Like many of his constituents, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was getting ready for work on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when he turned on the TV.
One tower at the World Trade Center was on fire. People were panicking, speculating that an airplane had lost control and crashed into the building. He continued to watch from his dressing room at the Executive Mansion in Richmond as the second plane struck, then called out to his wife.
“Roxane,” he said. “Take a look at this.”
Gilmore is a former Army intelligence officer. He had spent part of the previous three years chairing a national commission on homeland security. He got on the phone and called the state emergency operations center, notified the Virginia National Guard to be on standby and instructed state police to be watching for “any kind of attack or gunplay in Virginia” so it could be immediately reported.
He headed to his office on the third floor of the Capitol, just a short walk from the Executive Mansion. News reporters were already gathered on the top floor to cover what promised to be an interesting event. The always-quotable Doug Wilder, the former Virginia governor, was endorsing Donald McEachin, then a candidate for attorney general.
Reporters knew about the trouble at the World Trade Center, but they stuck with the Wilder-McEachin event for the moment. Then someone’s phone rang and a reporter called out from the back row.
Another plane has crashed into the Pentagon. Your reaction, Governor Wilder?
“Oh my God,” he said.
Gilmore learned of the Pentagon attack shortly after entering the Capitol. By then, the state’s emergency response was in full swing. What the governor remembers most from that day is the uncertainty.
“We didn’t know what was afoot,” he said. “We didn’t know whether or not the capitols would be struck, if the governors would be approached, whether the Federal Reserve Bank (in Richmond) would be attacked.... We had two nuclear plants in Virginia that had to be tended to.”
In the midst of the confusion, his office fielded a rumor that a passenger jet was rumbling up the James River toward Richmond, possibly toward Capitol Square or the Federal Reserve Bank.
“The rumors made it somewhat difficult because you just didn’t know,” he said. “Anything seemed plausible at that point.”
Gilmore had been at Ground Zero just the day before. He and Mark Earley, the former attorney general, had rung the bell at the stock exchange. He almost didn’t leave New York on Sept. 10 because a bad storm threatened to postpone his travel plans.
The National Commission on Homeland Security, which Gilmore chaired, had warned against a terrorist attack as early as 1999 . That was “a bit frustrating,” given what happened, Gilmore said.
But as the day unfolded, the governor said he was not looking back.
“That morning at the mansion, I knew we had a serious attack that required a stable influence at the governor’s office,” he said, “and appropriate action to be as preventive as possible because we didn’t know what further was coming.
“That’s all I was thinking about that morning.”
Later, Gilmore flew to the Pentagon to assess the damage and talk with first responders. As the building smoldered, he walked inside the fiery hole where the terrorist-driven plane had struck.
“It was pretty devastating,” he said. “It was just rubble everywhere. I won’t get too graphic about it, but it was just awful.”