D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams was going to call in sick that day.
The night before, he and his wife, Diane, had attended a gala to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Nature Conservancy at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Amid the glamour of trucked-in palm trees, live Peruvian flute and drum music, and 500 other attendees, the mayor of the Nation’s Capital had been enthralled to meet Hollywood star Joanne Woodward, a member of the Conservancy board.
“I was very excited because I met Joanne Woodward,” he remembers. “Even at a late age, she was a beautiful woman, very kind, generous with her time.”
But then, later that evening, a piercing migraine came on. He was used to them. “You really can’t function,” he says. “You don’t want to move around. You don’t like light. You just want to sit there in a fetal position, take about 18 Aleve tablets and hope. This pain, it’s indescribable.”
He can joke a little about those migraines now. “I got them for years. Now, I don’t have them as much. Unfortunately, the doctor said, you don’t get them as much as you get older because your brain shrinks,” he says. “So the good news is you don’t have migraines, the bad news is your brain is shrinking, so …”
That next morning, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Williams was beginning to stir at his rented condo apartment on Virginia Avenue NW across from the Kennedy Center. He still needed to call in sick, as the migraine was still aching. Then Diane told him to turn on the television, something about a plane was happening in New York.
He tuned in to see the second plane hit the World Trade Towers at 9:03 a.m. Williams made a brief call to his security team to see if they knew anything about what was happening. He was still watching NBC 4 at 9:37 a.m. when American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles, carrying 7,256 gallons of fuel and traveling at 530 miles per hour, crashed into the Pentagon. From his apartment window, Williams could see the giant ball of smoke rising in the distance.
“I’ll never forget it,” he says, 20 years later. “A lady down the hall from us screamed … it was a chaotic scene.”
Was America under attack? Williams’ car arrived at the lobby door. The security team wanted to whisk him out of town to somewhere safe. No, Williams said, going instead to the District’s emergency management offices in the Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW. City Administrator John Koskinen remained at the mayor’s office at 441 4th Street NW, many blocks away. “We had no idea what was going on,” Koskinen says. “Were there going to be more planes? I thought we should not have everyone in the same building.”
D.C. Emergency Management Director Peter LaPorte was out of town. Way out of town. He and emergency officials from across the nation were in Big Sky, Montana, for the annual meeting of the National Emergency Management Association. “Having been a deputy police commissioner in New York,” LaPorte recalls, “this was no accident. No plane ever got near the World Trade Center.” He got back to the District the next day, flying through empty skies on a giant C-130 Army cargo plane that dropped him off at Andrews Air Force Base.
At the emergency offices in the Reeves Center, Williams took breaks for his migraine, but continued meeting with aides and D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp. Koskinen and the mayor agreed by phone to keep the city running. “I remember the sense of anxiety,” Koskinen says. DCPS Superintendent Paul Vance kept children at schools. The Metro system kept running. “People would have no way to get home if it didn’t,” Koskinen recalls. Department of Public Works Director Leslie Hotaling kept the fleet of sanitation trucks on their routine routes.
The mayor got a “perfunctory call” from President George W. Bush, alerting him that streets would be closed, and National Airport was shutting down. After hours in the emergency management office, Williams and his aides realized he needed to be seen in public. He held a news conference. The often awkward, introspective mayor normally would grind through such news conferences.
He remembers speaking at the National Presbyterian Church in the wake of the attacks. “It was probably typically and intellectually right on point and emotionally fake, you know,” he admits in a moment of critical reflection. He knew he had to be more openly empathetic. “I realized, you’ve got to step up your game. A lot of that job [as mayor] is acting. It’s like playing a sport, you gotta work on your weaknesses. And if your weakness is ‘I’m not lovey-dovey,’ that’s too damn bad. You’ve got to get out and do what you need to do. That’s what I learned.”
In the swirl of the weeks and months that followed, the mayor fought along with the governors of Maryland and Virginia and members of Congress to get National Airport reopened. The District pushed back on so many streets being closed to traffic. Many near the Capitol and the White House still are. Williams scoffs at complaints that the federal government should have given city leaders more immediate information. “They didn’t have time for that,” he says, frowning. The District did step up its own security planning.
And today, with continuing threats of terrorism, both domestic and international, Williams ponders a final question. If a plane from National or anywhere else were loaded with passengers and diverted by terrorists into Washington skies now, would the military and Secret Service really shoot it down over our densely populated area with its six million people?
“There is that risk, yeah,” Williams softly replies. “I know there are concentric circles of security around Washington, so light planes are one issue, jet planes another. But the mayor is not going to be notified. I think it’s just part of our being the national capital.”