It started as a day like any other. Working on Capitol Hill meant long, unpredictable days. The list of things to do would probably become irrelevant by 10 a.m., replaced by another list. This was even before social media and tireless cable news coverage brought you the latest in real time.
On that morning, we had a Subcommittee hearing on Internet Tax Fairness, a critical consumer issue with a looming deadline since a congressional moratorium would expire in another six weeks and Congress could not get a resolution. I worked for the Subcommittee Chairman, Representative Bob Barr, who represented northwest Georgia in the then-7th Congressional District.
We were together doing last-minute preparation when the news broke just before 9 a.m. that a plane (American Flight 11) struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched, believing some terrible accident had occurred, unaware of the whole of the tragedy that would unfold that day. We started the hearing about 15 minutes late after the second plane (United Flight 175) hit the South Tower, and Congressman Barr asked for a moment of silence for those affected by the tragedy.
By 9:37 am, a third plane (American Flight 77) crashed into the Pentagon, killing all the passengers on board and 125 military and civilian personnel, including a former Hill colleague that I’d seen just the week before. At 9:45 am, Capitol Police ordered the evacuation of the Capitol and office complexes. We ended the hearing abruptly and helped get everyone out of the hearing room. Congressman Barr insisted on returning to his office but told us to evacuate to safety.
Thousands of people poured into the streets from the House office buildings, not sure where to go or what to do. Amid the crowd, I found several members of our staff and directed them to meet at the corner of First and C Streets. One staffer had just relocated from Georgia and started the day before, totally lost. By the time I guided her to our meeting place, the South Tower had already collapsed, and Flight 93 had crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, 20 minutes away from its likely intended target, the U.S. Capitol. I often marvel at the bravery of the men and women on that flight who took matters into their own hands and sacrificed their lives for the safety of thousands, including me, in the U.S. Capitol complex.
By the time the North Tower fell at roughly 10:28 that morning, every restaurant and bar nearby was full of displaced congressional employees watching television coverage. In Washington, D.C., cell phone signals were jammed, making it impossible to get a call out, so the line for the available payphones were impossibly long.
I sent our staff to the nearby apartment of our staff scheduler to set up temporary operations, further away from danger. While I watched the smoke on the horizon from the Pentagon, rumors were rampant on the streets: reports of a car bombing at the State Department, other planes still in the air and heading for the Capitol. Word was spreading about the desperate acts of those still trapped in the towers before the collapse. In short, it was chaos.
Suddenly, my phone vibrated and I looked to see I had 35 phone messages from my wife and other members of my family. I tried to call my wife, but the cell signal was still jammed. One small bit of fortune: Congressman Barr had insisted that the senior staff members get a BlackBerry phone, which allowed me to send an email to my family to let them know I was safe and would call when I could. The next few hours were spent trying to get news, stay connected to staff and the Congressman, and plot out the next steps. Late in the afternoon, I was allowed back into our offices, and we handled press calls and calls from concerned constituents. Early in the evening, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol, spontaneously singing “God Bless America.” To this day, 9/11, to me, is through the lens of the events that I witnessed in Washington that day and not through the television coverage that so many people remember.
My story pales to that of those men and women who were on the planes, in the towers of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, or who bravely went toward the crisis while the rest of us were evacuating. The families of nearly 3,000 dead and 25,000 injured would spend years processing the events of that day and some do to this very day.
For the rest of us, we were unwilling witnesses to one of the most horrific tragedies in recent U.S. history. In an increasingly segmented world, September 11 remains a nearly universal shared event. It was also one that most of us experienced in some sort of real time.
When the time came to memorialize this significant moment of history, we explored the philatelic connections to 9/11. We know collectors have preserved covers and other philatelic artifacts from other tragic events in history, from shipwrecks to air disasters to the Holocaust. The broad impact of 9/11 on all of us, the archive of video content and first-person narratives, and the relatively recent occurrence have not made 9/11 philately a largely discussed or common topic.
In the April issue of the American Philatelist, I shared the story of Morris Rosen and his quest to preserve the philatelic history of the Polish ghettos and the Holocaust. As a survivor, he held a unique perspective to handle this sensitive topic with the knowledge and honesty necessary to convey the story. He did not start his work until more than 25 years after he was liberated from a concentration camp.
There will come a time for philately to play its role in telling the story of that day. Until then, please join me in remembering those who perished on that day and the families they left behind. We should also say thank you to the brave men and women who risked their lives helping others to safety. Even now we should always endeavor to Never Forget.