September 9, 2011

Attacks put Maine on alert

In Augusta, Gov. Angus King and his staff scrambled to coordinate the state's response even as he worried about his son just blocks away from ground zero.

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - Gov. Angus King was on his way to the State House from his home in Brunswick on Sept. 11, 2001, when he heard a report of a plane hitting the World Trade Center.

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"It was a huge psychological blow to America," said Angus King, who was Maine's governor at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. "We had, for 200 years, felt safe behind the oceans. It was deeply upsetting because of the sudden feeling of vulnerability that really hadn't been there before."

John Ewing Staff Photographer

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He assumed it was a small plane, an accident.

So he started his day with a meeting. Roxanne Quimby, a co-founder of Burt's Bees, wanted to talk to the governor about her idea of establishing a national park in Maine's North Woods.

"We were to talk about the national park idea, which I wasn't terribly supportive of," said King, an independent who served from 1995 to 2003, during a recent interview at his home.

Just outside King's office, his Chief of Staff Kay Rand was on the phone with John Melrose, commissioner of the Department of Transportation.

"He said: 'Are you watching what's going on?'" she said.

She wasn't, but the state trooper stationed between her office and the governor's office was growing concerned about what he was hearing.

"He wanted to get Angus out of the building because we didn't know at the time whether other public buildings had been targeted," Rand said. "There was some concern that this was going to be part of a national orchestration."

About 15 minutes into his meeting with Quimby, King remembers, Rand came into the office.

"She said: 'Governor, a plane has hit the Pentagon. It looks like this is some kind of attack,'" he said.

King quickly ended the meeting, went to his outer office and decided to evacuate the State House and state office building. Rand and King said they also thought about Duncan King, the governor's son, who was working 12 blocks from the World Trade Center.

It would be several hours before they would get word about him.

"In the midst of trying to coordinate the state's response, I'm worried about my kid," King said.

They set up a command center at Camp Keyes in Augusta, where they were joined by Senate President Mike Michaud and House Speaker Mike Saxl. The site was so secure that cellphones didn't work from inside the bunker, King said.

"The first few hours were spent trying to figure out what was going on and immediately trying to figure out how Maine could help," he said.

Once reporters figured out where the state's leaders were, they began gathering outside the military installation. King held an impromptu news conference.

"It was all about reassurance," Rand said. "It was all about trying to prevent hysteria."

King said he felt it was important to be visible and to let the public know that Maine was offering to help.

"We meet on a sunny day in Maine on what appears to be one of the most tragic days in American history," King said in a story published in a special edition of The Portland Press Herald on Sept. 11, 2001. "Historically, people who attack the United States have lived to regret it."

That afternoon, King dealt with one of the side effects of the terrorist attack. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all airplanes across the country, which meant that even Maine's forest fire spotter planes couldn't fly.

"I ended up spending a good deal of the afternoon negotiating with the FAA in Boston to get our fire squadron planes back up," he said.

He also led an exercise with his commissioners to talk about places in Maine that could be targets for terrorists: chemical plants, fuel storage areas, bridges, pipelines, electrical circuits.

Midafternoon, he got a call from his ex-wife that their son Duncan was safe.

"He got an email out," he said. "It turned out he was fine."

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