'You don’t react with fear to a bunch of thugs. We weren’t attacked by some government, just a bunch of thugs.' -- Wes Simms, Texas Farmers Union.
Every year, as Congress returns from its August recess, National Farmers Union holds what’s called the “Fall Fly In.”
During the Fly In, NFU family farmers from all over the nation come to Washington, DC, to remind Congress that agriculture is more than just a word carved in stone on a government office building.
It is the mortar that binds our nation together.
The NFU 2001 Fall Fly In began much the same as every other. NFU members gathered as usual at their hotels throughout the day on Sunday. There was a briefing. Packets were handed out containing maps, Congressional directories, and information about appointments in legislative offices on Capitol Hill.
It was a good turnout — more than 260 Farmers Union members from 24 states.
Monday morning, 9/10, was spent at the Department of Agriculture, including time with Agriculture Secretary Ann Venneman. Briefings were held after lunch at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjoining the White House. Then everyone gathered at the Mott House courtyard for a NATFARMPAC reception that evening.
Tuesday, September 11, the first day of Congressional visits began bright and early at 8:00 am. The 2001 Fly In Agenda for the 2002 farm bill addressed issues eerily familiar to those we continue to address today: the Farm Bill, Country of Origin Labeling, Renewable Energy.
Remembering Every Detail
Leland Swenson was NFU president at the time and remembers “every detail…No one complained, they always stepped up…They all worked cooperatively together…What a family we had in Farmers Union.”
But the family was under stress. Leland explains: “At that same time the president of Texas Farmers Union, Wes Simms, was in the hospital having heart surgery. We had Joe Rankin,the vice president, in the hospital with trouble with his pacemaker.”
One of NFU’s stalwarts on the Hill, Senator Byron Dorgan, remembers the day this way: “It was Tuesday morning and we had a Democratic leadership meeting that day. Tom Daschel, myself, John Kerry, John Breaux, Dick Durbin, Harry Reid, about 8 of us in a room at the west end of the Capitol.”
Then NFU vice president Alan Bergman was at the Holiday Inn on E Street when Lee Swenson notified him of an awful event in New York City. An airliner had apparently crashed into one of the two towers of the World Trade Center.
Alan recounted those first moments:
“I walked up to the Hotel where several delegations were staying to tell them about the tragedy in New York….On my way over I had a cell phone call from my wife and she told me a plane had flown into the Pentagon. I know where that’s at, so I walked on up the hill and looked in that direction…I couldn’t see it clearly for the trees and told her ‘I don’t know that that’s true.’ When I reached the office she assured me it was.”
Joaquin Contente of California brought a large delegation from his state, 16 people. They were gathered for a group picture in front of the Capitol steps at 8:45 that morning. Joaquin remembers:
“About 9 o’clock some of us had to go in for a meeting with one of our representatives. During that meeting is when we found out about the tragedy in New York (and the Pentagon)…We stayed there about 45 minutes. Nobody knew what to do in the Rayburn Building. Security didn’t know what to do. Congressional offices didn’t know what to do with us.”
Joaquin’s group was finally sent back down the street to their hotel. Later they noticed something unusual. “Actually that evening we saw Air Force One landing in the distance because they were the only ones allowed in the air,” Joaquin says. “Approximately 40 minutes or so later we saw a group of helicopters, 5 or 6 helicopters fly over the hotel we were at. You could almost reach out and touch them they were so close”.
The helicopters were escorting President Bush to the White House.
As word spread among individual NFU state teams on Capitol Hill, disbelief and confusion were common. Television would provide a link to events for those at home. Montana Farmers Union president Alan Merrill saw scenes of the attack at his parents home. “I went over to my parents’ because I didn’t have a working TV at the time,” Merrill recalls. “I heard about it on the radio first. My Mom said ‘What? Is the world coming to an end?’”
Norbert Brauer of Illinois Farmers Union spent the day watching from home. “It was just something you couldn’t walk away from,” he said. Utah president Kent Bushman was working when he first heard the news. Kent remembers feeding the cows and just spending the rest of the day, like Norbert, watching events unfold.
Current NFU vice-president Claudia Svarstad was about to leave her home in Denver to go to work when the news came across her TV. “At the time I was president of the insurance company,” she said. Claudia had planned a business trip to Indiana where she intended to visit her sister for her fiftieth birthday. “She was so sad that on her birthday there was this awful tragedy.”
For Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson, 9/11 stands as a reminder of personal loss as well: “I was standing in my living room watching the second tower come down and I was on the phone with a good friend’s wife. She was telling me that he had passed away.”
