After a plane struck the Pentagon, Gov. Angus King left his meeting with environmentalist Roxanne Quimby, who was in his office pitching a national park idea. He evacuated the State House complex, drove to Camp Keyes’ underground command center in Augusta and took a call from his ex-wife.
She couldn’t find their then-28-year-old son, Duncan.
“We knew that he worked somewhere near the World Trade Center in the financial district, but we weren’t sure exactly what building,” King said. “I sucked it up, because I was worried about my son, and basically went before the cameras and gave a reassuring statement, ‘We’re going to get through this. People who strike the United States generally live to regret it, and we’re offering whatever help we can.’
“Sometimes, when you’re in a leadership position,” he said, “you have to act a little bit. (The people of Maine) needed confidence and strength.”
It’s one of King’s still-vivid memories 10 years out. So is wrangling with the Federal Aviation Administration, which grounded all flights. Maine, he argued, needed its small, fire-spotting planes in the air. September meant forest fires.
He remembers spending the night in that underground bunker with a lanky police officer, jammed onto cots — “I remember that because Jim Trask is 6-foot-7 and the cot was 6 feet,” — and being roused around 1 a.m.
There was news.
“We were feeling kind of ‘aren’t-we-lucky-that-we’re-in-Maine-and-not-involved-in-stuff-like-this?’” King said. “Suddenly, we found out Mohamed Atta had been in Portland.”
Atta was one of the plot’s masterminds. King found himself eyeing Maine and wondering, if he were a terrorist, where he could do the most harm. Soon, there were new, weekly conference calls with the White House to talk about borders, airports and threats.
During one, late on a Friday, governors learned about another attack, this one using private planes.
“‘You must secure all of your small airports.’ It seemed a little far-fetched, but I couldn’t ignore it, so I called the head of the National Guard and I said, ‘I want you to get men to every airport in Maine and shut them down,’” King said.
Before long, airport operators howled.
“They said, ‘We just checked with the FAA and they don’t know anything about it.’ Sure enough, they didn’t,” King said. “The federal government, one hand didn’t know what the other hand was doing. I remember calling the White House at about 11 that night. I was just wild. I said, ‘If you’re going to put me in this position, you damn well better back me up and tell the FAA.’”
Governing changed after that day. Most everything did.
“Americans had always felt immune because of the oceans,” said King, who has taught college courses, written and become active in wind power since leaving office in 2003. “There’s been a feeling for 200 years — yes, we get involved in wars, but they’re someplace else. I think it has affected the country in deep ways that we’re not even fully conscious of.”
On Sept. 11, mid-afternoon, King got word that Duncan was OK.
“He indeed had been very close,” King said. “(He) was in a conference room and looked up and saw the second plane hit the building.”