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Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont was heading to the Supreme Court Building to speak to a group of appellate judges. He had already heard the news from New York City. As he walked into the court building, he heard a muffled boom outside. It was the plane attacking the Pentagon. "I've got to tell you before we start there's some horrible, horrible news coming in," Leahy told the roomful of judges. By the time he was leaving the building, there were already 20 cops surrounding it. As he neared the Russell Senate Office Building, a Capitol policeman walked up: "Senator, I don't know if you want to go back to your office," he warned. "They're evacuating the buildings."
"I've got a lot of staff still working there," Leahy snapped. "I'm not going to leave them in the building."
Washington was supposed to have contingency plans for disasters like this, but the chaos on the streets was clear evidence that plans still needed work. By 10:45 a.m. the downtown streets around the Capitol, government buildings and White House were laced with cars pointing in every direction, unable to move. A security officer for one of the buildings sat on a park bench. He had been locked out of his building, so he didn't have a clue if the senior officials inside were out and in a safe place. "I'm not surprised at this," he said. "We aren't prepared. We were supposed to have a plan to evacuate our Cabinet officer to a place 50 miles out, but none of that has been done." Capitol police were slow to move as well. There was no increased security, no heightened alert around the Capitol for fully half an hour after the New York attack. Senate minority leader Trent Lott was drafting a press release to condemn the attack when he looked outside his window and saw black smoke billowing up from across the Potomac. He didn't wait for an evacuation order. He gathered up his top staff and security detail and headed out of the Capitol, shocked to find that tourists were still walking into the building while he was fleeing it.
Senator Robert Byrd, the Senate's president pro tempore and fourth in line to the presidency, was put in a chauffeured car and driven to a safe house, as were Speaker Dennis Hastert and other congressional leaders. There were rumors flying that the fourth plane, the one that went down in Pennsylvania, had been headed for the Capitol or Camp David. The safe houses are scattered throughout the Washington, northern Virginia and southern Maryland area. The Secret Service has similar safe houses where they can take the Vice President and other top Administration officials as well. They are homes, offices, in some cases even fire stations, that have secure phones so that the leaders can still communicate.
By 11 a.m., the streets in Washington were gridlocked with people trying to get out. In a place that doesn't tend to carpool, co-workers had stuffed themselves into available vehicles. Both the 14th Street Bridge and Arlington Memorial Bridge, leading to Virginia and past the Pentagon, had been closed, as were the airports and Union Station. On the corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street, day-care workers from the Ronald Reagan Building clutched frightened toddlers into a tight bunch. Hysteria was gripping the city: senior generals at the Pentagon phoned children and other relatives, warning them not to drink tap water for the next 36 hours. They feared reservoirs might be poisoned.
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was flying back to the U.S. from Switzerland when his airliner was ordered to turn back. He reached vice chairman Roger Ferguson by phone as soon as he could, and Ferguson coordinated contacts with Reserve banks and Governors both in Washington and around the country. The goal: to make sure U.S. banks would keep functioning.
Meanwhile, the mood on board Air Force One could not have been more tense. Bush was in his office in the front of the plane, on the phone with Cheney, National Security Adviser Rice, FBI director Robert Mueller and the First Lady. Cheney told him that law-enforcement and security agencies believed the White House and Air Force One were both targets. Bush, the Vice President insisted, should head to a safe military base as soon as possible. White House staff members, Air Force flight attendants and Secret Service agents all were subdued and shaken. One agent sadly reported that the Secret Service field office in New York City, with its 200 agents, was located in the World Trade Center. The plane's TV monitors were tuned in to local news broadcasts; Bush was watching as the second tower collapsed. About 45 minutes after takeoff, a decision was made to fly to Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska, site of the nation's nuclear command and one of the most secure military installations in the country. But Bush and his aides didn't want to wait that long before the President could make a public statement. Secret Service officials and military advisers in Washington consulted a map and chose a spot for Bush to make a brief touchdown: Barksdale Air Force Base, outside of Shreveport, La. In Bush's airborne office, aides milled about while Bush spoke on the phone. "That's what we're paid for, boys," he said. "We're gonna take care of this. We're going to find out who did this. They're not going to like me as President." The handful of reporters aboard were told not to use their cell phones--and not even to turn them on--because the signals might allow someone to identify the plane's location.