This is the official end of high heels in Washington, isn’t it?
The Republican Senate staffer, who spoke to me after she returned to her desk following the evacuation of the Capitol, laughed.
“I think it might be, yeah,” she said.
She spoke to me anonymously because she wanted to be free with her observations.
I asked her what it was like at 11:59 a.m. Wednesday, when word came to the Hart Senate Office Building that everyone had to get out. Here’s her story.
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“I was on the phone in the office. The girl behind me, about 30 years old, all of a sudden jumped up and said, ‘They’re running off the floor!’ We have a TV monitor in the office that is always showing the floor of the Senate. Sen. [Carl] Levin was running off the floor.
“A few minutes later the alarms came. The squawk box goes off: ‘Evacuate immediately! Evacuate immediately!’ Each office has a big black duffel bag with gas masks and decontamination stuff. We’re all trained in the use of this stuff. Big sealed bag. Somebody grabbed it. We evacuated immediately.
“Every office has been trained—each office is required to have an official security person who makes sure everyone is out. You meet later at a designation.
“So we go down the stairs and out the door. What’s interesting about this is the people who have been here a while know what the drill is, but the kids who’ve just come in, the interns, the new staff, the visitors to the Capitol, they flip out. They haven’t had the experience that you in New York and we in Washington have had.
“Longtime staffers move purposefully. They’re not seized with ‘Oh my God!’ The new ones run. The kids were like they were fleeing for their lives. They are all on their cell phones calling mom back in Dubuque.
“We’re fighting a war; you’re involved because you’re in the Capitol.
“I was here on 9/11. That day I had to be forced to leave because I refused to leave when I found out it was terrorism. When the second plane hit the towers everyone left, but my reaction was, ‘No blankin’ terrorist is gonna make me leave the Capitol.’
“There’s different ways people think after something like this. Some think I could be back home in Iowa with my garden and my house and my kids.
“Others think, I belong to the U.S. government and there’s no way I’m not doing my job.
“This time I left. I don’t want to cause an argument.
“I was wearing open-toed, two-inch heels. Is this the official end of high heels in Washington? I think it might be, yeah.
“This time they did not say remove your shoes. They said, ‘Run, move away from the Capitol, move east, move east.’ You could tell it was something from the way they acted. I thought of Barbara Olson, because I could tell it was serious this time, and I was there that day.
“There were a lot of hazmat trucks, ambulances, the police in black vans, FBI or whatever. I feel like something is working—we’re coordinating better, and more seriously.
“We met at our designation, at the statue at Stanton Park, on C Street Northeast, a few blocks away. We did a headcount. Some people missing, but we knew they were elsewhere when we left.
“We stayed in Stanton Park for 40 minutes. People grabbed a smoke; smart people brought their lunch. The new people had to get their minds wrapped around it. A lotta people on cell phones calling kids, mom. Me too—I didn’t want my family to hear on the TV and worry I wasn’t alright.
“We left the office with a portable intercom. The official security person carries it. It signals when it’s all clear. It also signals when it has to tell us to get farther away from the Capitol. We waited to hear. They came on and said all clear.
“We said, ‘Good, let’s go.’ “
* * *
After we rang off I remembered the incident during the Reagan funeral, when everyone was evacuated from the Capitol because a small plane with a broken communications system strayed over restricted airspace. (It turned out to be carrying the governor of Kentucky.) Yesterday’s story is bigger because it involved both the Capitol and the White House, and because it heavily involved the White House press corps, which was given alarming and contradictory instructions: Get in the basement, run away from the building.
You witness a lot of pared down and unmediated human nature in situations like this. During the Reagan funeral, when many were gathered in ceremonial rooms in the Capitol, a gallant old woman, a former government official, calmly and very definitely informed a security man she was not leaving. A friend saw a powerful media figure almost knock over a wheelchair-bound woman as he raced from the room. A witty and brilliant woman turned her heel as she ran in high Manolo Blahniks down the Capitol steps. She slowed at the bottom and told a close friend to leave her, she couldn’t run anymore. He said: No, if you die my life won’t be fun anymore, I’m staying. And he did.
And I am thinking what the woman from the Hart Building told me about the young. It reminds me of Lesley Stahl. After 9/11, Lesley found that the young people in her office in New York were especially shook. Panic attacks, anthrax in the news, the fear that more death was coming.
When a young person would confide his or her fears, Lesley started saying, “Come sit next to me.” She would talk to them softly about how lucky they all were to have to concentrate on getting the news. They would sit with her at her desk and do their work next to her. Then after a while they’d leave, and if they got scared again an hour later, they would come and sit next to her again.
The young are new to history. The job of the mature is to be mature. Here’s to them.