Federal agencies, like other organizations, need coolheaded leadership in a crisis. That's what the U.S. Customs Service had at New York's World Trade Center.

In 10 to 12 minutes, about 800 agency employees safely evacuated the eight-story Customs House, next to the North Tower of the trade center, after the first hijacked airliner slammed into the skyscraper on the morning of Sept. 11.

Because of practice sessions held several times a year, employees knew what to do and where to go. In a day marked by unbelievable horror and confusion, old-fashioned fire drills helped one band of office workers to escape.

"You have to have some kind of contingency plan in place. It has to be well known to people who work in your facility, and you have to follow through," John Martuge, director of Customs' field operations in New York, said yesterday.

Customs got its wake-up call when a bomb exploded in the trade center's garage in 1993. Although "we never expected it to happen again," Martuge said, officials started running drills to prepare employees for an evacuation, as well as to test alarms and strobe lights.

The drills became part of the New York office's "contingency of operations plan," the blueprint for coping with disasters and disruptions.

Like many workers in the trade center complex, Martuge was at his desk when the airliner hit the North Tower. He was sending out e-mail messages.

"I heard this horrendous screech and explosion," he recalled. "Our whole building shook for a few seconds. I ran to the window, and my initial reaction was to look down. I saw the rear entrance of that tower, and the glass had blown out, and there were bodies lying on the street. And I just presumed it was a bomb at the lower level. It was quite a frightening experience."

He called Customs headquarters in Washington to let officials know there had been an explosion, then called his wife. Debris was falling on the streets as Martuge raced out of the Customs House. On the plaza, he bumped into Customs agents, who pointed upward. He saw the gash in the tower, but "I thought it was a small plane that had some mechanical difficulty."

Less than 20 minutes later, a plane hit the South Tower, and "there was no doubt it was a terrorist action," Martuge said.

Surrounded by dazed and shocked employees and out-of-town visitors, he told them to head for their homes or to hotels.

Martuge took off, walking to a distant subway station, and made a connection to a Long Island train heading east before the transit systems shut down. While on the train, he used his cell phone to call Customs at John F. Kennedy International Airport to arrange for a ride to the agency's offices there.

He was back on the job, working from the airport, about 90 minutes after the second plane attack. He spent almost two days tracking down employees or members of their families to determine if anyone was missing. None was.

Now, Martuge is trying to meet with as many employees as possible. "It helps me and it helps them," he said. "A lot of people have still not come back to work. We're trying to be easy on them."

Helpful Information The crew at www.firstgov.gov has put together a list of agencies, contacts and related information that provides a glimpse of how the government is responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

There are telephone listings for airlines, New York and D.C. hospitals and check-in numbers for Pentagon employees and families. The listing also provides phone numbers for benefits and assistance available to the public and to government workers. Travelers to New York also can determine which federal buildings are open and which buildings have functioning telephone service.

Federal Diary Live After the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, many federal employees feel that they and their buildings are targets. Do you think so? Are agencies paying adequate attention to security and evacuation plans?

Let us know how you are dealing with this changed world. Send in your comments, questions, ideas and suggestions to Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com. The online session begins at noon tomorrow.

If you cannot join us then, send your questions and comments in advance to: http://discuss.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/01/federaldiary091901.htm.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.