McInnis: No one in D.C. was prepared for attack
For Scott McInnis, then a U.S. representative from western Colorado, the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, in Washington, D.C., was captured by what was left behind as people sought shelter, and fast.
“What really stands out are the shoes,” McInnis said. “Women’s shoes all over the place, high heels. They just ran out of them, left them behind” as it became clear that the nation was under attack and people fled to wherever they thought they might find safety.
McInnis, who served six terms in Congress, was in his Washington, D.C., office when news broke that an airplane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
It was obvious enough that the incident was no accident, given the clear weather that day, McInnis said. The most likely scenario was a suicide unadorned by the implications of jihad.
“It didn’t dawn on me that it was an act of terror until the second plane hit,” McInnis said.
Then, “All hell broke loose,” he said. “There were initial rumors that the nation was under attack by a foreign power and that there were missiles involved,” McInnis recalled. There was talk of an attack on the Sears tower in Chicago, then of an attack on Los Angeles.
George Orbanek, then the publisher of The Daily Sentinel, said McInnis told him the attack “was the clear-cut handiwork of Osama bin Laden, and it amounted to a full-scale act of war against the United States, the functional equivalent of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier.”
Even with the wild speculation, it was difficult to grasp the true nature of the attack at the time, McInnis said.
“At some point, I saw smoke over by the Pentagon, and I thought it was a truck accident,” McInnis recalled. “I thought to myself, of all days to have a truck accident.”
McInnis was hustled out of the Capitol before members of Congress still in the Capitol were taken to a secret location.
He found the card he was given to use in the event of an emergency and dialed the number on it, but it didn’t work. He found out later some numbers on the card were transposed.
“No one, from the speaker (of the House) to security was prepared for this,” McInnis said.
He sent his staff out to aid any tourists they might find and then to seek shelter in the surrounding neighborhoods. His reasoning was that any further attacks would be on government buildings, so it was best to disperse his staff.
It was about then that he learned of the nature of the smoke coming from the Pentagon, though it wasn’t immediately clear if the building was struck by an airplane or missile.
“It was the first time in my life I ever felt like I was in a target zone,” McInnis said.
No less dependent than his countrymen on television for immediate news, McInnis went to find one, which he did, eventually, in a bar. There, he spent the next three hours watching televised reports and then made his way outside.
He was again struck by the difference from the usually bustling, noisy capital and the silent one that awaited him. There were no sirens, no traffic noise, no dull roar of chatter.
“The silence, it was so quiet that for the first time I could remember, I heard birds all over the place,” McInnis said.
On the telephone with Orbanek, McInnis speculated on the potential scope of the disaster.
“I can recall his saying something to the effect that over 30,000 people worked in each one of the Twin Towers and that before the day was over the United States potentially could suffer a higher death toll than what the nation endured throughout the entire Vietnam War,” Orbanek wrote in an email.
As he looks back at it now, “given the enormity of the attack and the potential death toll it represented,” Orbanek wrote, “it’s somewhat remarkable that far more than 3,000 innocents didn’t perish that day.”