After the 9/11 Attacks, Boston Found a Focus for Its Anger

Terrorists boarded two planes in Boston and flew them into the World Trade Center. Massachusetts zeroed in on its top airport official, who has never quite recovered.,

Virginia Buckingham was the top official at the Massachusetts Port Authority on Sept. 11, 2001.
Virginia Buckingham was the top official at the Massachusetts Port Authority on Sept. 11, 2001.Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

After the 9/11 Attacks, Boston Found a Focus for Its Anger

Terrorists boarded two planes in Boston and flew them into the World Trade Center. Massachusetts zeroed in on its top airport official, who has never quite recovered.

Virginia Buckingham was the top official at the Massachusetts Port Authority on Sept. 11, 2001.Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

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BOSTON — Virginia Buckingham remembers the moment when she realized that she had been singled out. She had stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts on her way into Logan International Airport, which she oversaw as the top official at the Massachusetts Port Authority. As she stood in line, a man behind her whispered to his friend, “That’s her.”

The week before, terrorists had boarded two jets at Logan, hijacked them, and flew them into the Twin Towers. The city’s newspapers had plunged into reporting on the airport’s security record, and into her, a political appointee. But no one had been fired yet, and the columnists were getting antsy.

“When do the heads start to roll at Massport?” wrote Howie Carr at The Boston Herald. “It’s been over a week now, and Ginny Buckingham still isn’t a stay-at-home mom.”

Over at The Boston Globe, Joan Vennochi chided the governor for dragging her feet. “Somewhere in Afghanistan,” she wrote, “Osama bin Laden is laughing at what passes for leadership in Massachusetts.”

While New York and Washington were focused on disaster sites, Boston was struggling with a horrible truth: Its airport had served as the launching pad for the two planes that destroyed the World Trade Center.

Boston was not physically damaged on Sept. 11. But it was damaged. The hijacked planes were full of its people. I was a reporter at The Globe, and I spent part of that day at a hotel bar near Logan Airport, where American Airlines flight attendants were sobbing so openly that a bartender climbed out from behind the bar to hug them.

ImageAirline employees grieved at a vigil outside Boston City Hall the day after the terrorist attacks.
Airline employees grieved at a vigil outside Boston City Hall the day after the terrorist attacks.Credit…Ira Wyman/Sygma, via Getty Images

The fact that the planes came from Boston was a source of shame. Shreds of guilt clung to many airport workers — to the ticket agent who checked in Mohamed Atta, to the flight attendant who called in sick. I remember a pilot, wearing a black ribbon of mourning, worrying that the rage and grief would mutate into something accusatory. “This isn’t an airport problem,” he said, “it’s a world problem.”

In Boston — unlike New York, Washington and Portland, Maine, the other communities where terrorists boarded planes — it was seen as an airport problem. And here, there was an expectation that officials would be sacked.

No evidence ever emerged that failures by airport officials contributed to the attacks: At the time, box cutters, the weapons the terrorists used, were legal to carry on planes, and airlines, not airports, handled security checkpoints. But in the intensity of that moment, that did not matter. Joseph Lawless, the airport’s director of security, who had formerly worked as a driver to a Massachusetts governor, was transferred two and a half weeks after the attacks. A month after that, Ms. Buckingham resigned under pressure.

Eventually, journalists moved on. But Ms. Buckingham could not. Twenty years later, she remains pained by her treatment those six weeks, something she described in a new memoir, “On My Watch.” At 36, her career in politics was finished. Though she had lost her job, her role as the head of the agency drew her into wrongful death lawsuits that continued for a decade. She sought treatment for depression and PTSD.

And for years, she heard from strangers who blamed her for the attacks. “So, when are you going to apologize for 9/11?” asked a man who called her desk years later. “When are you going to apologize so this city can move on?” Her thoughts became so tangled that she began to ask herself whether it really was her fault.

Mr. Lawless said he would not comment for this article, out of respect for the victims.

It is impossible to understand this story outside the context of Massachusetts politics, which is famously rough-and-tumble.

On the morning when two Boston planes destroyed the World Trade Center, the acting governor of Massachusetts was Jane Swift, 36, who had been elevated to the position when Paul Cellucci was made ambassador to Canada. Asked to recall this period, Ms. Swift recalled an old aphorism about politics: “This ain’t bean bag,” a standard response to those wounded by negative campaigning. It means, basically, “stop complaining.”

Ms. Swift, a Republican, was a punching bag for the news media, among other reasons for asking aides to babysit and using a state helicopter to get home to western Massachusetts. She was always alert to where the next roundhouse blow might be coming from. It was a “dirty little secret,” for example, that the fastest land route to Boston required a brief detour over New York roads.