David Coker, Arkansas Farmers Union president, was on his way to work when the first reports came over his car radio. Once David arrived at his office there wasn’t much to do but listen to reports, because that’s what his customers were doing. “We normally have a busy day that day (of the week),” Coker said. “We had one customer the whole day and ended up closing at 2:00.”
Kent Peppler of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union was cutting corn. He first watched early morning coverage at his home, then went to the field. That’s when he told a hired man, “You’re never going to believe this but we’re being attacked on the east coast right now.”
Roger Weise of Ohio recalls an uncommon unity among people. “For that entire week no matter where one went complete strangers were sharing the same emotions and the same experience,” he said.
Following the national board meeting during the weekend, NFU board secretary Sue Arends was back in Denver again by 9/11. She said that starting about 7 that morning, she began to get phone calls from people worried about family and loved ones in Washington. From that point forward she spent the entire day telling callers, “Everyone Farmers Union-wise is OK.”
Linda Kendall notes that today’s common sights along major Capitol thoroughfares, things like large concrete planters, posts, and barricades, were put in place after 9/11 as barriers to car bombers. 9/11 caused people and government to plan for disaster right down to locating showers near doors in case of biological or chemical attacks on the street.
Of course there are other reminders of 9/11, like those that air travelers now consider routine. Claudia Svarstad said, “I don’t ever go through one of those long security lines without thinking how it’s impacted us forever.”
Terry Dietrich, Oklahoma Farmers Union president, didn’t attend the Fly In that year. He was back home working. “But I was there a year later,” he said, “when they had turret guns on every corner. But of course having gone through the bombing there in Oklahoma City, we all just thought, ‘Here we go again.'”
Annie Cheatham of New England Farmers Union saw some of the aftermath in New York as bodies were recovered from the World Trade Center. She said from time to time excavators being used to clear rubble would uncover bodies. Taps would be played, the body placed in a body bag and carried out.
“It was always very moving,” Cheatham said. “I remember running into a guy who was sweeping the street. He worked for the City of New York, I guess. I asked him ‘How are you doing?’ He was working in the area beside the building where the impact was. He said ‘I’ve never been through anything like this.’ He was finding things like thumbs, and parts of bodies.”
Connections from North Dakota to New York
Current NFU president Roger Johnson was then Agriculture Commissioner of North Dakota. He was in his office in Bismarck at the time. “It was sort of a surreal experience,” he recalled. “A number of the employees got together at the time, gathered in the breakroom and turned on the TV…What I remember about that day was the enormity of the disruption. New York was on everyone’s mind. One thing that happened, a good friend of mine, a banker in North Dakota, his daughter was in one of those towers. She moved rapidly through the ranks of financial management. She was lost. The ripple effect, really [ran] all through our state, as far as North Dakota is from New York… Widely known in agriculture and banking circles, this daughter was lost.”
Some NFU members in Washington were closer to the action than others. Iowa president Chris Petersen happened to be in the EPA building along with six other Iowa Farmers Union members discussing oversight of hog CAFOs with Doug Gross of EPA. That’s when Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, about a half-mile away.
“We heard the noise and knew something was going on,” Chris said. “Then we could see what was going on out the window. It was like about 5 or 10 minutes later they started running down the halls telling everyone to get out.”
Gordon Stine, president of Illinois Farmers Union at the time, said one farmer told him that he’d been shoved out of a hallway into a room in the Russell Building and held there for a short period of time by security personnel protecting an unknown VIP. Later he heard that First Lady Laura Bush was in the building, and it was she they were escorting out. Mrs Bush later told the Today Show on NBC: “As we raced through the dim hallways of the Russell Building, past panicked staffers emptying from their offices, the ERT team shouted ‘GET BACK’ and covered my every move with their guns.”
Senator Dorgan made a mental note of the day: “Blue skies, Beautiful sunshine. By the time I got out (of the Capitol), very quickly I saw F-16s flying fighter cover over the Capitol building.” Dorgan learned later that pilots of planes he saw were friends from the North Dakota Air National Guard from Fargo stationed at Langley, Virginia.
Robert Carlson, president of North Dakota Farmers Union was there at the Fly In:
“I remember it very well. I was in the Hart building with two members of my staff getting ready to do a radio interview with Ed Schultz. (At the time TV commentator Schultz hosted a radio program in Fargo.) So we were in Senator Conrad’s office waiting to get into the little office there.”
