MOUNT VERNON – On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, something just didn’t feel right to Rob Broeren.
Long before he became Mount Vernon’s law director, Broeren worked as an associate attorney at a law firm called Covington & Burling. He was 32 years old, the father of a two-year-old and a two-month-old, already with law licenses in three states. His firm was bustling and competitive – it held around 350 lawyers at the time, he recalled.
It was also located in downtown Washington, D.C. It was here – in a 13-story building on 1201 Pennsylvania Avenue NW – where Broeren worked on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Just four blocks from the White House, 12 blocks from the Capitol, and within eyeshot of the Pentagon.
“I don’t remember what I was working on that day,” Broeren recalled, “but it just had an odd feel, the building did.”
Moments later, he would watch as terror unfolded – first in New York, then across the Potomac River. He would witness the smoke, the panic, the pain. It’s something he thinks about every year on Sept. 11. The details of that morning and the days that followed are still fresh in his mind.
How could he forget?
‘All circuits are busy’
The first thing Broeren remembers is a question.
“Did you hear about what’s going on in New York?” one of his fellow associates asked him that morning.
“No,” Broeren replied, already knee-deep in the day’s tasks.
“It was something about, there were buildings on fire or planes into buildings,” Broeren recalled in his office Tuesday. “I don’t remember exactly what.”
Broeren rushed upstairs to find a large crowd of co-workers huddled around a television set. Two hijacked airplanes had already struck the World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan – the first at 8:46 a.m., the second at 9:03 a.m.
Broeren walked out onto the building’s 12th-floor balcony and turned to his right. Just beyond the Potomac River, he saw smoke emerging from the Pentagon. Moments earlier, the third target had been claimed.
It was at that point, he said, when people began talking about the tragedies as terrorist attacks. People began wondering what the next target would be. Broeren and his firm of 300-plus stood at the heart of the nation’s capital as shock turned into fear.
Broeren tried calling his then-wife multiple times, but he kept getting the same message back: “All circuits are busy.” She was trying to reach him, too. Broeren’s wife was staying home with their two young children that day, watching Teletubbies on PBS, and had not heard of the attacks until Broeren’s brother called her.
“Is Rob OK?” he asked. “What’s going on?” she responded.
It took almost an hour for Broeren and his wife to connect over the phone. 18 years later, Broeren still remembers that conversation.
“I remember what she said clearly. She said, ‘Is there any reason you’re still four blocks from the next target?’” Broeren recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, we’re still trying to figure out how to get out.’”
It would not be an easy task. As Broeren peered out the 12th-floor windows, he saw vehicles bumper-to-bumper on Pennsylvania Avenue below.
“Even early in the morning it was just gridlock,” he said. “Everybody was trying to get the heck out of Dodge.”
Broeren rode the Metro rail line to work that day, as he did most days. The line he took, however, ran underneath the White House. Too risky, he thought.
Eventually, Broeren and a group of his fellow associates devised an escape plan. They would walk as far around the White House as they could – south to Constitution Avenue (which runs parallel to the Mall), 10 blocks west and then north again, until they hit the Orange Line. This train would take them out to Virginia, which they presumed would be far safer than downtown D.C.
Broeren, who lived in Falls Church, Virginia at the time, remembers the train ride home like it was yesterday.
“We got on there, and there were a group of three or four of us sort of huddled there, sort of staring at other groups of people,” Broeren said. “The metro was always – it wasn’t loud, but there was a familiar sort of, you know, rustle. People would read their newspapers, people would be talking quietly with people they were with, things of that nature.
“I just remember the only thing I heard was the hum of the metro going home.”
Broeren made it home, still numb.
“You hug your family and you thank God that you’re safe, and you think about the people who aren’t,” he recalled.
Falls Church is a small neighborhood, approximately 10 miles west of D.C., across the Potomac. As Broeren and his wife sat out in the yard that night, they heard only the loud buzz of fighter jets circling overhead. They later learned this was a safety measure; jets were making a figure-eight pattern across the region, keeping guard in case another plane was hijacked.
“It was pretty eerie,” Broeren said.
‘It was still raw’
The days and weeks that followed were a concentrated effort to return to normal.
But what happened to the Pentagon – and America – on Sept. 11, 2001 would change things forever.
“It really sort of changed the way a lot of people – or at least a lot of parts of the government – dealt with security,” Broeren said.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the federal government poured resources into increasing airport security, creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and implementing a stricter pre-boarding process. It passed the Patriot Act, which was aimed at strengthening national security and preventing future terrorism. Government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security were created for the same purpose.
