Washington — Until 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, the biggest problem on U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's agenda was airport delays.
But minutes after a hijacked airliner smashed through the first of two towers in the World Trade Center, Mineta hurriedly excused himself from breakfast with a visiting Belgian dignitary and rushed from his suite overlooking the Potomac River to a secure operations center in the White House complex.
The nonstop days and sleepless nights that followed were times of unmatched intensity in the life of the 69-year-old former Democratic congressman from San Jose, Calif.
He approved the first shutdown of U.S. airspace in history as incredible scenes of devastation played out on television and telephone lines from the field lit up in confirmation. Then, just as the airports reopened, he had to help broker a deal to bail out the stricken airlines. Now Mineta is carrying out an emergency review of airport and airliner security that will lead to major changes for travelers.
"There is no doubt that this whole transportation system is going to be really different than what we knew," Mineta said in an interview. "It's changing right now."
When Mineta was appointed transportation secretary, many people in Washington, D.C., saw his chief value to President Bush's Cabinet as providing diversity political and ethnic. His status as the only Democrat in the Cabinet was much mentioned. His standing as a prominent Japanese-American also drew attention. But only industry insiders noted his aviation expertise during his many years on the House transportation committee.
Now Mineta has taken a major role in the administration's crisis response to terrorism.
It's too early to tell how Mineta and the agencies he oversees will be judged when the nation conducts a full review of what happened Sept. 11. The early assessment within the Transportation Department and the Federal Aviation Administration is that air traffic controllers performed well, safely bringing down more than 4,000 planes within three or four hours in a chaotic atmosphere aggravated by constant bomb threats and false hijacking reports.
Plus airport security a problem for the last 30 years is getting unprecedented attention in Congress.