Former Senator Durbin Intern Shares Experience of 9/11 Tragedy

By: Lou Gale

As we approach and pass the anniversary of September 11th, I wanted to share an email I wrote to a large group of friends following that day.  At the time I was an intern in Washington DC and was in the Capitol Building on September 11th.  Below is my email written on Sunday September 16, 2001 and after that some thoughts on public service and civic duty.

First, I want to thank all of you who have written, called and sent e-mails to find me and let me know you were thinking of me. I appreciate the sentiments. Secondly, I want to send my thoughts out to all of you that have been effected by what happened on Tuesday or who know someone who has been effected. Personally, no one I know was hurt during the terrorist acts but I have several friends who knew people that they may never see again.  I firmly believe that all Americans will be able to trace a path to one of the victims from Tuesday’s attacks either directly or indirectly through one or two friends.  The events of Tuesday will forever change this country. 

Let me start by telling you about a story that effected Senator Durbin’s Office.  One of the staff members, Lt. Col. Pat Sergeant, is in the Army and through a Congressional Fellowship is a detailee to Senator Durbin’s office. Pat’s wife is also in the Army and works at the Pentagon.

When the story first broke that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane she went with two of her co-workers down the hall to watch what was happening. After the second plan hit Tower 2 her co-workers went back to their desks but she chose to continue watching the television. As a result of this routine decision, she is alive while her two coworkers, who worked with her in the very location where the airliner crashed, are dead.  That is just one of what I am sure are thousands of stories that will never make it to the news.

The week was difficult to comprehend and I think I am still a bit in shock.  My Tuesday morning began like so many others out here, as I was already at the Senator’s office by 8:30 a.m. ahead of the regular time of 9 a.m.  I was discussing the last few items I would be working on during my final week with Mark Palmer when Jan, who handles the front office, opened the door and told us to come out. A plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. 

My initial though was skepticism as I recalled that a plane once crashed into the Empire State Building in 1947. But then I saw the TV. Still not quite sure what was going on, myself and about 3 or 4 other staff members of Senator Durbin stood in shock as the second plane crashed into Tower 2.  After watching for a few more minutes I left to ask Tom Faletti if we were still going to go over to the Capitol for our meeting at 10 a.m.  Tom said as far as he knew the meeting was still on but he was pretty sure the agenda would be very different.

Just for some background this meeting is called the Speaker’s Group meeting and it is run by Senator Durbin.  The meeting is a weekly session held in the conference room of Majority Leader Tom Daschle in his office in the Capitol and typically 6 to 8 Democratic Senators attend.

Senator Daschle’s office was on the 2nd floor of the Capitol on the extreme north end, just off the floor of the Senate.  The meeting was scheduled to start at 10 a.m. but a couple of people from the Senator’s office go over early, usually around 9:30 a.m, to set up the room and get everything ready.  I had done it the week before, with Nanette, the woman who usually ran the meeting for Senator Durbin, but she was out with an allergic reaction to penicillin, so I had to set it up with Tom.  

Tom and I left for the Capitol about 9:30 a.m. and began walking through the tunnel that connects the Capitol to the Senate Office buildings. Normally I would take the automated shuttle that runs in the tunnel but someone there told us it was not running so Tom and I began to walk.  While walking we had a conversation regarding what was the Senator’s roll in all of this, thinking that it was just New York City that was attacked. We also discussed if Tom or I knew anyone in NYC.

Once at the Capitol I got the key to the conference room and Tom and I began setting up for the meeting. While I was walking between the conference room and Senator Daschle’s office I noticed a few plain clothed Capitol Hill police officers running past me and up the stairs to the 3rd floor of the Capitol. It was now 9:45 a.m. and suddenly we hear the Capitol Hill police telling us to get out of the Capitol immediately.

I headed back towards Senator Daschle’s office to return the key to the conference room. Mentality, I think a part of me died inside of me that day. I was still thinking that nothing like that was going to happen to me, not where I was standing. No way, not in the US. Upon returning that key, I was a little more jumpy, a little more suspicious.  

While heading back I pass Senator Daschle along with Senator Bob Kerry and a few others who are leaving. I returned the key, shut the conference room and Tom and I walked down to the Capitol grounds.

As I walk out, a Senator who I could not identify but who was from the south, based on his drawl, pointed out a plane and said “there is another one right there.”  It appeared to be a commercial jet and at the time it was quite frightening.  It turned out to just be a diverted commercial plane but we did not know it at the time.

The reason I mention that I went back to return the key is to demonstrate the mentality that I think died inside of me that day. I was still thinking that nothing like that was going to happen to me, and not where I was standing. No way, not in the US.  Now I’m a little more jumpy, a little more suspicious.  

