburban Sacramento; an ordinary guy with a dog and a mortgage on what could be said to be a modest ranch-style house. Yet, here I was in the Nation’s Capital being prepared to meet the Senate of the United States!

My first briefing that morning was to be with the Interior Department’s liaison with the Defense Department, on issues that concerned both departments. My briefer was a smart and savvy Air Force colonel named Tom Lilly. We had met during one of my earlier visits and had gotten on well. (I was a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and had served twice at the Pentagon).

Tom and I had just begun to discuss business when one of us noticed flames leaping into the sky as we looked to the south from the sixth floor of the Interior building. Tom stood up for a better view.

“That’s the Pentagon that’s on fire!” he said. I came to the window and could see that he was right. Having worked in the building and being familiar with its construction, I wondered aloud what on earth could have caused such an enormous fire. Only a major explosion could . . . .

I was pondering the perplexing possibilities and rejecting each one out of hand, when Tom said, “Let’s go turn on CNN.” We went two offices down the hall toward the Deputy Secretary’s office and found an empty room with a television in it.

CNN wasn’t yet reporting the fire at the Pentagon. There was apparently a bigger story:

An airplane had struck the World Trade Center in New York City. Tom and I found this as implausible as the fire at the Pentagon. The CNN anchors were speculating about a “navigation error.” But Tom and I both had sufficient knowledge of aviation to know that a “navigation error” was the least likeliest cause. Somebody had deliberately flown that airplane into the building . . . but why and how. . . and who? We had not yet connected the dots with the Pentagon fire.

As we watched, a second plane came into view and struck the other tower! We just stood there, horrified.

At that moment, someone came running down the hall, saying, “Prepare to evacuate the building! There’s a car bomb at the State Department [which turned out not to be true].”

Evacuate the building? And go where? Because of the reservations glitch. I didn’t have anywhere to stay in the Washington area. I was still a civilian as far as the federal government was concerned. What should I do?

I first contacted my family in California and let them know I was okay for the moment, but that I had no idea where I would be for the rest of the day. As I continued to ponder my next step, the Deputy Secretary stuck his head into the room and said, “You’re coming with us!”

We got down to Interior’s basement parking garage into a car owned by Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason. Heading out of the building and onto 19th Street, we could see chaos ruling the city. The streets were clogged with thousands s of people, most walking or running, heading toward Virginia.

The traffic moved very slowly. I had no idea where we were headed. The two official guys kept referring to a site by a code name. We listened to Washington’s all-news station WTOP, and heard that the White House staff and the First Lady had been evacuated and heard a repeat of the report of a suspected car bomb at the State Department.

After a long ride through nearly impossible traffic we arrived at the site where the Interior Department executive staff had relocated; all but the Secretary were present. There were computers set up all around thins place monitoring the events that continued to unfold. Conflicting reports about the hijacking of a number of planes continued to come in. Another plane was said to be “missing.”

When we had been there for about half an hour, the Secretary arrived with her security detail. She had been taken away from Main Interior before the general evacuation was ordered. A few minutes after she arrived, her security people received a message. She was to leave the present site immediately. And she did.

Shortly after the Secretary’s departure, the Deputy Secretary announced that the rest of us would be heading to yet another site, identified publicly only by a code name. We left in the car immediately.

What I can say about this second site is that it was in a state some distance from Washington (not Maryland or Virginia), and that when we arrived, it appeared that the whole Interior Department headquarters had been replicated there. I was quite impressed with the diligence that must have gone into the effort. But still it was surreal . . . like a Tom Clancy novel come to life.

Because I had all my luggage with me, I was among the best prepared to stay there for awhile. Few others had changes of clothes and toothbrushes with them!

By now, we knew that the United States had been attacked by foreign terrorists and had a pretty good idea of who they were.

These events transpired so quickly that I had little time to think about them. On another day that week, we returned to Washington; the Pentagon was still burning. Needless to say, my confirmation hearings were postponed indefinitely. I had to hang round Washington for some period of time because nobody knew what was going to happen next and there were no planes flying to California.

I got restless after a few days and opted to take Amtrak back to California. The train was overloaded and it took four long days to get to Sacramento. During the trip, the train ran out of food and the toilets overflowed. I was glad to be home.

[Epilogue: Less than twelve hours after I arrived home, I was summoned back to Washington. I returned on a nearly empty United Airlines flight nonstop from Sacramento. And so began one of the most unusual decades of my life and in our Nation’s history.]

6 Responses to “September 11, 2001: All History is Personal”

  • Tom Lillie says:

    Craig – thanks for putting ‘pen to paper.’ After we heard the report about a possible car bomb at State Department, Doug Domenech and I ran into the Deputy Secretary’s office, opened the window, and climbed onto the balcony for a better view. Doug gazed down on 18th Street toward the E street end of the building and I headed along the balcony in the direction of 19th St and State Department. No sign of smoke, fire, or disturbance in either direction. We heard a loud boom and both said “what the hell was that?” Nothing down below that we could see. We looked up and saw an F-16 darting across the sky. I told Doug “that was a sonic boom.” The F-16 had scrambled from Andrews AFB and was operating at full throttle. The suspected explosion at State Department was probably an earlier sonic boom. We climbed back into the building through the window into the Deputy Secretary’s office. All of the senior leadership was gone. They had departed for the secret location you mentioned. A number of people were in car pools with no way home. I contacted a friend who worked on K Street. He said the roads around his building were in a state of gridlock. He had no immediate plans to attempt to drive out of the District. We agreed to meet for lunch in about an hour and a half at a restaurant across the street from his building. I joined others in the Main Interior Building to watch the news. I left the building around 11:30 to join my friend on K Street. Streets were packed with traffic; nothing was moving. I was wearing my Air Force uniform. People in cars noticed the uniform and began to yell “do something about this.” “Where are you going?” “Come back and direct traffic.” Panic was on their faces. They expected someone in uniform to be in the road directing traffic. It was chaos. I joined my friend for lunch at an Asian restaurant; it was packed. We talked about the terrible situation and discussed a route home. We left the restaurant around 12:30 PM. Roads were heavily congested in the city and on the 495 beltway. It took us about four hours to travel 18 miles; a route that would typically take less than 40 minutes. Tom Lillie

  • Mavis Jones says:

    What a fascinating and riveting story!

  • Thank you for a fascinating and moving story. I agree with Cheryl – your experiences would make a marvelous book.

  • Jasia says:

    Wow! What a story! You were closer to the events than anyone else I know. And you were in an interesting position, not really in the inner circle of Washington but on the fringe observing. What a rare perspective that gives you. Thanks for sharing!

  • Craig, you have the MOST interesting stories to tell! Wow! Thanks for sharing with us. Your life would make a marvelous book… I know you must have been told that before.

  • Donna Wendt says:

    Thank you for telling this story.

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