Allen Payne: ‘9/11 was our Pearl Harbor moment — we knew we had enemies’

Unidentified US government workers mill around near the White House and the Old Executive Office building 11 September, 2001, in Washington, DC.

U.S. Justice Department employee recalls the day of chaos and panic near the White House on 9/11

Allen Payne worked at the Justice Department in a building two blocks from the White House. “We were shocked and angry when the planes hit the WTC,” he recalls. “And then we realized that we might be next.” Rumors soon swirled that the White House and the State Department had been attacked. Government workers were soon told to go home as heavily armed police cordoned off the area, backed up by helicopters and armed vehicles. “It was frightening walking past the White House, seeing people run out and people moving everyone,” says Payne.

This started his walk home — shared by tens of thousands of other Washington workers who had no other way of reaching their homes. “I stopped in [upscale neighborhood] Georgetown, where the bars were open. They were packed with people watching the news on TV.” Then, crossing over the bridge, he saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon. “9/11 was our Pearl Harbour moment,” he reflects. “We knew we had enemies and knew they could be unconventional, but who could have expected this? We used to think we were insulated from violence.”


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