While milling about on the Capitol grounds trying to find out what was going on, Tom and I see Senator Durbin and wait for him. As he slowly makes his way towards us, an older woman slips on the curb and falls to the ground.  While starting to pick herself up, Senator Durbin started to help and she waived him off. 

Undeterred, Senator Durbin bent over and started collecting her things and helped off the ground. If that is not the best proof that Senator Durbin is a down to earth and level headed guy, I do not know what is.

Senator Durbin finally made his way over to us and we started back off to the Dirksen Senate Office Building.  I believe it was about 10:15 a.m. at this time and I was oblivious to everything that has happened since the second plan crash.

Once back at the office we went upstairs and I went down the hall. Senator Durbin and Tom went inside. Not longer after, Tom re-opened one of the doors with Senator Durbin behind him and Senator Durbin tells me to grab my stuff and go home and that they will see me tomorrow.

I start heading back toward the Metro which is on the opposite side of the Capitol. I walked past the Capitol, thinking nothing of it since other people are doing it too. While walking I hear a loud boom, which startled everyone, but since we did not see any smoke or fire, it did not cause a panic.  It turns out that the sound was of a fighter jet going supersonic.

Once I reached the Metro stop I saw the smoke from the Pentagon but had no idea what was happening.  I was still a little in shock from getting out of the Capitol and just figured it was something unrelated, or just something.  Well after getting on the Metro, which was a difficult decision in its own right, people on the train started telling me that the Pentagon was hit and that both towers of the World Trade Center had gone down.

I was skeptical, but once I got home and saw the damage I was paralyzed. I quickly recovered and got on the phone and started calling everyone to tell them I was OK and then I called someone in Chicago, I think it was Rob [Stadler], to make sure that the Sears Tower had not been a target.  It is amazing the things you think about, and at one point I suddenly realized that my friend Pat Arnett, who worked in NYC, may have been near the towers. I could not get a hold of him but I called his parents who eventually messaged me that he was OK.

From the afternoon on the day took on a strange feel as I spoke to friends and family about what had occurred. I never thought my experience as a structural engineer would find a use explaining to staff on Capitol Hill why two of the worlds tallest buildings collapsed, not from the impact of large aircraft, but from the extensive fires.  I even got interviewed by my suburbs of Chicago. I spent the rest of the day with my friend Peg Joyce, and a group of Senator Durbin’s staff watching TV and eating comfort food.

Since then the rest of the week was understandably odd.  Coupling with all that happened made me somewhat numb.  Once I get home I am sure the full impact of these days will hit me, but for now I am just trying to write down as much as possible and go about my life. 

The events of the week have given me reason to be philosophical so I would like to share some thoughts with you.  The first is that tomorrow is promised to no man.  The second is that a year from now you will wish you started today.  The third is that we should tell people how we feel about them at every opportunity, why put it off, why wait; do it now. In essence their are no guarantees about tomorrow, no promises, so if you have something to do or something to say, do it and say it.  That belief is primarily responsible for me being out here and this week has only reinforced it.

As I leave Washington D.C., I leave with mixed emotions.  I have enjoyed my time out here and the events of this week have not deterred me but have inspired me to stay more active than ever in public service.  Nevertheless am looking forward to seeing everyone back in Chicago. It is difficult to leave all of my new friends, especially since a lot of them will be on the front lines, in a sense, in this new battle against terrorism.  I will miss them and will be thinking of them often.  

Thank you for reading my weekly messages and I hope to see you all very soon.  

  • Lou

As I read back through that narrative now, 21 years later, a couple of things strike me.  First I honestly do not recall when I talked with my parents.  I know my Mom would be turning over in her grave that I cannot remember whether I performed that most important of child tasks:  telling your parents you’re ok.  

The second thing is a bit more profound.  I’m not sure when I learned of Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  Perhaps it was that day, perhaps later.  However the most poignant thing to mis is that the target of the hijackers from Flight 93 might have been the White House, or the Capitol.  The same Capitol where I’d spent a good part of that morning and passed back and forth several times. 

The details of the passengers’ bravery in attempting to regain control of that plane have already been told.  However given where I was as where that plane was possibly heading, their bravery has a deep personal meaning for me.  Those passengers on Flight 93 very well may have saved my life.  And if it wasn’t my life, well they certainly saved someone’s life. 

There are people alive now due to their acts of bravery.  They learned what was happening and they chose to act.  They called up their courage and their sense of service and duty and they did what they could to try and make things better.  I find in their courage the fuel for my own drive for public service.  That call to service, that sense of duty, can put you in a position to serve the public good when the need arises. It puts you in a position to help people, to make their lives better, to take action when actions are needed.  You get to help shape events, no matter how big or how small.  We should serve each other because it’s what we owe to each other.  

Lou Gale is an attorney, community activist, and village trustee for the Village of La Grange. In 2022, he ran in the Democratic Primary for Cook County Commissioner (17th District). He resides in La Grange, IL.

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