WASHINGTON — It started out the most beautiful day, and ended the most horrifically.
In Washington, D.C., Sept. 11 dawned a perfect Indian summer day interrupted by unbelievable images: Pungent smoke rising from the Pentagon. A nearly tangible panic on Capitol Hill. The sonic boom of F-16s scrambling to protect the airspace over Washington.
It was a day that affected all Americans, but for those with Ohio connections in Washington, the memories are as vivid as if they’d been caught on videotape, regardless of 10 years’ worth of space.
Shared purpose, total focus
Ten years after one of the most demanding, tragic and memorable days of her career, Mary Beth Carozza is struck by the seemingly small but significant ways that day shaped her life.
She bought a house near her family in Maryland, responding, she says now, to a pull to focus what was on what was important. She has picked public service over jobs in the private sector out of a desire to serve, working now as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Columbus, a National Guardsman who served in Iraq.
Shared purpose. Total focus. Heartfelt determination. Ten years have passed, but that’s what she remembers about that day. Those principles, more than anything, have stuck with her.
“The most horrible of days brought out the very best in Americans,” she said.
Her appreciation for the military was forged long before Sept. 11, when Carozza served as chief of staff for then-U.S. Rep. David Hobson, R-Springfield. Hobson served on Appropriations subcommittees focused on military construction and the Defense Department, and during long trips to visit the troops, she forged a deep affection for the men and women serving in the armed forces.
So when President George W. Bush’s administration asked her to take a Defense Department position at the Pentagon, Carozza accepted. She had served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs for only a few months when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.
That morning, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had been scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress. Carozza, as usual, was in the office by 7:30 a.m. She watched with some interest news reports that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. But when a second plane hit, “we all knew it was an attack,” she said.
The focus shifted rapidly. The staff began preparing Rumsfeld for response. In the midst of it, someone working in the outer office asked the room if they had heard a noise. Minutes later voices over the Pentagon’s loudspeakers urged those inside to evacuate.
The attack had occurred on the opposite side of the Pentagon from where Carozza worked. The evacuation was orderly, calm, and before Carozza left she walked through the office suite, making sure everyone had left.
It wasn’t until she got outside that she saw the smoke. It was a slow realization among the crowd: the Pentagon, also, had been attacked.
“You just felt like we were at war,” Carozza said.
Later that day, Carozza tried to help set up a place where people could put the bodies of victims. No one knew yet that there were few remains to find.
And even later that day, Carozza began working on what would define her next few months: Making sure Congress knew that the Pentagon was still open and operating, despite the attacks. In the months ahead, she arranged countless visits to the Pentagon from members of Congress. When she finally left her job at the Pentagon, it was to serve as an aide to Maryland Gov. Robert Erlich, helping him set up a Department of Homeland Security.
But on Sept. 11, she didn’t know yet that the day would help determine the direction of her career. That night she worked until 12:15 a.m. On her way out the door, she walked around the Pentagon to the opposite side. There, firefighters were still fighting to extinguish the fire.
“I needed to see that,” she said. “I needed to, before I left the grounds.”
Call to remember victims’ families
Then-Sen. Mike DeWine was sitting in his office that morning when a staff member came in and told him a plane had hit the World Trade Center. He turned on the TV in his office and watched the coverage.
His state director, Barbara Schenk, quietly excused herself. Her brother, Doug Cherry, worked in the towers and died in the attacks.
When the second plane hit, DeWine took a call from his chief of staff, Laurel Dawson, who worked in Ohio. “She said, ‘I’m watching this, and don’t you think you ought to get out of there?’” he remembers.
The group ultimately gathered at a staff member’s apartment on Capitol Hill. They used it as a command center.
“There was no real plan for evacuation,” he remembers. “We were out of there long before any sirens went off.”
But to DeWine, now the Attorney General of Ohio, any memories of that day and of the fear on Capitol Hill are tempered by the knowledge that his state director lost her brother in the attacks.
“There are inconvenient things we see, as far as security,” he said. “But that’s not the devastating impact that some people in this country have suffered. Frankly, they are the people we need to think about on Sept. 11.”