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In Memoriam: Victims of the terror attacks


'We still feel the pain of Sept. 11'

The Speaker of the House, who is second in presidential succession, was among those whisked to an undisclosed location that day.

WASHINGTON - A staff member interrupted a morning meeting at the Capitol on Sept. 11, 2001, to tell me that something had happened at the World Trade Center involving a small plane or helicopter, and that one of the Twin Towers was on fire.

There were not many details. It still was too early to know that a commercial jetliner had slammed into a tower, stealing thousands of innocent lives and forever changing our nation and world. But the magnitude of what had occurred began to sink in minutes later as we gathered around a television and watched a second plane crash into the building.

There was no time to contemplate what was happening. Vice President Cheney would soon be calling the secure phone in my office, I was told. Anyone who has used a secure phone can tell you they do not work very well - and this time was no different. So when I saw a light blinking on my regular phone, I picked up the receiver.

"I can't get a hold of Jeb Bush, I can't get a hold of the president, I can't get a hold of Colin Powell. All this stuff is happening. What are you guys doing?" the caller asked.

"Who is this?" I asked the man who clearly was not the vice president.

"I'm just a citizen. Who is this?" the caller demanded.

"This is the Speaker of the House," I said. "Just calm down."

I hung up the phone. It was then that I looked out my office window and saw a dark cloud of smoke rising over the National Mall.

"The Pentagon has just been hit," a staff member reported.

There was rumor that planes were still in the air and the Capitol seemed a logical next target. There were hundreds of people in the building, and I knew we needed to get them out of there. With that in mind, I called the House chaplain and asked that all representatives meet on the House floor to say a prayer - and then adjourn.

I never made it to the floor. My security detail insisted we leave immediately, whisking me through the back tunnels of Congress and into a waiting vehicle. Soon we were hurtling through the back streets of Washington, on our way to Andrews Air Force base and, ultimately, an undisclosed location.

From the air, Washington looked unlike it ever had before. The streets were bare. There were no cars, no kids or workers walking around. Nothing was moving at Reagan Airport, and there were huge billows of black and blue smoke coming from the Pentagon.

For 16 years as a teacher, I had told students about the British invasion of Washington during the War of 1812 that caused Americans to flee the capital. Never had I considered that as Speaker of the House I would see the city under attack, and be forced to leave it for my own safety.

I remained at the secure location for several hours, returning to Washington in the afternoon for a bipartisan press conference on the steps of the Capitol. We wanted to show the nation and the world that the terrorists would not win, that members of Congress, regardless of party, would stand united with the president and do what was necessary to defend this country.

As the press conference concluded, some members began singing "God Bless America." Others quickly joined, and soon hundreds of members of Congress were singing in unison. Like all Americans, we were devastated - but we knew that our nation would overcome this tragedy, that the American spirit would not be broken.

One year later, we still feel the pain of Sept. 11. We still mourn the senseless loss of so many innocent lives and still ache for the families of the victims. In many ways, life in America is back to "normal" - but make no mistake, our country will never be the same.

Yet the American spirit is as strong as ever. There is a renewed sense of patriotism, a greater appreciation for our democracy. People are united, determined to support our military and continue the war on terrorism until we have eliminated those who would threaten American lives. We have shown strength that our enemies did not believe we had - and we will use every bit of that strength to continue our fight to protect freedom.

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