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Commentary: Walking D.C.’s eerie streets on day of smoke and fear

Issue Date: September 8, 2021
By Bill Pauli
Bill Pauli
The Pentagon stands crumbled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in Arlington, Va. It occurred just before a California Farm Bureau delegation was to meet with Bush administration officials.
Photo/U.S. Department of Defense

Early in the morning on Sept. 11, 2001, our California Farm Bureau delegation was in Washington, D.C. We were reviewing appointment times and finalizing presentations on an important advocacy trip. Meetings awaited with then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, members of Congress and officials of the U.S. Department of the Interior and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Then we received word that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York.

Just as we started watching live coverage, the second plane flew into the south tower. Quickly we learned that other planes may be on the way to targets such as the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

About half an hour later, the third plane flew into the Pentagon, not far from our location. We were close enough to see the smoke billowing from the building. By now, there were evacuation orders for the House and Senate and all governmental buildings near the Capitol. We began planning what to do to protect our group.

By 1 p.m., the entire D.C. Capitol area was eerily quiet and deserted. A very limited number of police patrolled the streets. Our group, including Farm Bureau Vice President Doug Mosebar, National Affairs Director Jack King and other CFBF staff, decided to walk toward Georgetown.

We actually walked down the center of streets. There were no cars, no buses or cabs—no noise, no people. Eventually, we walked near one of the hospitals where military personnel from the Pentagon were being treated. Ambulances were still arriving.

At one point, we passed a Catholic church. There, several people in our group prayed. It all seemed so surreal. The military was arriving and staging all around the Capitol. We felt very far from home and any sense of normalcy.

Around 3:30 p.m., we began to hear reports that the president was returning to the White House. We walked to the gates near the South Lawn and watched Marine One fly in just after 5 p.m. It was very somber—and an emotional moment as President George W. Bush landed. There was so much that we still didn't understand about the magnitude of what had happened in our country and how many people had lost their lives.

Most of Tuesday evening was spent calling home to let our families and friends know we were safe. Our group talked about the events of the day and watched the news reports. I later talked to Secretary Veneman and other elected leaders who were in Washington.

On Wednesday morning, some of our group made the decision to stay in D.C. through the weekend to see if airports would reopen. After speaking with our contacts in and out of government, reflecting on the situation and learning as much as possible, a group of eight of us determined our best option was to rent cars—a major challenge—and drive to California.

On Thursday morning, we headed west in two rental cars. After driving nonstop for 29 hours, we received word that the Denver International Airport was reopening. At that point the airport was still 110 miles west of us. But we made the arrangements, dropped off the rental cars and caught the first flight departing at 5 p.m. on Friday from Denver to San Francisco. It is an understatement to say we were relieved to be back in California with our families.

For our organization, there were many immediate issues of concern for California agriculture. The first was getting agribusiness up and running after all harvesting, processing, shipping and sales had come to a standstill. The impacts were felt in all segments of our businesses—trucking, fuel, parts, aviation and the supply chains. Our focus was on how to restore normalcy.

Farm Bureau and other farm organizations worked collectively with leaders, including Secretary Veneman and California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Bill Lyons, to confront serious, short-term issues facing agriculture after the national tragedy. We also had to begin to address the potential for bioterrorism, threats to food safety and water supply security in ways we had never had to consider.

Because of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we have had to learn to farm with many additional rules and regulations related to food supply traceability, biological agents and hardening infrastructure. We've had to review every aspect of food safety and security from production to consumption. Still today, these regulations continue to affect our farming and likely will govern ranching and processing operations long into the future.

The news related to recent events in Afghanistan reminds us of the horror of that September day 20 years ago. It also reminds us of how such a tragedy can have broad-reaching and continuing impacts on our lives long after the traumatic event has passed.

(Bill Pauli, a Potter Valley winegrape grower in Mendocino County, is a past president of the California Farm Bureau.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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