That’s when Carlson saw the first airliner hitting the Trade Center on a TV in the office. It wasn’t long before rumors started to fly. “The staff started running around, the chief of staff looked at me and said ‘I’ve got kids,’ and she ran out the door,” Carlson said. “Ed looked at me and said ‘Well I guess we aren’t going to do any interviews today.’ I said ‘No, I guess not.’”
A Bus Back Home
The North Dakota delegation remained in DC for another three days, eventually hiring a bus to take them home. North Dakota Farmers Union vice president Woody Barth recalls the weather as some of the best he’d ever seen during Fly In. “I never felt threatened, I don’t think any of us from North Dakota ever really felt threatened,” he said. “We were actually in DC for about a week. We finally called a bus and got home late Sunday morning”.
Donn Teske had been president of Kansas Farms Union for just about one year on September 11, 2001: “Sirens everywhere, people screaming and cursing and panicked. We were a mile and a half from the hotel at that point so there was nothing to do but start walking back.”
On the way to the hotel, Donn went up to the roof of the NFU office building for a better view. “I couldn’t see the Pentagon from there, so I crawled up on somewhere you’re not supposed to crawl,” he recalled. “Looking back I thought that was really pretty stupid to be silhouetted like that with everybody panicked.”
NFU general council Dave Velde’s: “That morning when the towers were struck in New York I had just arrived at the NFU office in Washington and everybody was captivated by the television and what they were observing. Initially it was thought it was some kind of mechanical error or mistake.”
Velde and a couple of companions went to the roof of the building also. That’s when he noticed an airplane in the sky that seemed out of place. “Not long after that, a plane struck the Pentagon,” he said.
“That evening, Dave Fredricksen and I were at the office,” Velde continued. “I don’t remember why. And we started to walk back across the Mall to the Holiday Inn (Capitol Inn) It was just him and I and I said, ‘Listen.’ There wasn’t a sound, there wasn’t a car, there wasn’t a horn, there wasn’t a bus. There weren’t any people. And pretty soon we heard this sound, and I think they were Blackhawk helicopters came up over the Capitol and down the Mall and peeled off down to the White House and that was President Bush arriving back at the White House. It was almost like a movie scene.”
John Hansen was with 14 Nebraska Farmers Union members, briefing them in the cafeteria of the Capitol Inn. John noticed out of the corner of his eye, on a nearby TV screen, as an airplane flew into the World Trade Center. He and his group decided to proceed up to Capitol Hill with the understanding that if trouble developed they would return to the hotel as quickly as possible.
“Senator Chuck Hagel was our first appointment,” Hansen said. “I was getting increasingly worried that things were wrong. We had policemen grabbing Congressmen by their shoulders and the lapels of their suits and dragging them across the street, sending them down the street. I knew the exit strategy was in place.”
Leading a Prayer
Emotion choked the voice of Dave Velde when he recounted a prayer he lead with Farmers Union members who returned to the hotel as the Hill was being evacuated. “I remember inviting people to share the peace with each another,” Velde said, “but not the way we normally do. (I asked them) to embrace each other, and they did….”
A wave of emotion swept over John Hansen, too, as he recounted hearing what turned out to be false reports of more attacks:
“On the radio, you could hear there were reports of bombs in cars on Capitol Hill, reports that the Treasury had already been attacked. As we were driving off the Hill we could see the smoke coming off the Pentagon. It was just, ‘Oh my God.’ People in my car were crying and screaming, the cabbie was cussing and pounding on his dash and the steering wheel. It was just complete pandemonium coming off the Hill. I tried to tell my folks they had to stay there (at the hotel) and when the time was right they had to get the word back home they were all right.”
Washington was locked down. Stores and restaurants closed. As the day wore on it became apparent that for stranded Farmers Union members, food might be a problem. One hotel brought in pizza for all their guests.
Not My Boots!
Texas Farmers Union president Wes Simms was suddenly taken ill during the NFU board meeting that weekend. When he got to the hospital, Wes said a nurse was undressing him and started to pull his boots off. True to Texas tradition, Wes stopped her and said, “Whoa, what are you doin’?”
Wes refused to remove his boots till he got to his room. By the time the 9/11 attacks occurred he was watching television from his hospital bed, bootless.
Eventually he would find himself just a few doors away from burn victims injured in the Pentagon attack.
“I guess it changed our conscience,” Wes said. “Probably forever. Not all of the changes I favored, or still do not favor. You don’t react with fear to a bunch of thugs. We weren’t attacked by some government, just a bunch of thugs.”
Richard Oswald is a fifth generation Missouri farmer, president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a regular Daily Yonder columnist.