September 12, 2001: “We All Went Back to Work”

Sunrise over the Capitol one year after the attacks of September 11, 2001./tiles/non-collection/o/oh_sept11_retrospect.xml Image used with permission by Douglas Graham, Roll Call newspaper Sunrise over the Capitol one year after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
After the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, the country spent time mourning and reflecting on the tragedy. And while many people at the U.S. Capitol returned to work on September 12th, it was far from business as usual.

A decade after the attacks, the Office of the Historian conducted a series of oral history interviews with Members and staff to learn more about the impact of 9/11 on Congress. Not surprisingly, common themes emerged about the evacuation of the Capitol and the uncertainty of the day. Digging deeper into the collective experience of people working at the House of Representatives on September 11th, another story emerged. Many interviewees revealed how they had no choice but to set aside their own feelings of grief and anger to help constituents who turned to Congress during a time of crisis.

In the wake of the attacks, Congress resolved to get back to work to respond to the tragedy and to help the nation heal. “You have to separate the emotional from the rational, which is never an easy thing to do,” Tom Quaadman, chief of staff for former Representative Vito Fossella of New York, remarked. “It takes a lot to do that, but you have to remember you’re a professional. You’re there to do your job.” The larger Capitol community did its best to offer a lending hand to offices representing areas directly affected by September 11th. One office in particular, represented at the time by J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, offered advice based on its own experience dealing with the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. A decade later, Quaadman remembered the guidance he received from their staff. “There are constituent issues we’re still dealing with to this day based on that [bombing]. It’s going to be very difficult, and it’s going to be a very long road. You’re going to be working on these issues for the rest of your congressional career.”

Once the immediate threat subsided on September 11th, the Capitol, and the nation, turned its attention to the victims. “We knew there was loss of life,” Donna Mullins, former chief of staff for New Jersey Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen recalled. “We knew that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of families wondering about the whereabouts of their loved ones.” Initially people held out hope that survivors from the World Trade Center would make their way back home later in the day. Representative Michael Ferguson of New Jersey and his staff prepared to assist returning commuters. “We also spent some time going to the train stations in our district, where typically a lot of commuters would be coming home and we were thinking, anticipating, that there would be some who had been injured would be coming home on the trains and we could help with the transport of getting those folks to the hospitals in our district. Tragically, as we did that that night, we would wait in the train station and the train would come in and there’d be no one on it.”

Providing timely information and connecting people with relevant resources became a major priority for congressional offices. In 2001, however, Member offices did not have access to modern social media like Twitter to share updates and essential news with constituents. Tom Quaadman recalled the difficulties of sorting through conflicting sources and disseminating accurate information to their Staten Island district in the days and weeks after the attacks.

Watch Tom Quaadman discuss the aftermath of the attacks:

Tom Quaadman, Chief of Staff, Representative Vito J. Fossella, Jr., of New York Interview recorded May 26, 2011

Other congressional offices needed to offer immediate assistance for people struggling to survive. Brett Heimov, the former administrative assistant for Congressman Jerrold Nadler who represented the New York City neighborhood directly hit on 9/11, described how his office connected stranded constituents with emergency services. “One of the big things we did is that there was a certain population in Lower Manhattan of elderly folks who couldn’t leave their apartments on 9/11,” Heimov recollected. “Electricity was out, obviously. The elevators were not working. These are people on upper floors who could not walk down the stairs. There were a certain number of people who just couldn’t get out, no matter what they tried.” Working with FEMA, the Red Cross, and local relief agencies, Nadler’s congressional office became a lifeline for people in the evacuation zone in lower Manhattan.

Often behind the scenes, Representatives and staff personally reached out to people who lost loved ones in the attacks. Attending funerals and commemorative services, writing handwritten condolence notes, and providing flags for victims’ families were a few ways in which Members attempted to lessen the pain of afflicted constituents. Sometimes, visits with constituents extended beyond the formal reaches of congressional offices. Representative Ferguson described his dual role as both a Member of Congress, and as a neighbor and friend, responding to an unthinkable tragedy. Struggling with how to best provide relief, Ferguson ultimately decided to meet personally with all of the families in his district directly affected by 9/11. He and his wife brought comfort food (homemade chili and cookies) to each home, just as they would for a family member who suffered a loss.

Watch Representative Ferguson discuss reaching out to constituents and friends:

The Honorable Michael Ferguson, U.S. Representative of New Jersey Interview recorded May 18, 2011

Much like the rest of the nation, Members and congressional staff grappled with the unthinkable horrors of September 11th. But, for people working on Capitol Hill, helping constituents trumped personal reflection and individual healing. “I think everybody needed their own time to digest what had occurred and our own feelings about it,” Donna Mullins observed. “I think for some of us, getting back to work was a good thing because it maybe otherwise occupied us. I think for others, it was very difficult to come back.”

Sources: “The Honorable Michael Ferguson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [May 18, 2011]; “Brett Heimov Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [May 16, 2011]; “Donna Mullins Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [May 23, 2011]; “Tom Quaadman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [May 26, 2011].

Categories: Oral History, Institution