2 Planes Were Hijacked on Her Watch: ‘I Was Broken by Being Blamed' for 9/11

Virginia Buckingham, who ran Boston Logan International Airport on September 11, 2001, felt a sense of guilt for a long time, wondering if she could really be responsible for the worst terror attack on U.S. soil

"Our stories of 9/11 are the things that unite us still, like the sense of unity we felt in those first days and months after the attacks. Except I never felt that way. I was the head of Boston's Logan Airport on September 11, 2001. On my watch, American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 were hijacked after leaving Logan and then flown into the World Trade Center. The first news story suggesting I might be fired in response to the hijackings appeared on September 13. A media frenzy followed. Six weeks after 9/11, Massachusetts's governor forced me to resign. I was later notified that a 9/11 family had sued me, holding me personally responsible for the wrongful death of their loved one. For many years, I feared that the blame directed at me was deserved. I was broken by being blamed for the hijackings. Not instantly, not shattered like handblown glass, but over time. Like a bottle tossed into the sea, tumbled apart bit by bit by the movement of the waves," Virginia Buckingham writes in her memoir, titled "On My Watch."

On 9/11, she was the head of Massport, which oversees Boston's Logan International Airport.

It has taken two decades for Ginny to build herself back to who she is today.

Even 20 years later, she will tell you she hasn't "moved on" -- she's "moved forward."

"It's painful, not just for me - I think for everyone who went through it," Ginny said when asked if it's still hard to talk about the day that changed America forever.

Ginny felt like we all did on 9/11 -- scared, vulnerable -- but she also felt responsible, because that's what a lot of people kept telling her.

Now, she's sharing her story of blame, self doubt and resilience through the toughest day, weeks, months and years America will never forget.

Courtesy Virginia Buckingham

'Ginny Buckingham still isn't a stay-at-home mom'

"One of the columns in the Globe actually said that Osama bin Laden was laughing in his cave at what passes for leadership at Massport," Buckingham said. "It was a great reminder how important words are."

"Maybe that was a nice, funny, off-hand, clever thing to say in some column, but it was really painful."

Just days after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, the news coverage in Boston started to focus in on Virginia Buckingham.

On Sept. 19, 2001, an article in The Boston Herald asked, "When do the heads start to roll at Massport? It's been over a week now, and Ginny Buckingham still isn't a stay-at-home mom."

Ginny was five weeks pregnant when terrorists hijacked two planes that left Logan and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York City.

Another headline in the Herald said, "Pregnancy is no excuse for Ginny's fiascos."

"It got ugly. It got personal. And I began to take it to heart, which was, I think, the worst part," Ginny said.

The news coverage made Ginny question a lot about herself - and she even wondered whether she deserved to miscarry her baby.

"I stopped listening to myself. I stopped listening to what I knew was true, and I started to believe, especially after I got sued for wrongful death, that maybe it was true that I did something wrong, that they missed something. And I considered myself so competent and such a leader that I should have seen ... What I didn't see was how I started to believe it. And I mean, my daughter is everything to me. And at that moment when I was having that test, I did think maybe I deserved to lose her," Ginny said.

She felt that sense of guilt for a long time, wondering if she could really be responsible for the worst terror attack on U.S. soil.

Ultimately, the 9/11 Commission would say no -- there was nothing specific about Logan airport that the hijackers targeted -- but for years, those questions were unrelenting.

Everywhere Ginny turned, the headlines followed.

A headline in The Boston Herald on Sept. 27, 2001 read, "Passing the buck won't fly at Logan."

And the articles questioned her credibility as head of one of the nation's largest airports.

"We may never know the extent that unqualified executives played in terrorists assuming that Logan was a cinch ... It cannot be an accident that terrorists thought they could board not one, but two airplanes at Logan," The Boston Globe wrote on Sept. 28, 2001.

"When you're accused of missing, missing the ball and causing the deaths of thousands of people, I began to wonder if it was true, if there was something I could have done," Ginny told us.

The day of the attacks

The morning of September 11, 2001, Virginia Buckingham was waking up and getting ready to fly to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with the FAA.

Two terrorists were already in the air.

They had made it through security in Portland, Maine, and would switch planes in Boston.

By 7:30 a.m., there were five terrorists on board United Flight 175 and five on American Flight 11, both leaving Boston's Logan International Airport.

Ginny's flight to D.C. wouldn't leave for a few more hours.

At 7:59 a.m., Flight 11 takes off from Logan, heading to Los Angeles.

Fifteen minutes later, Flight 175 is just getting in the air.

At 8:19 AM, a troubling message from flight attendant Betty Ong on board Flight 11.

