On the evening of September 11, 2001, congressional leadership prepared to make their first collective response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon hours earlier. Members of Congress assembled on the Capitol steps to join leaders in a public demonstration of unity. Broadcast across the country, it became a powerful image of bipartisan cooperation and resolve, ending with an impromptu rendition of “God Bless America.” This gathering became a symbol of national unity in the ensuing weeks and months.
At the same time, Member offices serving constituents directly affected by the attacks applied this spirit of collaboration and solidarity to local recovery efforts and congressional action. Members representing districts in the New York metropolitan area, western Pennsylvania, and northern Virginia scrambled to adjust to the new political realities of the post-9/11 world. Congress responded to the human suffering, while also assessing the possibilities for legislation on national security and relief and recovery efforts. What kind of resources could offices provide to aid reeling communities? What was the extent of the physical impact of this attack at the district level? What could Congress do to aid families, communities, and the nation after September 11?
Oral histories offer a glimpse of the lesser known side of the recovery effort, which involved strengthening community relationships, distributing resources, and cooperation among congressional offices. In a series of interviews conducted by the Office of the Historian, Members and staff who served districts affected by the 9/11 attacks described the steps taken by congressional offices to develop an effective response to a tragedy that had local, national, and global implications.
The violent events of September 11, 2001, deeply damaged communities in the New York metropolitan area. Congressional offices always have staff assigned to handle case work from district residents; however, demand for services was uncertain in the days following 9/11. To what extent would community residents turn to Member offices for assistance? How could Members and their staffs most effectively allocate resources to their districts?
The first step for many Members was to establish a personal connection with district residents who had lost family members in the attacks. Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, for instance, wanted to open a direct line of communication to residents of his district, which bordered the state of New York and was a haven for commuters who worked in New York City. He sent someone from his office to attend every funeral, and gave out his cell phone number along with contact information for his chief of staff. He hoped that when families were ready they would feel comfortable contacting the office with any concerns.
Representative Michael Ferguson of New Jersey returned to his district the night of September 11. He and his wife tried to visit every family in his district that had lost someone in the attacks, bringing food to their homes and asking what they could do to help. It took him several weeks to contact every family. “I brought my congressional staff with us to make sure that if they had issues they were trying to work through from Social Security issues, to so many of these families had mortgages and financial situations they were trying to work out—tax implications of the financial implications of what they were going through,” Ferguson recalled.
To get a sense of the extent of the task at hand, Members and staff sought advice from offices with experience dealing with terrorist attacks. Clare Coleman, chief of staff for Representative Nita Lowey of New York, felt more prepared after speaking with the Oklahoma delegation about the aftermath of the 1996 terrorist attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. “They warned us that folks wouldn’t call right away,” Coleman remembered. Instead, she was told to expect “a surge of requests for help weeks or even months after the attack, and that that would go on for years, as families began grappling with their loss, and rebuilding their lives.”
Tom Quaadman, chief of staff for Representative Vito J. Fossella of New York, called the office of Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma for advice. Fossella’s district included many Staten Island residents who commuted to Manhattan to work in the financial sector, and several hundred perished when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Watts’ staff told Quaadman, “There are constituent issues we’re still dealing with to this day based on [the Murrah Building 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.”
Events on the Capitol steps on the evening of September 11 presented Congress to the world as unified for the benefit of the nation. In practical terms, Member offices made this spirit of unity a reality to aid their districts. Coleman remembered the bipartisan cooperation among Members in the New York delegation. Chiefs of staff for each Member met regularly in the weeks and months after the attacks to coordinate their efforts, to update the delegation on what legislation Members were pursuing, and to consider avenues for working together. Cooperation among Members crossed state lines. For example, Betsy Wright Hawkings, chief of staff for Representative Shays, worked with staff members from New York Representative Carolyn Maloney’s office to advocate for the creation of a 9/11 Commission to investigate the events of September 11, 2001.
Representative Ferguson recognized that Members had to serve as the voice of affected communities on Capitol Hill, conveying stories of loss and recovery to promote legislative solutions. “It was part of our role to educate our colleagues because they had to work on and vote on and pass legislation, much of which was aimed at our region of the country. And many of them didn’t have personal knowledge or a geographic experience with our area,” he recalled. In doing so, Members could promote dialogue on Capitol Hill and translate suffering into action in the halls of Congress.
In the months following September 11, Members of Congress struggled to balance the responsibilities of governing in Washington with efforts to alleviate the tragedy and loss at the local level. Ultimately, Members and state delegations successfully provided funding for relief and recovery, federal investigations, and a coordinated response to the attacks. On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, reflecting on the oral histories of Members and staff highlights several components of the congressional response to the terrorist attacks that have often been overlooked. Out of the many individual stories of leadership and compassion, a larger narrative emerges of community recovery efforts and the cooperative spirit that united Member offices in this moment of crisis.
Sources: “Clare Coleman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [June 6, 2011]; “The Honorable Michael Ferguson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [May 18, 2011]; “Betsy Wright Hawkings Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [April 18, 2016]; “Brett Heimov Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [May 16, 2011]; “Tom Quaadman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, [May 26, 2011].Follow @USHouseHistory