“I used to say to my state troopers, ‘If you crash and I die, you drag my dead carcass over the line, because we’re all in so much trouble,” she said.

Among the first questions Ms. Swift considered as she raced eastward on the morning of Sept. 11, she said, was how to restore confidence in Logan Airport, given the new threat of terror attacks on domestic soil.

“When I left my house — before knowing it was a terror attack, before the towers fell — I knew we had a Massport issue,” she said.

That thought led directly to Ms. Buckingham, who had been appointed two years earlier, by Mr. Cellucci. The Port Authority, as Ms. Swift put it, had an “earned reputation as being run by political appointees, not airport expertise.”

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Ms. Buckingham, right, listened to the Logan International Airport’s aviation director, Thomas Kinton, during a briefing on Sept. 12, 2001.Credit…Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

Ms. Buckingham fell into that category. She was an old hand at State House politics; she had served as chief of staff to two governors, and press secretary to one. But she had no background in transportation or security. She was 33 and, like Ms. Swift, a new mother. “What, Gidget wasn’t available?” Mr. Carr, at The Herald, cracked at the time.

On the morning of the attacks, Ms. Buckingham was on her way to Washington to meet with the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, in hopes of receiving federal approval for a new runway, a goal that had topped Massport’s agenda for three decades.

She recalls striding past groups of employees glued to television screens, then standing perfectly still in front of her desk, her arms wrapped around her, taking in the looping television footage of the planes hitting the buildings. Then the towers had fallen, and her deputy was at the door, his mouth open, hands gripping the frame as if for support.

“They’re gone,” he said.

The airport’s director of operations came in to tell her what had happened on American Airlines Flight 11; a flight attendant had called from the back of the plane. Ms. Buckingham remembers putting her hands in front of her mouth, and then, as he continued the story, gasping audibly.

“They used a box cutter,” the airport’s director of operations told her.

“What’s a box cutter?” she asked.

On Sept. 12, Governor Swift made it clear that a shake-up was coming at the airport.

“Terrorists got onto a plane, so obviously there was a problem,” she said. She added, in the days that followed, that she was not “going to get into assigning blame at this point,” and would wait for the results of an F.B.I. investigation.

“There’s nobody in America who wouldn’t have changed something if they thought that they could have prevented the enormous loss and tragedy,” she said.

Still, a process had been set in motion.

There is a predictable course to a public sacking, and Ms. Buckingham could recognize its landmarks as they passed. Reporters began asking if she would step down. An aide told her not to contact the governor directly. The governor announced the creation of a commission to reform the Port Authority.

And the papers took up the cause. The Herald, Boston’s scrappy tabloid, ran a poll asking voters whether she should resign or be fired. The Globe, Boston’s crusading broadsheet, dug into a fertile topic, the history of patronage hiring at the Port Authority, publishing about 90 articles touching on that topic over the next three months.

As the weeks passed with no firings, the coverage grew heated. Some writers drew a direct connection between the airport officials and the attacks.

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“When I left my house — before knowing it was a terror attack, before the towers fell — I knew we had a Massport issue,” said Jane Swift, the state’s governor at the time.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

“It cannot be an accident that terrorists thought they could board not one, but two airplanes at Logan. For nearly a decade, no one running Logan truly cared or was even capable of caring,” wrote Derrick Z. Jackson, a Globe columnist. “The fact that Buckingham and Lawless are still in control is a sick joke. Until they are fired, Massachusetts is telling the nation that 6,000 deaths and declarations of war do not matter.”

Others, like The Herald’s Margery Eagan, acknowledged that airport managers were not to blame for the attacks.

“But it doesn’t matter, because two hijacked airplanes left 6,000 people dead in New York and those two planes came out of Logan,” she wrote. “And now Boston is like the new Dallas, a city reviled so many years ago because it let an assassin climb up into the Texas School Book Depository and open fire.” The column was headlined, “Logan Brass Should Atone by Resigning.”

Few public figures came to Ms. Buckingham’s defense, recalled Thomas Kinton, who was the airport’s director of aviation. “She was radioactive,” he said. “You didn’t want to touch her. You didn’t even want to be seen with her.”

Mr. Kinton emerged as a star during this period, and eventually became Massport’s chief executive. At his retirement, in 2011, he was praised for steering the airport through the difficult period after the attacks. He recalls the coverage of Ms. Buckingham as relentless.

“Boston is a city — not that I’ve lived anywhere else — I have this saying, they eat their young here,” he said. “It’s a strange place, that when they get their fangs into you they don’t let go. They want to take people down. It happens all the time.”

