City Life

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's escape during 9/11

While coerced to leave, Thompson made his getaway

On 9/11, Tommy G. Thompson was given official orders by the vice president of the United States to evacuate to an underground bunker. While Thompson was set on staying in his office to mobilize medical support, he was coerced to leave. But that didn’t stop him from making a getaway.

Editor’s Note: Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson was secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks that day — on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon and a hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania — demanded immediate mobilization of Thompson’s department and other federal agencies. Thompson, with co-author Doug Moe, dedicated a chapter to that moment in his new memoir “Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime.” What follows is an edited excerpt of that chapter. 

The first official word we received from the White House on Sept. 11 came from Vice President Dick Cheney, who was underground, under the East Wing, in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. Cheney wanted me — along with numerous other cabinet secretaries and top government officials — to be evacuated to a secure location, part of a “continuity of government” strategy that may be invoked after catastrophic events. U.S. marshals would escort me to a helicopter that would fly me to Mount Weather, a huge underground government complex built into a mountain west of Washington in Virginia.

I didn’t want to go.

We were working hard, mobilizing medical teams and supplies for New York, making the kinds of decisions — we wound up evacuating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta — that required me to be in my office.

I didn’t talk to Cheney directly, but word came back, through my security detail, that I didn’t have a choice.

“You’re ordered to go.”

“I’m not going,” I said. I believe this was at about noon.

One of my security officers left the room, came back and said, “They’re telling us the helicopters are going at one o’clock and you’re going to be on one — even if they have to put you under arrest.”

I said, “Well, then let them arrest me.”

I was angry. I was sure some cabinet officers, like Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, weren’t being forced to leave.

Finally, a little before 12:30 p.m., two of my top security officers, Jay Hodes and Mike Lonetto, came in and said this was it. I had to be at the staging area in 15 minutes or I’d be arrested and taken anyway.

I was still upset. “It will take more than the two of you,” I said.

Somebody suggested that Jay and Mike step outside for a moment, which they did. Members of my staff pointed out that it would not look good if a cabinet secretary was arrested on the day of the attacks.

They were right, of course. I exhaled and said, “All right. I’ll go.”

But I asked Mike, my best friend on the security detail, to join me for a moment.

I said, “Michael, I don’t know where this Mount Weather is, and I don’t know if you know, but you need to find out and after I leave, I want you to drive out there.”

He was staring at me.

“I am going to find a way out of there,” I said, “and you are going to drive me back.”

I knew I could count on Mike.

They had helicopters staged for most of the secretaries down by the Washington Monument. I think the flight took about 20 minutes and then we landed at what is essentially a huge underground city established by President Eisenhower for use in the event of nuclear war.

Once inside, we had to sign in, and they gave us blankets and assigned us rooms. When I got to mine, I threw the blankets on the bed and asked if I could look around. They said I could. I walked maybe a half mile before I found a back entrance. I went out the back door, and there was Mike, in a vehicle. 

I got in the back seat and said, “Mike, get me to my office.” He started driving back to Washington. ... On Sept. 11, Mike got me back to the Humphrey Building sometime before 4 p.m. ...

It was good I came back from Mount Weather, because early that evening — around 6 p.m. or so — I got a call telling me that President Bush was going to be arriving back in Washington shortly and wanted me at the White House to speak to the press. Kevin Keane, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, rode over with me. It was dusk and the streets of the city were deserted, an eerie sensation.

When I got to the White House I was led to the Roosevelt Room, a conference room in the West Wing across the hall from the Oval Office, where I was eventually joined by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh. We were watching the news on television when the president walked in. I think it was about 7 p.m. He had a look of grim determination on his face and said he would be addressing the nation from the Oval Office. The president asked us to go to the press room and give the reporters an update on our early response to the terrorist attacks. 

I remember Ashcroft saying the full force of U.S. law enforcement would be brought to bear in the investigation and that the perpetrators would be caught. I talked about the medical supplies we’d rushed to New York City. A reporter asked me how many body bags we’d shipped. I declined to answer that one. We didn’t know the death toll and I certainly didn’t want to speculate. A few minutes later, in his address to the nation, Bush gave an indication that the numbers would be horrendous when he said, “Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil.” 

