The invitation arrived by messenger with the return address "The White House". Geof Gradler, a young Congressional staffer and new member of Majority Whip Tom DeLay's staff, opened his invitation to the annual Congressional picnic hosted by the President and First Lady. Members of Congress and their families were invited to a Texas Style Barbecue on the South Lawn of the White House on the afternoon of September 11. Gradler tucked the invitation back into the hand-addressed envelope. He knew his boss, a Republican from Texas, wouldn't miss this event. He made a mental note of the date.
Tuesday, September 11 dawned clear with beautiful blue skies over the nation's capital. At the White House 160 picnic tables already dotted the lawn and Tom Perini of Buffalo Gap, Texas began setting up his chuck wagons and barbecue pits. Seven hundred pounds of beef tenderloin, 400 pounds of catfish, and other Southern specialties like green chile hominy had been shipped to Washington, DC for the menu planned by the First Lady herself. It promised to be a splendid late summer evening for the 1,400 folks from Capitol Hill who would attend and socialize Texas-style: enjoying barbecue, old-fashioned square dancing, and dancing to the Texas swing music of Ray Benson and his band, "Asleep at the Wheel".
On his morning drive to the US Capitol, Geof Gradler missed a call from his wife. When he retrieved her message he learned that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. He turned on his car radio and heard the audible gasp of the DJ as he informed his listeners that a second plane had hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Gradler parked his car at the Rayburn House Office Building and shuttled to the Capitol, as usual, but when he arrived at his office, H 107 on the first floor of the south side of the Capitol, he found emotional colleagues watching television coverage of the events in New York. Seeing images of the destruction of the Twin Towers for the first time, he struggled to grasp the magnitude of the event. When the news of the attack on the Pentagon broke into the live coverage from New York, the staffers in H 107 became increasingly uncomfortable. There was an unspoken sense that the Capitol too was a target.
Within minutes of hearing the news of the attack at the Pentagon, Gradler made a decision to leave the Capitol. He exited via the House's historic Statuary Hall, and as he passed the impressive collection of figures that represent the States, he fought the urge to verbally shout an evacuation warning to the tourists who were milling about the hall. Abandoning his car, Gradler walked to Independence Avenue and got into a cab. As he slid into the seat he looked toward the Pentagon. Black smoke obscured the once-perfect blue sky. At the Washington Monument Gradler looked back toward the US Capitol, expecting to see a stray plane flying toward the Capitol dome. Instead he caught a glimpse of the 9:45 am evacuation of the Capitol. He watched as a helicopter landed on the Capitol lawn to transport the leaders of Congress to an undisclosed, safe location on a day of national tragedy and crisis.
The White House was also evacuated that morning, and when Tom Perini, the cowboy-chef on hand to cook for the Congressional picnic, learned of the attack at the Pentagon and the cancellation of the picnic, he placed calls offering to donate the food that had been prepared. Much of the meal was sent across the river to Arlington, Virginia to serve first responders at the Pentagon; some of the food was served to the law enforcement officers tasked with calming the city of Washington, DC. Perini and his staff spent most of September 11 within sight of two of the nation's most beloved historic treasures – the White House and the US Capitol – both evacuated as potential terrorist targets.
Later that day Geof Gradler learned that a fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, had crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. He realized Flight 93 was most likely enroute to the Capitol, and as time passed, he developed a deep feeling of gratitude for the actions of the passengers and crew of Flight 93 and for his very life.
Just as President Bush returned to Washington, DC on the evening of September 11, an impromptu gathering of Congress on the steps of the US Capitol demonstrated their resolve and bi-partisan unity. Mr. DeLay requested that his staff, including Gradler, report to H 107 on September 12, determined to move forward "as if nothing had happened." Putting aside concerns for personal safety, Members of Congress and hundreds of staffers, including Geof Gradler, reported to their Capitol offices on Wednesday, September 12 to carry on the work of the 107th Congress, including the nation's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
A year later the President and Mrs. Bush invited Tom Perini back to Washington, DC to resume the tradition of the Congressional picnic. That fall Perini and his cowboys catered a Texas-themed, Texas-sized gathering for Capitol Hill officials and their families.
Geoff Gradler generously contributed professional photographs of his Congressional Barbecue invitation to Flight 93 National Memorial for inclusion in the permanent exhibit after visiting the Memorial and recording his 9/11 story for the Memorial's oral history collection. Gradler is a Pennsylvania native who resides in Charleston, South Carolina. He left Capitol Hill to become a partner in a consulting firm in Washington, DC.