By late October, Ms. Buckingham felt her choices had narrowed. Her husband, David Lowy, urged her to resign, rather than wait to be fired.

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Ms. Buckingham speaking in the wake of her resignation in October 2001.Credit…Boston Herald, via Getty Images

“I just wanted the barrage to stop,” said Mr. Lowy, now an associate judge on the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. “It’s very hard to watch that happen to somebody that you love.”

On Oct. 25, Ms. Buckingham called a news conference and resigned. She did not take any questions. After her last day of work, she moved to her in-laws’ apartment to get away from the camera crews camped outside her door.

As time passed, it became less plausible to blame anyone in particular for the carnage of Sept. 11.

The 9/11 Commission report, released in 2004, focused on failures in the sphere of intelligence. Nothing distinguished Logan’s checkpoint screenings, it concluded, from those at any other airport; the terrorists had chosen Logan for reasons of convenience.

The lawsuits gradually petered out. In 2011, a federal judge in New York dismissed the last wrongful-death lawsuit against Massport, on the basis that security screenings were at that point the responsibility of the airlines, not the airport.

But if Ms. Buckingham was exonerated, she never felt that way.

Life went on: She had a second child. She found a therapist who specialized in trauma. She got a new job, writing editorials at The Herald, then left for a corporate job at Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company. She took early retirement. She dropped her youngest off at college.

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Ms. Buckingham outside the Logan Airport 9/11 Memorial this month.Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

Throughout, as she described in her memoir, she struggled with guilt, shame and traumatic memories. She approached the family members of Sept. 11 victims with stomach-turning anxiety, terrified they blamed her. Years later, when she published a cheery column about winter swimming, a reader responded by reminding her of “the intense heat people at the upper floors of WTC were feeling 9/11; hot enough to jump 100 stories if that’s hot enough for you.”

“I lost 15 years, is how I feel about it, in terms of my being fully present in my life,” she said.

Boston can feel like a small town, so it is not uncommon for her to run into people who were involved in her removal, or the coverage of it.

That happened in 2004, when Carl Stevens, a reporter with WBZ NewsRadio, approached her in a grocery store in Swampscott and told her he had gone along with the crowd in his reporting, and apologized.

“Things happen within that certain time and place that you look back on it and say, ‘What the hell was that all about?'” Mr. Stevens said in an interview. “When I think of the media at that particular time and place, I think of the metaphor of the snowball — we were all rolling down the same hill, within the context of the fear and anger that we felt at the time.”

“At some point,” he added, “the momentum slowed down and the snowball stopped rolling, and people started to ask: ‘Why did we bomb Iraq again? And why was Ginny Buckingham blamed for the deaths of 3,000 people?'”

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Carl Stevens, a reporter with WBZ NewsRadio, apologized to Ms. Buckingham when he ran into her at a grocery store in 2004.Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

I wrote to half a dozen editors, reporters and columnists while I was preparing this article to ask how they viewed the coverage in retrospect. A few responded. Frank Phillips, who covers the State House for The Globe, described the coverage as “hysteria” that falsely linked the problem of patronage to the events of Sept. 11. Joshua Resnek, who was then the publisher of local newspapers in East Boston, Revere and other neighborhoods, said he had “jumped on the bandwagon,” and was sorry.

“She took the hit, and it’s regrettable, because she was probably a competent lady,” he said. “At that time, everything pointed to someone having to take a hit.”

Mr. Jackson, from The Globe, said it was “definitely possible that she became a scapegoat when other people could or should have been held accountable.” He added, “It’s also true she was part of this infrastructure that was highly flawed.”

Mr. Carr stood by his coverage, saying patronage had infested the agency for years. “If you live by patronage, you die by patronage,” he said. “Methinks she doth protest too much.”

Ms. Swift suspended her campaign for governor around six months after Sept. 11 and never ran for office again. She said that she is at peace with the decisions she made, and that she had never, at any point, blamed Ms. Buckingham.

“I have been crystal clear — privately, publicly — since the day this happened of who I hold responsible for 9/11, and it is the terrorists and the people who financed and directed them,” she said. But keeping a former political operative at the helm of a major airport after the attacks, she said, “in that atmosphere of fear, was impossible.”

As for Ms. Buckingham, she has had years to consider the question of why, in those weeks of confusion and horror, Boston swung its attention to her. She has landed on the single, terrible fact that those two planes left from Logan Airport.

“The magnitude of what was launched here was so terrifying — it made people so angry — that they needed a place to put that anger and fear,” she said. “I was an easy target.”

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