HILL: 9/11 then and now

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

I was walking out of the door to go to a meeting in downtown D.C. on Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, when my wife told me a plane had just crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York. “It probably was a guy who had a heart attack flying a Cessna. I wouldn’t worry about it,” I said somewhat casually before I said goodbye.

As I was driving down Route 50 in Northern Virginia with the top down on that glorious late summer morning, I noticed a puff of black smoke around 9:40 a.m. in the sky to my right. A newsbreak interrupted Tony Kornheiser’s radio show about the Redskins to report that a helicopter had crashed at the Pentagon.

“That musta been one helluva big helicopter!” I thought as the black cloud of smoke grew ever larger to my right as I drove by the Pentagon. But it was such a beautiful late summer morning that I kept on driving and didn’t give it a second thought.

Everything seemed “normal” until I went over Memorial Bridge and stopped dead in traffic on Constitution Avenue. I heard explosions behind me to my right emanating from the Pentagon and the roar of jet fighters scrambling overhead. Women were running out of the White House across the Ellipse with high heels flying. Police mounted on horseback were galloping like cowboys trying to restore some sense of order while directing panicked White House employees to safe places.

It finally dawned on me that something really bad was going on and I better switch to a news channel. Reports said the Twin Towers and the Pentagon had been attacked by hijacked airplanes and a fourth jetliner was still in the air headed for Washington, probably aimed at the Capitol or the White House which was about a block away to my left as I sat in stuck traffic.

I made it back home four hours later somehow and started to shake from the realization America was at war with someone. The last thing on my mind that afternoon was that I would be named chief of staff to Sen. Elizabeth Dole 14 months later and would go back to work on Capitol Hill, this time on the Senate side in a post-9/11 world.

Young people need to know there was a good reason why American soldiers were in Afghanistan in the first place. We were either going to fight radical Islamist terrorists over there or risk continued deadly attacks on innocent Americans here.

Things were decidedly different on Capitol Hill than a decade earlier. A Senate security officer issued a Blackberry and a cell phone to me on the first day and said sternly “never turn them off, night or day!”

He might as well have said: “We expect to be attacked again, and soon.”

The feeling of danger working on Capitol Hill after 9/11 was palpable. One late afternoon, I was escorting Sen. Dole across Constitution Avenue to the Russell Senate Office Building (SOB). At the stop light, all I saw were a lot of cab drivers who were wearing turbans and had heavy beards. My first thought was “Elizabeth Dole is one of the most famous people in the world.” My second thought was: “I am not a secret service agent. I don’t have a bullet-proof vest. I better do something about this.”

Other indications of imminent danger were the evacuation training sessions every Senate office had to undertake. My job was to guide Sen. Dole out of the Senate in case of an attack. They took me through a series of tunnels and paths from the Russell SOB which ultimately came out near Union Station.

I still have no idea how I got there. I could never find it again.

We evacuated the Senate three times in six months. The first was for anthrax. The second was for ricin. The third time, the cop said: “Son, you don’t even want to know what we think that one was.”  I later found out they thought it was a dirty bomb.

Washington changed dramatically after 9/11. One would have thought after 20 years of war, the threat of terrorism would have been eliminated from the face of the earth. America destroyed the immoral equivalent of radical Islamist terrorists today — the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese army — in less than four years during World War II.

We did not succeed this time. Everyone now knows the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS have gotten their ruthless band back together to pick up where 9/11 left off.  We are going to rue the day we left Afghanistan in such disarray soon enough.