Many top officials - including a former Pittsburgher - were in meetings or on cell phones when they first heard.
Some were stunned to look out a window and see smoke rising from the Pentagon.
One man was rattled by the explosion at the Pentagon - and again, later, when he learned that of his three sons in New York that day, one had been at the World Trade Center.
They divide, predictably, along party lines over how far we've come since 9/11. Less predictable is their advice for the future - it ranges from energy independence to using biometrics to identify terrorists.
In telephone and e-mail interviews, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review asked a range of current and former officials in New York and Washington about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The questions concentrated on three points: their recollections of that day, how they view the past five years, and where they see us headed in the future. Among those responding to the Trib's questions were Vice President Dick Cheney; CIA director and Pittsburgh native Michael Hayden, who headed the National Security Agency in 2001; Rudy Giuliani, then New York's mayor; Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, then White House special counsel; Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, then heading the Justice Department's criminal division; retired Navy Adm. James Woolsey, a CIA director in the Clinton years; former FBI director Louis Freeh; U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn Hills; U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.; then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; and Steven Emerson, a Washington-based terrorism researcher.
Dick Cheney: "I was in the White House ... My secretary called in just as we were starting to meet, just before 9 a.m., and said an airplane had hit the World Trade Center, and that was the first one that went in. So we turned on the television and watched for a few minutes, and then actually saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. ... (As) soon as that second plane showed up, that's what triggered the thought, 'Terrorism,' that this was an attack."
Rudy Giuliani: "My first thought was, 'How could this happen? Airplanes don't hit the World Trade Center.' I could not register that. The first thing I thought as a mayor is that we have to clear the air space ... find a way to communicate to the people, and find a place to re-establish government.
"... I knew that we had to focus on getting the city through what had happened. That night, I read a book on Winston Churchill by Roy Jenkins. I concentrated on the chapters on World War II."
Michael Chertoff: "I was on the cell phone talking to my (assistant) when the first plane hit the World Trade Center ... and thought, 'Well, that is probably just a small plane or something.' And then, within a matter of moments, he told me a second plane had hit, and we both then realized that it was an attack."
"... It was breathtaking, first of all, to imagine that these individuals had ... managed to hijack and turn three of four planes into weapons -- the fourth, thanks obviously to the people (who) were heroic on board, never actually became a weapon.
"... (The) second thing that I remember thinking was this overwhelming sense of betrayal ... that you could have 19 people walking around the United States of America unbeknownst to us, planning to kill thousands of Americans. Of course, that instantaneously led to the thought, 'How many other people are there among us ... ?'"
Michael Hayden was in a meeting at the National Security Agency when an aide reported that the first plane had hit: "(The) natural instinct at that time was to think it was an accident, and we continued on with our meeting. (Then) my assistant came in and said the other World Trade Center tower had been hit ... We began to hear reports about explosions on the National Mall. Later, we learned that that was the aircraft that hit the Pentagon."
That afternoon, he toured the NSA's counterterrorism offices and recalls "quite a striking scene" of security officers "tacking up black-out curtains on the windows."
James Woolsey was at a meeting in Alexandria when news of the attack in New York broke. Soon after, he was "startled" by an explosion at the Pentagon, just three miles away.
"At the time, I had two sons living in New York, one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan, so I knew that they weren't anywhere near the attacks ... (but it) dawned on me that my third son was up there visiting my other sons. I figured he would be with them. He was not.
"He was coming up from the subway stop of the South Tower of the World Trade Center, just after the first plane hit. He and his friend were standing there with their suitcases ... when a fireman came rushing up to them ... shouting to them to 'Get out! Get out!' And my son, well, being my son, argued with him.
"The fireman spun him around and shoved him and his friend out of the door and shouted after them to 'Get out now!' So they started walking, when they heard a rumble. They then ran through the revolving doors and down the street, and the South Tower collapsed behind them, killing the fireman (who) shoved them out the door only moments before.
"... My first thought after I knew that my family was OK was, 'Go get the bastards!'"
Rick Santorum: "I was at home that morning. ... As I was checking my e-mail, I got a note from a friend that said 'URGENT' in the subject line. All it read was, 'Turn on your TV.' And so I did, just as the second airplane hit. 'Two airplanes?' I thought. 'What a strange coincidence.' But after just a minute I realized it was no coincidence."