"Um, the cockpit's not answering. Somebody's stabbed in business class. And, um, I think there's Mace, that we can't breathe ... I don't know, I think we're getting hijacked," Ong said in the call released in the years after the attacks.

Minutes later, air traffic control heard a chilling message from the cockpit of that plane.

"We have some planes. Just stay quiet and we'll be O.K. We are returning to the airport," hijacker Mohamed Atta could be heard telling passengers on board Flight 11.

At 8:45 a.m., Ginny stopped for her morning coffee as the first plane, Flight 11, crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

"I always listened to the news on the radio and was listening when the first report came across about a plane striking the tower," Ginny said. "And Like many people, I've since read the president himself at the time thought it was just a small plane, of course - and that's what I thought. That's terrible. And I got a call from my office saying, 'Do you want to cancel your trip?' And I was like, 'No, I'm not letting the FAA out of this," referring to her meeting in Washington, D.C., that day.

Ginny was listening to the radio when the report came across about the second plane hitting the World Trade Center.

At this point, she knew it wasn't an accident.

"It wasn't that many minutes later that I got a call again from Logan saying six words that have sat in my heart and my soul ever since, which were 'Two planes are off the radar' - and we didn't know for sure they were from Logan, but we knew planes were missing," Ginny said.

Ginny raced to Logan airport, as an aide to President George W. Bush whispered into his ear during a visit to an elementary school in Florida what had happened.

When Ginny arrived at the airport and watched footage of the second plane, the reality took a long time to settle in.

"It was just surreal - and at the time, we didn't know if there were more out there. We didn't know what else was going to happen. We had reports that there were other Logan planes missing," Ginny said.

Because the FAA had grounded all planes, her team worked to track down every single plane to make sure there were no other flights missing.

At 9:30 a.m., Bush addressed the nation for the first time, from the elementary school in Florida he was visiting that morning.

"Today, we've had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country," Bush said. "Terrorism against our nation will not stand."

Over the next half hour, more devastation.

Both the South Tower and the North Tower collapsed.

"The two planes that destroyed the towers came from here -- and, obviously, the other planes killed people and brought a lot of destruction -- but the two that destroyed those Twin Towers and killed thousands of people came from here. And I think people were terrified and angry and needed to place their anger somewhere and to feel like they were doing something about it. And I became that person," Ginny said, while reflecting on the blame she felt in Boston.

Poet Joan Murray wrote "Survivors – Found" on an NYC-bound Amtrak train four days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She met some firemen who were on their way to look for survivors and was inspired to write about those who survived that day. Twenty years later, we look back on that day through her words.

The nightmares

"I was at Ground Zero. How did I get beyond the construction fence? I didn't remember. I was breathing hard from the climb. I was at the top of the tallest crane. 'I shouldn't be here!' My heart pounded in fear. I looked down. Into the pit. 'I don't belong here!' 'Join us. Join us.' Voices called to me from the darkness below. 'You belong here,' they said. 'Join us.' I took a gun out of my jacket. I placed the cold metal next to my temple. 'I do belong here.' I was falling," Ginny wrote in her memoir.

The nation's nightmare was just the beginning of the emotional and psychological torture Ginny Buckingham would go through.

She constantly relived the horror of seeing the second plane hit the World Trade Center. The ball of fire. The black smoke.

"It was always a constant theme -- it was a plane crashing that I would see, and see it breaking apart, and I would try to get to where the crash site was so I could help ... and I never could get there. And I had that dream so many times over the last 20 years."

Courtesy Virginia Buckingham

The rise & fall of Ginny's career

The seventh of eight children, Ginny learned to negotiate, a skill key to politics.

She attended Boston College.

She interned for Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis.

She volunteered on the campaign for Republican Govs. Bill Weld and Paul Celluci.

They won, and Ginny worked her way up the ranks -- press secretary, then chief of staff.

In 1999, Ginny was on maternity leave with her first child, Jack, when the governor's office asked her to take a new job leading the agency that's in charge of Logan Airport.

Ginny loved being chief of staff, and she was learning how she would balance work and motherhood.

She repeatedly turned down the Massport job, until Celluci personally asked her to take the job, one that had long been appointed based on the governor's recommendation.

"As chief of staff, I'd been dealing with them. Their big priority was to build a new runway and they wanted the governor's support. And so we were in contact a lot about that project, but not in terms of the day to day operations," Ginny said.

Ginny said she felt prepared for the job.

