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 scover@mainetoday.com
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."

Around 5 p.m., King's wife, Mary, brought their children Molly and Ben, both of whom were in grade school, to Augusta for a visit.

"She wanted the kids to see me, to see that I was OK," he said.

His family headed back to Brunswick and the governor was left to decide whether to spend the night at Camp Keyes, the Blaine House or his home. He chose Camp Keyes, which meant spending the night on a cot. He remembers his executive protection agent bunking on a cot as well, his tall frame extending well beyond the end of the makeshift bed.

King was glad that he stayed.

He was awoken in the middle of the night when it was discovered that two of the terrorists -- Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari -- had flown out of the Portland International Jetport on their way to Boston to board American Airlines Flight 11. Atta flew the plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

"We immediately jumped into coordinating with the FBI, the Portland police, the state police," King said.

In the days and weeks that followed, King was in regular communication with White House officials who briefed governors from around the country. He remembers one call, in which he and the governor of Michigan raised the issue of border security and the importance of balancing the need for safety with the needs of workers who travel to Canada and back.

Later, the governors were told that there were rumors of another plot, so the White House ordered all airports to be secured. No one could fly without being checked by authorities. King said he ordered Maine National Guardsmen to all airports in Maine, to comply with the White House order.

"At about 8 or 9 that night I get a call that the airport people are going nuts," he said. "The airport people are so mad they called the FAA. The FAA said we don't know anything about (the order). I was just furious."

For months after the attacks, the governor's office and many state officials spent considerable time helping the federal government investigate the Maine connection to the act of terrorism, Rand said.

King said the attacks shocked Americans out of their comfort zone.

"It was a huge psychological blow to America," he said. "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."

Rand said, "In retrospect, you think it's kind of silly to think that the State House in Maine could have been a target, or that the governor of Maine could have been a target. But that's just how unprecedented the day's events were."

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

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