Reflections of a 9/11 Commission Staffer

I was sitting at my desk in the Hart Senate Office building when the first plane hit the World Trade Center's north tower. I heard the news report, glanced up at the television in my office and quickly turned my attention back to the email I was composing. If they awarded Pulitzer Prizes for outstanding emails, surely I would have earned one that morning.

I was still working on the email when the second plane hit. My intern, a Navy midshipman, came into my office to tell me that another plane had crashed into the south tower. I remember looking up at the TV and saying, "Well, in that case it's a terrorist attack." Incredibly, not even that could distract me from the email to Mr. Disappearing Act. I was pissed and he was going to hear about it.

Before I go any further, let me say in my defense that I had spent the previous four-plus years working for the United Nations in the war zones of the former Yugoslavia. Though the wars had ended by the time I left the theater, I was battle-hardened. Of course, it's different when it's your country and your hometown under attack, but as I discovered, once you are acclimatized to war, it is exceedingly difficult to repair your internal wiring to suit the demands of ordinary life.

In any case, word of an evacuation quickly spread among the staff. There were reports that a plane was headed for the U.S. Capitol building directly across the street. Mainly, everyone was freaking out and making it tough to concentrate on finishing my award-winning masterpiece.

Then my phone rang. It was mom. My dad had been on a trip and his flight home to New York was via Boston at around the time one of the planes crashed. He wasn't answering his cell phone. The initial reporting said nothing about the doomed flight being a cross-country one. All we knew was that the flight originated in Boston and crashed in New York -- dad's itinerary.

While I was trying to break into my dad's email account hoping to find a copy of his itinerary, I got another call. At the time, my brother worked for Goldman Sachs at the southern tip of Manhattan. They were being evacuated too. I finished my email (chump) and headed home, a 25-minute walk away.

I turned on the TV and tried to figure out what I was looking it. It looked like the New York skyline but no. Not quite. Huh. Where was this? Chicago? No, that was New York. No it wasn't. I implored Tom Brokaw to tell me. Was this the view from Staten Island? What the hell was I looking at?


Even now, I am still not used to this disfigured skyline. I hope I never will be.

Fortunately, my dad was on a different flight. My brother got caught in the gigantic cloud of debris that engulfed the area when the south tower collapsed, but was otherwise unharmed. He had been one block away.

Family friends were among those who weren't so lucky.

But I was one of the lucky Americans on the 9/11 Commission, charged with investigating how such a tragedy could happen in the first place and what we needed to do to prevent a sequel. I was assigned to the border security and terrorist travel team. We sat next to the guys working on the aviation part of the story and occasionally listened to the audio tapes of air traffic control and what was happening on the planes. It was tough. Especially the final minutes of United Airlines flight 93, the plane headed for the U.S. Capitol that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Especially because one of my father's oldest friends was on that plane.

As hard as it was to hear, I wish that recording had been made public. It is a testament to the human spirit, to our capacity for good, that a group of complete strangers could come together in an effort to defeat the dark side of humanity. They nearly succeeded. The world should know what heroes those people really are. Were.

I also wish that the professional, nonpartisan spirit in which the Commission conducted its work was more in evidence in our government and public discourse. There is so much unnecessary sniping. So much unproductive anger, political posturing and fear mongering. Slowly, we are descending into a deep malaise of our own creation.

So today as we lay the flowers and bow our heads, I hope we each reflect on our responsibilities to one another. As the passengers of flight 93 did 10 years ago. May their souls rest in peace and their spirit live on.