Norman Y. Mineta, the Transportation Secretary who closed the U.S. airspace and ordered the grounding of 4,000 planes in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, has died. He was 90 years old.

Mineta died at his home in Edgewater, Md., of a heart ailment, John Flaherty, his former chief of staff, said.

Mineta, a first-generation Japanese American, began his public career in local politics in California. In 1971, he became the first Asian American elected to represent a major American city, San Jose, his native city and the second-largest in California. In 1974, he began a 10-term congressional career, representing Silicon Valley.

During his time in Congress, Mineta was instrumental in getting the U.S. government to apologize and award reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. This was personal for Mineta: When he was 10 years old, he and his family were sent from California to an internment camp in Wyoming. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Americans of Japanese descent interned in February 1942, two months after the Japanese bombarded Pearl Harbor.

After his tenure in Congress and a subsequent stint in the private sector, Mineta served briefly as Commerce Secretary in the Clinton administration, the first Asian American to serve in that role. President George W. Bush tapped him to be Transportation Secretary, the sole Democrat in Bush’s cabinet.

Mineta acted decisively after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He and then-FAA Administrator Jane Garvey took the unprecedented step of closing the U.S. airspace, forcing the grounding of more than 4,000 aircraft, and requiring planes in the air to land immediately, at the closest airport. The airspace remained closed for more than two days, a period which has not been repeated since.

Mineta led the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and oversaw the security protocols that endure to this day. A civil rights activist, Mineta famously opposed racial profiling by the new TSA in its security checks at airports. The TSA was created by an act of Congress in November 2001 and eventually was folded into the new Homeland Security Department.

In 2001, his hometown renamed its airport the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport in recognition of his service to the city.

Norman Mineta was born on Nov. 12, 1931, in San Jose. After the war, he returned to California and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1953. He is survived by his wife Danealia, four sons, and 11 grandchildren.

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November 16, 2022
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