The reaction in D.C. was swift and forceful. The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, previously open to vehicles, was dug up and closed off. “It’s never coming back,” Broeren said. In the days and weeks that followed 9/11, Humvees with large machine guns on top lined the Pentagon’s perimeter. The fighter jets didn’t stop circling overhead for weeks, Broeren recalled.
“It just made you very aware of your circumstances,” he said. “There were people ready to go all the time.”
Shortly after the attacks, Broeren found himself uniquely positioned to aid in the recovery effort.
Various bar associations had put out a notice saying they were looking for attorneys to represent the families of those who lost loved ones in the Pentagon that day. Covington & Burling put its firm on the list.
Most of the people who worked in the Pentagon lived in Virginia, however, which meant they needed Virginia-licensed lawyers. Broeren recalled being one of just six lawyers in his firm to have a Virginia license (he also held licenses in D.C. and Ohio). He gladly made himself available to anyone who needed help.
Around that time, a woman named Elizabeth Hornberger was looking through the list of available attorneys. Her daughter, Molly McKenzie, was one of the 125 people killed in the Pentagon on 9/11. She was a budget analyst and a 14-year Army civilian. She had two daughters, 11 and 13. She was 38 years old.
Interestingly enough, McKenzie also had deep ties to Mount Vernon, Ohio. She graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 1981 and went on to attend Mount Vernon Nazarene College, where she graduated with a degree in business administration in 1985. Her mother still lived in the city.
Hornberger needed an attorney to help handle estate issues following McKenzie’s passing. Broeren had not yet moved to Mount Vernon, but he’d graduated from Kenyon College a decade earlier. She made the Knox County connection and decided to give him a call.
Broeren met with Hornberger and one of McKenzie’s sisters shortly thereafter. They were working through a difficult family situation at the time, and Broeren’s firm helped in the negotiation process when it came to McKenzie’s estate. Broeren called it a “privilege” to work pro-bono for the family during that time.
“I was privileged to assist them in what was truly a horrific time,” he said. “Not only are they dealing with the loss of their child, but also they have two grandchildren that they’re trying to do the best for.”
It was unlike anything Broeren had ever worked on before, or anything he’d work on since. He still remembers sitting with McKenzie’s family in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when it all still seemed surreal.
“It was still raw,” he said. “I mean, the hurt and just the bewilderment was still raw.”
‘A clear attack’
Broeren and his family did not know anyone personally who was directly impacted by the September 11 attacks.
But what happened on that day – when Broeren saw smoke drifting from the Pentagon; when his wife called from home, where she waited anxiously with their two children; when he heard nothing but the hum of the train and the buzz of the fighter jets – changed him.
Up until that point, Broeren had thrived in the ultra-competitive, fast-paced environment his law firm – and the nation’s capital – presented. But when 9/11 occurred, it caused Broeren to take a step back.
“I worked a lot in D.C. and had two very young children,” Broeren said. “And there was a lot of thought about, ‘Is that really what I want to do?’ Yeah, you work a lot and they pay you well, but I mean, I have these two beautiful little children...”
Broeren realized what was truly important to him: family. He needed a change of pace, a fresh start. One year later, Broeren and his wife moved to Knox County, where she was raised, and he began another chapter. Broeren would occupy various law and university-related jobs before joining the Mount Vernon law director’s office in 2009. He became law director in August of 2014, making it five years in the position this summer.
When Broeren looks back on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he recalls how quickly his survival instincts kicked in.
“You’re frightened, but there’s also trying to figure out, ‘OK, what do I do next?’” he said. “I’m a problem solver, that’s what I do. So it was [trying to] figure out, ‘I need to get home, how do I do that? What’s the safest way and the way that’s actually going to get me there?’”
Despite the traumatic nature of what occurred that day, Broeren said he does not experience flashbacks or anything similar. He considers himself lucky.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky not to have what I believe are any sort of long-term issues with that,” he said, “but I’m sure there are lots of people that do, some of whom were much closer than I was to what happened.”
Still, Broeren said he thinks about what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 every time its anniversary rolls around. He thinks about the people he was with, including friends from Covington & Burling who he still stays in touch with. He might reach out to one or two of them, just to check in.
The aftershock of 9/11 shook the entire nation. It rattled the U.S. to its core, instilling a sense of domestic vulnerability never-before felt by many citizens.
As someone who stood near the center of it all that day, Broeren called it “a clear attack on the United States and our country, our way of life.”
He encourages people to remember those who lost their lives that day – both the victims of the attacks and the first responders who tried to save them – and to take something from such a tragic time.
“I think it’s just to remember that we were attacked and to remain vigilant;” Broeren said, “to think about what we can do to make sure that that never occurs again.”