By Will Lee-Ashley
Every September a group of Farmers Union members flies to Washington, D.C., to lobby the congressional delegation. This year, some 275 participated, including 15 Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) members. As everyone gathered in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 9 for a briefing, suspicions that this was no regular fly-in were confirmed. With the 2001 farm bill at a critical stage, everyone realized, at the emphasis of the National Farmers Union staff, that all present would have an extraordinary opportunity to influence lawmakers.
No one had a clue about just how different this fly-in was to be.
With congressional visits set to begin the morning of Sept. 11, by 9:00 a.m. the entire RMFU delegation was already inside the Russell Senate Office Building when a hijacked airliner struck the Pentagon. Most had heard about the two other hijacked planes hitting the World Trade Center towers before coming in for scheduled congressional visits.
Several members heard of the third plane hitting the Pentagon while in a meeting with Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. “While I was standing in Campbell’s office I saw that a plane had hit the Pentagon,” said John Stencel, RMFU field staff. “Within five minutes they were asking everyone to leave.”
Guards came down the hall to evacuate everyone from the building, and in the confusion the delegation was split up. Capitol security guards pushed one member, David Foy, Otis, Colo., into a room where he was held for over half-an-hour. Asked if he could run, he was finally allowed to leave.
Part of the delegation was pushed out the west doors. People were milling about everywhere and rumors were flying. “There were rumors circulating that the mall was on fire,” said Stencel, “and that a bomb had gone off at the State Department.” While both proved to be false, the smoke rising hundreds of feet into the air from the Pentagon made the rumors more real.
The oddity of the whole situation was that no one knew what to do or where to go. “It seemed as if the world was exploding around us,” remembers Foy. All government buildings had been cleared, so thousands of people were out on the streets, many nervously looking skyward anytime they heard an F-16 pass overhead, unsure whether the attacks were over.
“The thing that struck me most,” said Stencel, “was that people were calm even as sirens were blaring and traffic had ground to a standstill.”
As the immediate fears subsided, bewilderment and disbelief seemed to overcome the delegation. “My thought was what is happening here,” reflected Stencel. “Sitting on the mall [before we got evacuated from there, too] it did not seem real or possible.”
For Farmers Union members, the priority instantly shifted from lobbying members of Congress to simply getting home. While the RMFU delegation cautiously completed the rest of its congressional visits, several members from Minnesota reportedly bought a car to drive back. While most were not bent on means this drastic, some 200 of the 275 members opted not to fly.
Not one to follow the majority, the RMFU delegation chose to wait for a flight, which meant waiting until Friday. “By Thursday afternoon there were people in our group who really wanted to get out of there,” said Stencel. “But considering the circumstances, I think we did the right thing.”
It will be difficult for members of the delegation to return to Washington, D.C., without revisiting many difficult emotions associated with the 2001 NFU Fly-In. “Fear, the anxiety and eventually the sadness are all emotions I will associate with that fly-in,” recalled Dave Carter, RMFU president.