Courtesy Virginia Buckingham

"The job was not landing planes at Logan airport or bringing ships into the harbor. It was setting the agenda and driving the agenda -- in communicating the purpose of the organization, working with the neighborhoods and the politicians who were often opposed to what Massport was trying to do, all of which I had done in my previous roles," Ginny told us. "I knew I was completely qualified."

When terrorists hijacked two planes that left Logan and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York City, Ginny's qualifications got called in question fast.

She had no aviation experience.

On Sept. 16, 2001, five days after 9/11, The Boston Globe focused in on previous security incidents at Logan under her leadership -- including FAA agents who were able to get through security 60 times between 1999-2000.

Ginny said Massport was in the middle of a security audit to see what they could do on their own but was clear about the agency's responsibility with security at the time, which was before the inception of the TSA.

"At the time, security was broken into different layers of responsibility. So, Massport was responsible for the terminals and for the perimeter, and the FAA was responsible for the airspace, and the airlines were responsible for the checkpoints," she said.

In the days after 9/11, Ginny expressed the need to federalize the checkpoints, by taking the responsibility away from the airlines and turning it over to law enforcement.

When asked if she thought that came across as an excuse, Ginny said, "I do. I think that it was too scary to think that it was not claimable on something tangible. And, and, I don't blame the airlines either. I think the terrorists determined how to take our country down and they did it. And if they wanted to do it, they were going to, no matter what. But the truth is that our security system was so divided."

"The idea that al Qaeda was going to use airline commercial aircraft as weapons wasn't on anyone's radar screen, certainly not mine. And I struggled with that. And that has given me incredible heartache."

At the time, Ginny told reporters, "I firmly believe that what happened here could have happened anywhere. But I think the investigation will ultimately bear that out and I think we ought to wait to see what that investigation shows. If it shows something unique to Logan airport, unique to Massport, myself and everyone here is willing to accept that responsibility."

Twenty years later, Ginny doesn't necessarily regret saying that, but she did say she wishes she "had the strength and clarity to say, 'This is just not real and not true,' but I didn't, and I forgive myself for that."

The blame game

On Sept. 15, 2001, four days after 9/11, Ginny reopened Logan airport.

She kept it closed longer than every other airport except Reagan outside Washington, D.C.

"Senator Kerry and Senator Kennedy both came in, provided a lot of comfort and leadership. You know, they basically said, 'What do you need? Anything you need, we'll ... we'll take care of it," she said.

Virginia Buckingham told us she had been passing constant information to acting Gov. Jane Swift and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino about what was happening at Logan.

Ginny said she invited Swift to come to Logan, but she declined -- as did the mayor.

She wouldn't talk to the governor for days.

"I was told I couldn't communicate with her anymore by her chief of staff, because the distancing of wanting to protect her. They told me I could not call her directly," Ginny said. "I understood that's how politics can work. I just expected that because this was an attack on our country, in a world changing event, that politics as usual wasn't going to be how it would unfold. But I was dead wrong."

On Sept. 21, 2001, Ginny was at a meeting at the Massachusetts State House.

She said Swift asked her to wait, as everyone else left.

"She said that she didn't know how it was going to turn out, that she knew Massport couldn't have done anything to change it, but that she was grateful I knew how politics worked and how the media worked - and that's how she was able to sleep at night," Ginny said.

Swift declined our request for an interview.

The whispers

The politics of it all wasn't the only drama Ginny would have to face.

Even when she'd be getting a coffee, people would whisper.

"I was afraid a little bit, because there was so much anger out there," Ginny said.

"Afraid of what?" we asked.

"Someone taking out the anger in a physical way," Ginny said.

"You mean being assaulted in public?"

"Yes, or my child being harmed somehow," she said.

The resignation & the lawsuit

Ginny Buckingham never got to fix the security problems she had been so outspoken about in the days and weeks after 9/11.

On Oct. 25, 2001, a month and a half after the terror attacks, she would step down as head of Massport.

"With the support of Governor Jane Swift, I was able to lead Massport through this historic crisis. Responsible and solid action plans are in place for Logan in particular, and Massport in general. The public is slowly returning to its travel plans," she said at the time. "I've advised Governor Swift that I will resign effective November 15th."

The story didn't stop with her resignation.

Ginny was sued personally for wrongful death.

"Learning that a widow and a mom of two little kids blamed me for her husband's death was the most shattering thing I've ever had to go through. And I understand it's not as shattering as what she had to go through. I'm not saying it is, but it broke my heart," Ginny said.

"After I was sued, I wasn't sure I could bear it. I really wasn't sure I could bear being personally blamed by a victim. Um, and I drove to the beach and considered driving the car into the water until I couldn't breathe. And then I thought about Jack and Maddy and that they didn't deserve not to have a mom. They didn't do anything wrong and it took all my willpower to pull back out of that beach parking lot and come home. And I went to my son's bed, who was probably three at this point, and I promised him I would never leave him. And he became, and they became, my determination to find my way back to myself."

