Rep. Richard Pombo was standing near the top of the U.S. Capitol dome while giving two visiting cousins a personal tour when terrorists flew an airplane into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We heard the explosion and felt the shock waves,” Pombo recalled recently.
Pombo, who represented the Lodi area in Congress at the time, was then thrust into the role of dealing with keeping America safe from future acts of violence.
Local and federal leaders, including Reps. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, and Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, and San Joaquin County Supervisor Ken Vogel, reflected recently on the 9/11 terrorist attacks and how they changed the country.
While Pombo and his cousins stood at the top of the Capitol, it didn’t occur to him that the Pentagon was attacked, even though it’s only about a mile from the Capitol. He hadn’t heard about the Twin Towers going down yet, so he thought the smoke he saw may have come from a natural gas explosion at nearby Fort Myers, an Army post.
“Then I looked down and saw everyone running away from the Capitol,” Pombo said. “I told my cousins we better get out of there and went down a spiral staircase. I talked to policeman across the street and he told me what happened.”
Anxious to get out of Washington, D.C. for his apartment in Virginia, Pombo said he drove right past the Pentagon because the road hadn’t been closed yet. Phones were down, but he was able to contact his wife by email to tell her he was all right because he had one of the first Blackberries ever manufactured.
McNerney, who’s in his third term as Lodi’s congressman recalls his son, Michael, calling him on the morning of 9/11 to tell him about the tragedy. Michael then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force due to his motivation to serve his country, McNerney said.
While 9/11 brought the country together, it seems like a distant memory in Washington, McNerney said.
“Much to my frustration, partisan bickering often wins out over common sense answers,” he said. “But, remembering the national unity shown after 9/11 still gives me faith that we are capable of putting aside our differences.”
Lungren, whose district includes Galt, wasn’t in Congress when the 9/11 attacks took place, but he was in Washington that day as an attorney. Lungren was crossing the Potomac River on the 14th Street bridge just 45 minutes before the Pentagon was hit. He didn’t know what happened in New York because he was listening to CDs in his car instead of a radio newscast.
“My first thought was it was an accident,” Lungren said.
Once the Pentagon was struck, Lungren said he couldn’t cross into Virginia for several hours until 4 p.m. that day. He spent a lot of time standing on a street corner waiting.
So how has Washington changed in the past decade?
“The issue of homeland security is a dominant theme, but it has dissipated a bit,” Lungren said. “The more successful we have been (protecting the country), there has been less of a sense of urgency by the public.”
The United States doesn’t have as many tools as it needs to protect from a future terrorist attack because it’s no longer on the forefront of the public’s minds, he added.
Pombo says that the federal government is more aware of terrorism because now political leaders realize that America can be attacked on its homeland.
“We had an arrogance as a nation of who would dare attack the United States,” Pombo said. “When they attacked, they’d attack a military ship or an embassy in Kenya or something. They didn’t come here. Now, the terrorist doesn’t care if he dies.”
Pombo sees some mistakes in former President Bush’s signing of the Patriot Act.
“From Sept. 11 until the Patriot Act became law, it was a couple of months, which in Congress is like lightning speed,” Pombo said. “Does the federal government need the authority of what books you’re checking out of the library?”
Vogel, who represents the Lodi area on the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, sees a positive and negative effect from 9/11.
“It made us more appreciative of those who serve in the military,” Vogel said.
It also made Americans appreciate law enforcement officers, and there have been more veterans’ celebrations, Vogel said.
However, when looking at San Joaquin County’s needs, there is more likely to be damage from a flood or earthquake than an act of terrorism, Vogel said. Although homeland security is important, he said, a consequence of 9/11 is that little federal money is going to local flood control, earthquake protection and other infrastructure needs.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.