Joe Biden was riding a train from Delaware to Washington "when my wife called me and said a plane hit the World Trade Center. My first thought was, 'How could a plane hit the Trade Center on such a clear day?' Then she said another plane just hit the second tower."
Nancy Pelosi was in a meeting at the Capitol when the news broke: "I had no idea until later that the hijackers wanted to fly a plane into the Capitol. Soon I saw smoke coming from the Pentagon, and the Capitol Police evacuated us to safety. ... I knew then that this was going to be one of the worst days in our country's history."
Tom Daschle: "Since cell phones weren't working, I remember standing in a single-file line, waiting for a 'hard' line, with all the other congressional leaders on the top floor of the police headquarters -- where someone had pulled down the shades in an effort to improve our safety -- hoping to reach my wife to tell her that I was OK and to ask her if she had reached our children and family."
Steven Emerson: "Rumors were circulating ... that the State Department was bombed, that the FBI was attacked and the White House was under attack. ... But given the climate of fear and what we had witnessed in New York earlier that morning, every report became plausible."
That afternoon, summoned to a meeting near the White House, he saw "armored personnel carriers, Jeeps and flashing police cars dotted every intersection ... a state of siege the likes of which I could never have imagined."
Alberto Gonzales recalls waiting for President Bush to return to the White House later that day: "As he met us and then entered the White House, he didn't say a word -- he just nodded his head slightly."
The past five years
Cheney: "After 9/11, we adopted a very aggressive strategy that involved a range of activities, but most especially going after the terrorists wherever we could find them, on their ground, going after states that sponsored terror ... . (We've) taken some measures here at home that have been instrumental in collecting the intelligence we need to be able to disrupt attacks ... such things as the Patriot Act and the terrorist surveillance program."
Giuliani: "We are much better prepared in certain areas and certain places, and then there's a lot of work we have to do. But we are trying to make up in five years for 20 or 30 years of not really focusing on the problem -- and for understandable reasons: Something like that had never happened to us ... .
"If you look at airport security, if you look at how the intelligence services have been improved and how we foiled a certain number of these attacks that were going to take place, those things have to make you hopeful."
Gonzales: "We've taken away the home base for al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We've destroyed training camps, cut off funding channels and disrupted means of communication. Architects of the Sept. 11 attacks have been captured and interrogated ... We have learned vital information from them which has enabled us to prevent further attacks."
Chertoff: "Everything that we have done to increase our ability to collect intelligence and to share intelligence has been a very big plus. ... The second element that we have gotten right is that we had to really integrate (and) manage our homeland security, and we did that through the creation of this department."
Woolsey: "(The) most effective (steps) were clearing the Taliban out of Afghanistan and some of the now-criticized steps that the administration took, such as the NSA intercepts (of) al-Qaida communications. ... I think those steps, and some of the things that they were able to do as a result of the Patriot Act passing have helped a lot.
"I think that the president's use of (the phrase) 'Islamofascists' is a step in the right direction, because it implicitly acknowledges that these are totalitarian movements rooted in a portion of one of the world's great religions."
Hayden: "I think that we have gotten a lot of things right, if you look at the success that we had a couple of weeks ago with the plots (to bomb) trans-Atlantic flights ... . We are hitting on all cylinders, in terms of sharing information (among our allies)."
Santorum: "We cannot ignore that our nation hasn't seen another attack on our soil since Sept. 11. We've done the right thing by going on the offensive and taking the fight to the terrorists and to the states that sponsor terrorism. ... (But) there is still much to be done to improve our intelligence-gathering capabilities."
Biden: "We started Afghanistan correctly. We built the case, gained allied support and explained to the Muslim world why we were acting. ... Unfortunately, the (Bush) administration did not commit the resources and diverted to Iraq. As a result, we are now on the verge of losing Afghanistan and chaos in Iraq.
"Instead of moving quickly to prepare our homeland, the administration resisted establishing the Department of Homeland Security ... . Five years later, the 9/11 commission's recommendations have gone unheeded. We do not inspect air cargo and only 5 percent of sea cargo. Our chemical plants are not secured and our first-responders still cannot communicate with one another. The list goes on and on, as does our continued homeland vulnerability."
Pelosi: "The insistence by Congress that a bipartisan, independent commission be established to examine what led up to the 9/11 attacks and the government's response to them was the best thing we have done. The failure to heed the 9/11 Commission's warnings and implement (its) 41 recommendations has been the most serious failure."
