EagleHerald Staff Writer
MENOMINEE—Like many from Menominee, Bob Meissner recalls watching the televised accounts of the planes hitting the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York City 20 years ago.
But he was watching from Rep. Bart Stupak’s Washington, D.C., office, where he worked as a press secretary.
The broadcasters didn’t yet know what was going on, he recalled recently while in Menominee. One anchor surmised a beacon was driving the planes off course. “That was how bewildered he was to not think this was a terrorist attack,” he said.
“We were hearing on the news reports of fires on the Washington Mall,” he told the EagleHerald. Meissner looked out of his office window and saw smoke rising from an explosion. It turned out to be at the Pentagon.
“I can recall vividly the day,” he said. “Capitol Hill police came around very quietly and told the chiefs of staff to evacuate the staff. Our chief of staff said, ‘Just go. Get away from here,’” Meissner recalled. Instead of a 20-minute drive home, it took three hours because of the number of people leaving the city at the same time, he said.
Reminded of 9/11 by current events
Meissner was reminded of 9/11 after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol this year. When he heard a Federal Bureau of Investigation unit in Norfolk, Va., was gathering information about threats being made on members of Congress, “It was like stuff we had learned after the 9/11 investigation,” he said.
Developments in Afghanistan and news of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria also bring back memories for Meissner, who also worked for Sen. Debbie Stabenow. (See Stabenow’s reflections in a related story.) “We were all a little bit on hair trigger,” he said.
Asked what’s changed over the long term because of the attacks that day, Meissner recalled the one big piece of legislation designed to protect Americans. The USA Patriot Act would broaden law enforcement to combat terrorism and other crimes.
While Meissner doesn’t foresee another attack exactly like 9/11, he said bombings, mass shootings and terrorist attacks warrant heightened security. “I don’t think small town America has much to worry about this stuff. It’s our major offices and government agencies and that have to worry about this,” Meissner said.
Shutting down airports
Jeff LaFleur, lead technician at Menominee Regional Airport, was working for Menominee Airport at the time but off on 9/11 and at a part-time job doing electrical work. “The government shut down all the airports until they got a handle on what was going on. That’s the best of my recollection,” he said.
After 9/11, the Menominee Airport tightened security by restricting access, particularly after hours. “The ramp is secure and the gates are locked. There are electric gates now that automatically close behind someone who has authorization to get in. You can’t just walk into the airport and get in,” he said.
Because Menominee Airport doesn’t offer commercial flights by major airlines, it was less affected than larger airports, he said.
LaFleur said it’s unlikely a terrorist would use a small plane as a weapon because they aren’t large enough to cause significant damage, but the new security measures are designed to prevent unauthorized access.
“I feel secure and I feel the airport is secure,” LaFleur said.
Reflecting on attacks
Meissner still reflects on the 9/11 attacks when he drives past the airport in Bowie, Maryland, on Highway 50, as he did 20 years ago when he commuted from Annapolis to Washington, D.C. “That little airport is where the hijackers trained,” he said. “It was only later we said some of those airplanes might have held those hijackers,” Meissner said. “Every time I drive past Annapolis, I think about it.”
The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Virginia near the Pentagon is dedicated to remembering the 184 victims who lost their lives.
“I’ve been to the (9/11) Memorial twice. There are things that you have to see. I have a relative that lost her dearest friends in one of the towers. I have a friend who is a psychologist who counseled the workers doing the cleanup.” Meissner said. “We all get touched in a number of ways and it’s never far away… in terms of the connections you have to people who were there.”