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Bob Ney Reflects on 9/11

BOB NEY

MARTINS FERRY — A friend’s decision to reschedule a birthday celebration may have saved Bob Ney’s life.

That choice and its impact on Ney’s overall schedule prevented him from visiting the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

At the time, the Bellaire resident was a Republican member of Congress representing Eastern Ohio. A few weeks earlier, one of his employees interrupted a chaotic day in the office to go over Ney’s upcoming agenda. She had scheduled him to visit New York on Sept. 11 with plans to attend a reception inside the Twin Towers that morning. He was slated to bang the gavel to close the New York Stock Exchange that evening.

As his aide, Jenny, was leaving to return to her office, Ney realized that the plan would create a scheduling conflict for him. His friend, news analyst Ellen Ratner, had rescheduled her 50th birthday party. Attending both events would have prevented Ney from returning to his home district in Ohio for two weeks in a row — something he did not want to do. So, Jenny rescheduled his New York visit to Sept. 4 — exactly one week before the towers came crashing down in the wake of a terrorist attack.

As a result, Ney was in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., at 8:45 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, when a plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center.

“In the Capitol, my first reaction was that it was a controller’s mistake,” Ney said of hearing the news. “When the second tower was hit, I said, ‘That’s a terror attack.'”

First elected to the House in 1994 after a stint in state government, by 2001 Ney had become a member of the House leadership. He was deputy whip for the Republican Party and chairman of the House Administration Committee. As such, he worked closely with the Capitol Police and was directly involved in providing security for members and the speaker of the House. He was sometimes called the “sheriff” or the “mayor of Capitol Hill.”

Ney consulted with other House leaders, and together they decided to put the House on “Dome 1 alert,” indicating they believed the Capitol could be a potential terrorist target.

Moments later, Ney said, staffer Sara Salupo came running in to see him, crying and demanding that he take the phone from her hand and speak with the caller. Salupo was a Cambridge, Ohio, resident who was working for Ney in Washington, and Ney said he had never seen her so upset, almost “hysterical.”

Fred Hay, a staff attorney, was on the line. He told Ney that he was stuck in traffic but had spotted a plane that was “undoubtedly headed for the Pentagon.” At that point, the decision was made to empty the halls of Congress.

“We actually evacuated the Capitol before the plane hit the Pentagon,” Ney said during a phone interview Wednesday. “We had 10,000 to 15,000 people headed out.”

Ney explained that traffic in the capital city had come to a standstill with bridges closed and people pouring out of buildings and onto the streets.

“All the bridges and roads were blocked,” he said. “Everybody went on foot. A lot of people headed to the water. None of our phones worked.”

Ney, however, was in the process of testing one of 200 Blackberry units that were being evaluated for potential government use.

“That Blackberry worked,” he said, noting that after the crisis subsided, 6,000 Blackberries were issued to lawmakers and their staffs. “It allowed me to call back home and check to see if these things were happening elsewhere.”

Within about an hour, Ney said, he received a message to go to an undisclosed location near the Capitol Police station. When he arrived, about 50-70 other members of Congress were present, and some of them wanted to return to session at the Capitol building. Ney said he and Democrat Congressman Steny Hoyer, ranking member of the House administration, spoke to the group and persuaded them that it would not be safe to do so.

“We stressed that we didn’t know what was going to happen. There could be more terror attacks,” Ney said.

In the end, members agreed to gather on the Capitol steps, where they sang “God Bless America.”

“I can’t explain the feeling that night,” Ney noted. “We wanted to show there was a government still.”

That indescribable mood permeated the entire community, according to Ney.

“Later that evening, I went to get a taxi,” he said. “I had my congressional pin on that identified me as a member of Congress. The driver saw that and said to me, ‘Yesterday we were Democrats and Republicans, black and white, different religions. Today we’re all Americans.’

“I said, ‘We sure are.'”

Fear of what might happen next was soon supplanted by sorrow.

“Later, we learned thousands of lives were lost between the Pentagon and the towers,” Ney added. “It was a sad day. … Obviously, our minds went to them.”

The events of that day impacted Ney’s job for the next two years. He spent much of his time during those 24 months working on security changes and upgrades for the Capitol.

“It was such a different time than it is now,” Ney said. “We all worked together. Nobody played politics with any of it. We cared what happened to the staff. There were thousands of people in that building every day, and their families expected them to come home. …

“People worked together in both parties to try and make things normal again.”

Ney no longer serves in government. He resigned his office in November 2006 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements for accepting trips, tickets, meals and campaign donations tied to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. He served 17 months in a federal prison in Morgantown, West Virginia, and underwent treatment for alcoholism.

Today, he works as an independent political analyst, calling in to radio programs that are aired on five stations in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and two in Wisconsin. He said he does this work five mornings each week and some evenings.

Although Ney moved his family to the Newark, Ohio, area while he was in office, his children moved back to the local region as they grew up. Then.last year, Ney also moved back to Bellaire and said that is where he plans to stay.

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