Former Gov. Jane Swift Recalls What It Was Like To Lead On 9/11

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Acting Gov. Jane Swift gives a televised speech about security in Boston and Logan Airport from her office in the Mass. State House in October 2001. (Evan Richman/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Acting Gov. Jane Swift gives a televised speech about security in Boston and Logan Airport from her office in the Mass. State House in October 2001. (Evan Richman/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

On Sept. 11, 2001, Jane Swift had been acting governor of Massachusetts for five months. She lived with her husband and three kids, including infant twins, three hours west of Boston. She was at home with her family that morning when news broke that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers in New York.

Over the coming weeks and months, Swift led a state that was reeling. She met with families of Massachusetts residents killed in the 9/11 attacks, and she and her administration scrutinized security at Logan Airport and across the state.

Swift will deliver the keynote address tomorrow at the state's official 9/11 commemoration ceremony. She spoke with WBUR's Jack Lepiarz on All Things Considered about her memories of Sept. 11 and reflections on all that has happened since.

Interview Highlights

On the moment she found out about the attack:

"That happened to be a morning when I was leaving a little bit later, because I was going to spend my first night away from my babies, which became so ironic to me because some of the stories that hit me the hardest on subsequent days was finding out that there were so many young mothers on that plane who had left their children sleeping at home that morning to go off on a business trip.

"But I had gone for a run. We all remember what a glorious day it was. And when I came back into the house, my husband mentioned that there had been some kind of weird accident in New York City ... So I was sort of half-listening to him, jumping in the shower. And not long after I had gotten into the shower, he was knocking on the door saying that my office had called from Boston and they needed to speak with me immediately ... 'They said specifically they couldn't wait for you to call them back. You need to come now.' ...

"No one realized yet it was terrorism. But we did know it was a hijacking, and we did know it had started at Logan [Airport] ... So job one was for me to get into the car that was coming at a very high rate of speed — the state police car — to pick me up and get to Boston and eastern Mass. as quickly as possible."

On her first priorities, which included deciding to proceed with that day's special election to fill the congressional seat that had opened when Congressman Joe Moakley of Boston died, surrounding herself  with experts in terrorism and other specialties, and summoning her Catholic faith for strength:

"I did something that I remember so strongly on my way into eastern Mass. that day, which is I said a series ... of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, because the event was just so much bigger, I felt, than any person — single person in a leadership position — was completely prepared to deal with. And that's why to this day, I'm so grateful for the experts and individuals who on that day and subsequent days provided me with such great insight and advice ... People in that type of crisis needed to have some sense of stability ... And in that setting, you need to be able to lean on people with subject matter expertise to simplify a confusing situation ... to an understandable sort of, 'You will be safe. This is why. These are the steps we're taking.' "

On the call she got from her husband, a farmer, with what she would come to realize was very wise advice:

"He wanted me to make sure that before I spoke to anyone or made any decisions, I would stop and watch what was happening in New York, because he knew that hearing about the collapse of the Twin Towers was something that you really could not process the enormity of unless you saw it. And we were on the phone and he said, 'Jane, the tower just — the first one — just collapsed.' And I remember being so angry with him because I thought he was exaggerating ... But until I saw on the television screen what had happened, I think for all of us as Americans, that scene of that tower coming down just changed our perceptions of vulnerability, for sure."

On the moments that hit hardest, including when she talked with families who had lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks:

"I have vivid memories, many of them very personal, about many of the interactions with those families, and I think of them very often. But I also realize that any emotions that I had pale in comparison to what those families went through. And the dignity and grace, the generosity that they have shown ... is something that I know isn't as sexy or glamorous as a lot of the conflict and controversy that often makes the headlines. But I hope ... that's what we can take a moment to really bring some spotlight and focus to. So many of those families found a strength to not only just move on, but to give back to others, which I just find extraordinary."

On how she and her children experience 9/11 now, given that they were so young when it happened and therefore can't remember that time:

"Almost every 9/11 — which I often mark very privately — that I can remember, since they were really probably just even in elementary school, all three of my daughters would make sure to check in on me. They knew the stories that I held, the children their age that I worried about ...

"And so ... I have great hopes for their generation. They were formed by the aftermath of 9/11, and they are doing college ... with this virus completely impacting their experience ... And I know many — all — parents ... are terribly worried about the impact of COVID on their children. And that's one of the ways I hope we look to the 9/11 families. I know, because I heard their concerns, how much the parents were worried about the children left behind. And most of those children emerged and survived because of the way that their parents managed through that loss. Hopefully that can be an inspiration to parents who are worried about how they manage their own children through the crisis of COVID."

This segment aired on September 10, 2021.


Headshot of Lynn Jolicoeur

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.


Headshot of Jack Lepiarz

Jack Lepiarz Reporter and Anchor
Jack Lepiarz was a reporter and anchor at WBUR.



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