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In this file photo, Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., talks with a reporter after voting Friday, Oct. 3, 2008, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

Zach Wamp was sitting at his desk in the Cannon House Office Building on Sept. 11, 2001, in what started out like a routine day for the congressman representing the Chattanooga area.

A staff member walked in and pointed to the TV.

"They said, an airplane just hit one of the twin towers in New York City," said Wamp, 63, a Republican who represented Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District from 1995 to 2011.

"You first think it's an accident and you kind of go back to doing what you're doing and then all of a sudden you start looking up and you see exactly how it happened and what happened, and I'm thinking, 'That's really strange,'" Wamp said of his dawning realization.

"Then all of a sudden you realize a second one has happened."

An evacuation was ordered for the building housing his congressional office. Wamp said members of Congress had just gone through a planning process for an evacuation, so his staff was armed with a plan to return to the house on nearby C Street he shared with a half dozen other lawmakers who rented rooms there.

"What I didn't know was three or four members in the House had their staffs evacuate to the three-story townhouse where we were all lived," Wamp said. "Rumors started flying that a plane was potentially headed toward D.C., so we all ended up at our house."

(Read more 9/11 20th anniversary coverage from the Times Free Press here)

The House and Senate were evacuating and before long the number of staff members taking refuge at the house grew to more than 100 and together they watched the twin towers fall.

Then terror struck Washington, D.C.

"We heard explosions and literally from where we were you could smell some kind of fuel in the air from the Pentagon being hit," Wamp said. "And everybody's glued to the television which was still on, and then there's all these reports."

At one point, the house crammed with lawmakers and staffers rattled. They heard inaccurate early media reports that a plane struck the U.S. Capitol, but they learned soon it was the plane that crashed into the Pentagon — 4 miles away in Virginia — that shook the house.

So Wamp, other lawmakers and dozens of staff members waited for information but communications in much of the city remained cut off.

"At about 1 o'clock, the Capitol police came to the front door," he said.

They were gathering congressional members for a conference call with the vice president and House speaker at the Capitol police command post.

After the meeting, congressional members stayed at the post for almost two hours when it was decided they'd meet on the steps of the Capitol building before sunset.

"We wanted to show the solidarity of the House and Senate being together. And so right there before sundown at 5:30 or 5:45 we all gathered on the steps of the Capitol, and just organically," Wamp said, his voice faltering, "'God Bless America' started being sung on the steps."

As the Sept. 11 sun sank in the west, the then-43 year old Congressman went for a 10-mile run to unwind and think.

"It was the most surreal run of my lifetime," he said.

"Nothing was moving. Every now and then you'd hear a siren in the distance. It was like a movie and everybody had evacuated and the whole place was even frozen. It was the first day in my life I really thought about dying."

The experience over the next days was a roller coaster of emotion, said Wamp, who admitted that while he'd talked about 9/11 many times in the years that followed, it now had been many years since he had revisited his feelings.

"That day and the 30 to 45 days that followed it was the starkest contrast in my life between the power of fear and the power of love," he said.

The heroic actions of neighbors, strangers and particularly first responders moved him.

"The scriptures said, 'no greater love hath any man than to lay down his life for a friend,'" Wamp recited. "These first responders laid down their lives en masse for people they'd never met.

"That is more powerful than fear, and that is the lesson of 9/11."

The Sunday after 9/11, Wamp returned home to his Red Bank Baptist Church where the Sunday school leader played the song, "Above All."

"He didn't have to say a word. He put the song on and played it and everyone in our class began to weep," Wamp said.

"There was this recognition that we had been spared, that we were 'one nation under God,' that we were 'E pluribus unum,' that we were united, the United States of America, that we cared for each other and we were going to come out of this together."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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