I was back at the Humphrey Building at 5 a.m. the next morning and stood by the main entrance shaking hands and thanking the HHS employees who decided to come to work — more than half of them. I was proud of them. ...

The following morning, Sept. 13, HHS Deputy General Counsel Stewart Simonson, Keane and I took an Amtrak train to New York City. I was the first cabinet secretary to visit after the attack. ... I felt I needed to see things firsthand, and the mayor assigned some police officers to accompany us, first to Ground Zero.

I will always remember that day. Driving over from the police academy, I was struck by how quiet the city was, the shock still palpable. As we got close to Ground Zero, the stoplights weren’t operational, yet no one was honking horns. Cars took turns, and there was no pushing or shoving by pedestrians. It was everybody coming together in a time of crisis. The closer we got, the thicker the fog of dust and debris became. Firefighters, emergency medical personnel and construction crews — trying to dig through the rubble — were on the scene. The buildings appeared to still be smoldering.

I took off my jacket and tie, rolled up my sleeves, and put on a mask. I felt like the most immediate good I could do was to walk around and offer encouragement to the men and women who were working, many with little sleep, at the scene. The presence of EMTs indicated there was still hope of finding survivors, and I will never forget that while we were walking we heard someone cry out that a man had been found alive in an automobile near where one of the buildings had collapsed. I was never able to confirm if that was true. I hope so. ...

The hardest part of our day came at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, where we met Dr. Charles Hirsch, an impressive man who himself had been injured when the towers came down. He showed us the receiving area where bags with body parts were being unloaded from ambulances and then taken to be catalogued for identification. It was terribly solemn and I was struck by the dignity with which Hirsch and his staff treated these human remains. People were coming into the office with hairbrushes and toothbrushes of their missing family members, for possible DNA matches. It was heartbreaking. ...

I am extremely proud of how Health and Human Services responded to the crisis in New York. Our team included rescue workers and public health professionals from CDC and the HHS Commissioned Corps Readiness Force, along with volunteer health and mortuary professionals who were part of our National Disaster Medical System — some 2,000 people in all.

We aided more than 9,500 rescue workers with injuries ranging from skin irritation to broken bones and heart failure. We assisted the medical examiner’s office in processing 15,528 human specimens and identifying 750 victims. Our veterinary teams treated 900 dogs for exhaustion, dehydration, sore paws and burnt noses. ... 

One immediate step we took at HHS endures to this day. In the weeks after 9/11, I decided I needed an on-site operations center — it quickly got labeled the war room — which would help the department coordinate our response to an emergency. At the time, the department’s operations center was in Bethesda, Maryland, which hindered our communications during the chaos on 9/11.

We had the beginnings of a new center — computers, fax machines and TVs — up and going almost immediately. It was staffed around the clock, in a conference room across from my office. Eventually, when things quieted down a bit, we completely remodeled and upgraded it into a state-of-the-art operations center that connected us to every division in HHS and the health departments in many countries. It had its own ventilation system, in case of chemical attack. I wanted to be able to have face-to-face meetings, so we put in a videoconferencing system and paid for installation of an emergency command center at the headquarters of the World Health Organization. ...

I’m proud of that operations center, which was named for me. I don’t know if my name survived the Obama administration, but I am sure his team was grateful to have it. They no doubt laughed when they saw one aspect of the center. On a large map, one city was far and away most prominently displayed, in letters big enough that anyone would think this place must be the center of the universe.

To me, it is. Elroy, Wisconsin, of course.

Excerpted and adapted from “Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime” by Tommy G. Thompson and Doug Moe. Reprinted with permission from the University of Wisconsin Press. ©2018 by the Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.


Madison Magazine Subscription

Get Madison Magazine delivered to your office or home.

Gift subscriptions now available!

Subscribe Now

Dining & Drink

Sign-up for our event newsletter

This Week's Circulars