Courtesy Virginia Buckingham

'Nothing to apologize for'

Even if she wasn't ready to move on emotionally, Ginny knew she needed to professionally.

At the beginning of 2003, she took on a new career - deputy editorial page editor at The Boston Herald.

Even though some of the headlines that criticized her pregnancy were published in the Herald in the days after 9/11, Ginny wanted to live out her childhood dream of being a professional writer.

Forty of her soon-to-be colleagues signed a petition sent to the paper's editor, saying she shouldn't be hired.

While that controversy passed, the sense of blame did not.

Two-and-a-half years after 9/11, in the spring of 2004, Ginny was still a magnet for anger and hostility.

It had hovered over her for years -- even as she tried to turn the page on her life's story.

She would get harassing phone calls while at work at the Herald, going so far as to demand an apology for the terror attacks.

"Very hesitantly, and quietly, and not strongly at all, I said I had nothing to apologize for," she said -- and then she hung up.

'Their judgment would be my judgment day'

On July 22, 2004, the 9/11 Commission released its findings in a televised news conference.

There was no mention of Logan airport.

Ginny had hoped it would clear Logan.

She was still fearful.

She felt no mention of Logan wasn't an answer to the question that had surrounded her for years -- whether she was to blame.

She needed to see the report for herself.

Ginny had testified before the 9/11 Commission investigators about the attacks on that tragic day in 2001.

When the commission released its report, Ginny had asked they include Logan was no different than any other airport, if they found it to be true.

The pain and psychological torment Ginny Buckingham struggled with for nearly three years, about whether Logan airport, and, in turn, she as its leader, could be to blame, was reduced to a footnote in the 9/11 Commission's nearly 500-page-long report.

Logan airport was no different than any other airport where it mattered -- checkpoint security -- and that there was no evidence Logan was selected for any other reason than logistics.

"They had two planes leaving for the West Coast, fully fueled, proximate to New York. That's why they chose Logan Airport," she said.

Ground Zero

In August 2004, Ginny's job at the Herald took her to the place she had feared in her nightmares.

Yet, she had no idea how important overcoming the obstacle of visiting Ground Zero for the first time would be in her healing.

"It was the first time I didn't feel alone since 9/11 happened," Ginny told us.

Ginny & George W. Bush

As a political aide in the Massachusetts State House, Ginny Buckingham knew George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas, well before he became President, and well before the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.

After he won re-election for a second term as president in 2004, Ginny interviewed the president at the Oval Office while working for the Boston Herald.

"I just wanted to thank him for everything he had done post 9/11 to make our country safe. And so that's what I said to him. 'Thank you for all that you've done.' And he said, 'You're a really good person,' and that felt good because I had been defined as a really bad person. It wasn't what I wanted him to say. I wanted him to say, 'It wasn't your fault.' Um, but it was kind and compassionate.'" Ginny said.

Bush came back into Ginny's life when she got accepted in the inaugural class of the Presidential Leadership Scholars in 2015.

It's an initiative that was started by former presidents Bush and Bill Clinton.

Ginny's memoir, titled "On My Watch," was her project to graduate the program.

"Very recently, I was speaking to a dear friend who I worked with at Massport after he read my book. And he said, 'No one in Massport felt the way that you did,' you know, after reading that. And that was very painful to hear at first - until I realized, well, that's the point of a scapegoat, is that you put it on one person so no one else has to feel that way. So it was very isolating."

Courtesy Virginia Buckingham

20 years later

"I relive it a lot in my daily thoughts, my dreams ... I see the time's passage in my kids. That two year old is a college graduate now and my daughter, who I was pregnant with at the time, is going off to college. So I see the passage of time, but it doesn't feel that it's possible it could have been that long," Ginny said.

The media firestorm has long since passed.

Ginny told us she feels healed, even though she admitted she still struggles at times.

But 20 years after 9/11, Ginny hopes her story helps others with their journeys.

"Because I felt so pained, I felt like I was failing at being resilient and strong. And everyone would say, you know, 'Move on, and, you know, put it behind you, slam the door.' And I couldn't reconcile that. I could be in so much pain and be resilient, when in fact, that is exactly in my view what resilience is, is being able to carry your pain with you and move forward and also have times of joy and meaning. And I think that's so important for people to hold on to who are experiencing painful times. That resilience doesn't mean you get over it. It means you learn to carry it with you and still have a wonderful life."

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