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If you like Norman Mineta's story, you might also like:
Willie Brown,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Daniel Inouye,
John Lewis,
Alan Simpson,
Robert Strauss and
Antonio Villaraigosa

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Norman Mineta
Norman Mineta
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Norman Mineta Interview (page: 8 / 9)

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation

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  Norman Mineta

As a young boy, you experienced December 7, 1941, and then as Secretary of Transportation, you experienced September 11, 2001. Can you tell us about that day?

Norman Mineta: That morning I was having breakfast with the Vice Premier of Belgium, Isobel Durant, who was also the Minister of Transport, and Jane Garvey, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, was also there at breakfast. So the three of us were having breakfast, and my Chief of Staff, John Flaherty, came in and said, "Mr. Secretary, may I see you?" So I excused myself, went into my office. At the other end of my office, I have a television set. Obviously, the World Trade Center, black smoke pouring out of there. I said, "What the heck is that?" He said, "Well, we don't know. We have heard 'explosion,' we've heard 'general aviation plane going into the building,' we've heard 'commercial airplane going into the building.' We don't know." So I said, "Well, I am going to go back into the breakfast, keep me posted." So I went in and explained to Jane and to Mrs. Durant what I had just been told. About six or seven minutes later, John came back in and said, "May I see you?" So I excused myself, went back in, and he said, "It has been confirmed. It was an American Airlines [plane] that went into the World Trade Center." I went up to the TV set to get a closer look, see if I could see the hole where the plane went in, and as I was watching the TV set, all of a sudden a gray object comes from the right side of the screen, comes across, sort of disappears, and then a yellow and white billowy cloud over here, and I go, "Holy Cow, what the heck was that."

I ran back into the conference room and said, "I don't know what is going on in New York, but Mrs. Durant, I have got to excuse myself. Jane, you have got to get back to the Operations Center over at FAA." I excused myself, came back into the office. By that time, the White House had called and said I had to get over there right away.

I grabbed some manuals and some papers, went down to the car, and we went over to the White House. As we went in West Executive Drive, people pouring out of the Executive Office building, people running out of the White House, and I said to my driver and security guy, "Is there something wrong with this picture? We are driving in, and everybody else is running away." So I went into the White House and someone said, "You have to be briefed by Dick Clark in the Situation Room." So I went in there, he talked to me for four or five minutes, and he said, "You have got to go to the PEOC." I said, "What's the PEOC?" He said, "That's the Presidential Emergency Operations Center." I said, "I don't know where that is or what it is." There was a Secret Service agent standing there, says, "I'll take you." Well, it's that bunker that's way under the White House.

I got to the PEOC and the Vice President was already there. Big conference table, and there are phones all along here. I took a phone and called my office, kept it an open line, and then I took another phone, called FAA -- Federal Aviation Administration Operations Center -- and kept it at open line and kept working the two phones.

Some young man came in and said to the Vice President, "There's a plane 50 miles out coming towards D.C." So I said to Monty Belger, who is the No. 2 at FAA, I said, "Monty, what do you have on radar on this plane coming in?" He said, "Well, the transponder has been turned off, so we don't know who it is, and we don't know the altitude or speed." I said, "Well, where is it?" He said, "It's somewhere beyond Great Falls right now." Then, the young man came in and said it's 20 miles away. I'd say, "Well, Monty, where is this plane in relationship to the ground?" On radar it is hard to associate with a ground point, but they'd be able to tell you roughly the distance from wherever you are, but he couldn't tell you the speed or altitude, and then all of a sudden, as I was talking to him, he said, "Oh, I lost the bogie. Lost the target." I said, "Well, where is it?" He said, "Well, it's somewhere between Rosslyn and National Airport," and about that time someone broke into the conversation and said, "Mr. Secretary, we just had a confirmation from an Arlington County police officer saying that he saw an American Airlines plane go into the Pentagon." So then I said, "Monty, bring all the airplanes down." When you see one of something happen, it's an accident; when you see two of the same thing happening, it's a trend, something. When you see three, it's a plan. So I said, "Bring all the planes down."

You mean ground all the planes?

Norman Mineta: Ground all the planes. We already had a ground hold on planes going into New York. Any plane that was going to leave from Atlanta heading to New York, those planes were left on the ground in Atlanta. That happened maybe about 8:30 or 8:40 in the morning. Now this is about 9:27.

I said, "Bring all the planes down." Well, at that point, we had 4,638 airplanes in the air. With the skill of the air traffic controllers and the skill of the airplane pilots and the flight cabin crew, getting all the passengers prepared, they brought all those planes down in two hours and 20 minutes. It was really the skill of everybody just bringing those airplanes down. Now, he said, "We will bring the planes down per pilot discretion," and I said, "Screw pilot discretion," because I didn't want a pilot who was over Kansas City thinking, "Well, I will fly on to LA, sleep in my own bed tonight," because I wanted all those airplanes down. We had, at that point, seven to ten airplanes still unaccounted for from the airlines, and so I wanted to get all those airplanes down. I didn't want that pilot in Kansas making his own decision. I said, "Bring them all down."

So Monty said, "We will get them all down," and about 10:30, quarter to 11:00...

I called David Collenette, the Minister of Transport for Canada, and I said, "David, I need your help," and he said, "Well, I am watching everything on television, what is it you want me to do?" I said, "I have got these planes coming in from Asia and from Europe," and I said, "We are not going to take those. I am wondering if you could take those in Canada." So he said, "Okay." It was amazing. I mean whether it's Halifax, Gander, wherever, they took all those planes, and the end of September, Minister Collenette came down and he gave me a picture of Halifax, and there you had something like 53 wide-body airplanes, wingtip to wingtip, at that small airport in Halifax, and the people in Halifax just opened up their homes, invited people in. Because that was Tuesday, and they all stayed there until Saturday, and so everyone cooperated, every which way.

Was September 11 your toughest day as a public official?

Norman Mineta: No question it was.

On the next day, we had a Cabinet meeting, and Congressman David Bonior of Michigan said, "Mr. President, we have a very large Arab American population in the Detroit area, and they are very concerned about what is going to be happening, and they are afraid of racial profiling," and the President said, "David, you are absolutely correct, and we don't want happening to them what happened to Norm in 1942. On that following Monday, the 17th of September, he had a meeting with Arab American and Muslim leaders at the Islamic mosque and study center in Washington, D.C., in which he said, "We know who the terrorists are. They are not you as loyal American citizens or as faithful followers of the Muslim religion, so don't worry about racial profiling."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Norman Mineta Interview Photo
Towards the end of September, there was a shooting at a gas station mini-mart in Arizona. The owner was shot and killed. He was a South Asian American -- Indian -- he was a Sikh, he had a turban. When they apprehended the murderer, they said, "Why did you shoot him?" He said, "Because he looked like the enemy." When the President called in leaders from the South Asian Indian community, and Sikh leaders, he said, "We are going to pursue any hate crime." The Congress had already passed the Transportation Security Act, setting up the new Transportation Security Administration. In February, I announced the "no racial profiling" rule. That whole time period following September 11 was just a pressure cooker, trying to come up with the right public policy on security and transportation policy.

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This page last revised on Apr 23, 2008 15:45 EDT
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