Daschle: "I'm afraid that little has been done right since. However, two things that were done right were these: The response on the part of the American people in their willingness to work around-the-clock to help the victims of these tragic acts is an inspiration to this day. ... It was also the right thing for leaders in Congress to put aside their differences, stand on the steps of the Capitol, and defiantly announce our determination to go back to work the next day."
Louis Freeh: "We decided on 9/11 to declare war back against (bin Laden) instead of chasing him with our criminal justice process, something the nation and its leaders -- Democratic and Republican -- were not willing to do before the attacks."
Giuliani: "The biggest concern is the obvious one: Our country is so large, there are so many ways to penetrate us and to attack us, that no matter how much you improve, we're always going to be vulnerable. I was in London a year ago when they were attacked -- and if they can be attacked, we can be attacked. ... So we're always going to have to be on guard. It never ends."
Gonzales: "We need to be better at public relations ... especially with explaining to the American people and to the world what we are doing and why we are doing it. ... Also, we need to be more effective in the area of developing sources. We are much better than we were before ... we have people that can infiltrate these organizations and these cells -- not just al-Qaida, but with terrorists generally. ... But, again, we can be more effective."
Chertoff: "The main way that we protect ourselves is by keeping bad people out ... . One way we could do that is by biometrics, so we are moving to a system where every person that comes into the country from overseas is going to have to give their 10 fingerprints, and we will be able to run those against latent fingerprints that we have picked up. ... It is kind of like taking the concept of 'CSI' and using it before the crime, rather than after the crime.
" ... I think that the strength and future of this country lies in its resilience, in its courage and its love of freedom. ... We have to take the war to the enemy and increase our homeland security, but we have to do them in ways that do not bankrupt ourselves as a country or ... convert it to almost a police state."
Woolsey: "We have to radically improve the resilience of our infrastructure. And some of that is near-term ... because there are parts of our infrastructure that I am sure the head of Iran's ministry of defense is referring to when he points to the '29 sites in the West' (that can) destroy Anglo-Saxon civilization. We better get inside his head and understand those 29 and get them a lot more resilient than we are now.
"... And we need to move decisively away from our dependency on oil, and not in just some long-term way of doing (it) with hydrogen, but much nearer-term than that -- with plug-in hybrids, with alternative fuels like ethanol. And we need to do it fast."
Hayden: "Practically speaking, this comes down to a war of ideas. This is about a vision of the world, and we need to appreciate that. ... We need to be better at that."
Santorum: "Some people would say we're not (at war) ... . I disagree. ... We're at war with Islamic fascism, and Afghanistan and Iraq and southern Lebanon and every country around the world is a front."
Biden: "The President talks about the 'war on terror,' but terrorism is a means, not an end, and very different groups and countries are using it toward very different goals.
"... In fact, it's a war with many fronts. The most urgent is the intersection of the world's most radical groups -- like al-Qaida and the freelancers it has inspired -- with the world's most lethal weapons. But we also must confront groups that use terror not to target us directly, but to advance their own nationalistic causes. We also have to deal with outlaw states that support terror, help resolve a generational war between Arabs and Israelis, as well as face a growing civil war in Iraq and a renewed war in Afghanistan.
"... The Administration has responded to each of these challenges with the same formula: military force and regime change. ... We're fighting a multifaceted war that requires different tools and a comprehensive strategy, rather than just military strength."
Pelosi: "We need to be making better use of technology to stay ahead of those who would attack us, and we should be encouraging more innovation in dealing with all facets of terrorism."
Daschle: "(It) is critical that we avoid looking at the world in stark black and white. Arrogant declarations of righteousness and resolve are harmful and misguided. We must try, once again, to win the hearts and minds of people around the world ... that is where we were on Sept. 12, 2001 -- and that is where we must be in the future."
Freeh: "The issue has and will continue to be Iran, Iran and Iran. This regime has undermined us in Iraq, Lebanon and at the U.N., and the 'cease-fire' in Lebanon is a huge boost for the (Iranian) mullahs and a blow to Israel and the U.S. The nuclear weapons issue is another crisis where Iran appears to maintain the upper hand.
"We have been unwilling to confront this enemy since they seized our embassy and hostages in Tehran two decades ago. We still appear unable to do so, and the stakes keep getting higher."