Voices of 9/11
The following are first-person accounts of Americans and their experiences on Sept. 11, 2001. These interviews originally appeared in the Aug. 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.
Ari Fleischer, 41
White House press secretary
After the first plane hit, the president was planning to give remarks saying that he was saddened by what had happened in New York and that he was offering the full resources of the federal government to deal with the tragedy. We thought a plane had flown off course, and it was a terrible accident. Offering help in that way was the logical thing to do and say. But at the very moment Andy Card was whispering in the president's ear that a second plane had hit, I got a page telling me the same thing. That's when we knew it was terrorism.
I quickly wrote out, in big letters on a note pad, "DON'T SAY ANYTHING YET" and maneuvered so that my back was to the press pool as I showed the sign to the president. He gave a little nod in assent. I then gave orders to get the pool out of the room. I remember the president saying to the class as he left the room, "You're such good readers, you must be in the sixth grade." He didn't want to alarm the kids, who didn't know anything that was happening, so he kept his mood the same for them.
The president, Dan Bartlett, and I worked on his remarks. Then he went to the school's gym, where he had been planning to give a speech. After the speech, we left in a hurry. At 9:45, as we boarded Air Force One, I heard the president say on the phone to the vice president, "Sounds like we have a minor war going on here. I heard about the Pentagon." That's how I found out the Pentagon had been attacked.
On board the plane, the president motioned me to come to his cabin. He said, "I want you to take this all down." I think he meant everything-and that's what I did. I stayed by his side the rest of the day, with just a couple of exceptions, and I took notes. I did leave the cabin when he spoke to his father and to his wife; I didn't feel it was my place to be there. I also spent a few moments away from him on the way to Barksdale Air Force Base while I typed out his remarks. For me, so much of the day was focused on work. I don't think I stopped to think. I did my job. And my job that day was to be attentive. I listened to the president, offered my thoughts when he asked for them, wrote out his remarks for delivery, talked to the press, and took notes on what he said and did and saw.
At Barksdale, in the office of the commanding general of the base, I called my mother to say that I was OK and to see how she was. I asked her, "Do we know anybody who is missing?" At that point, the answer was no, but as it turns out, my parents' friends lost several family members. They were aboard the plane that hit the Pentagon.
It's a good thing I took these notes, because the events of that day-that whole week-were a blur. I refer to them all the time. The president's visit to the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center on September 13 to see some of those wounded at the Pentagon was more poignant than you can imagine. But for me, the hardest day was that Friday, September 14. The president's day began at a Cabinet meeting at which the president got teary-eyed. Then there was the National Cathedral speech in which the president spoke to the nation. After that, we took the helicopter ride to New York. You could smell the World Trade Center site burning 10 miles out, even from the air. Then there was that long motorcade ride into the rubble in the heart of New York-my hometown.
After his appearance with the workers at the site, President Bush met privately with some of the victims' families. That was the most gut-wrenching of all. One man held his 8-year-old nephew in his arms. The boy carried a picture of his father-I think he was a fireman-and he told the president, "This is my dad." Another woman asked the president to sign a picture of her son, and then she put it in the family Bible. Not one person the president talked to thought their missing relatives were dead. Not one. But none of them came out of that pile alive. That day, people lined 42nd Street in New York City like it was Main Street in a small town that had never seen a president before. They were 15 deep and holding signs saying, "God Bless America." As we passed Times Square, the streamer that carries the news bulletins said, "Bush calls up 50,000 reservists." It all gave me a chill. It was this unfathomable feeling: Our nation is heading to war.
I'm not normally an introspective person, but this is something the whole nation is going to look back on for a long time. For me, it wasn't until Rosh Hashana-early the next week, when I talked with my family-that it hit me as a person. It was, until then, almost all work and no reflection. A cousin said to me that she had a view of the World Trade Center, and that's when it dawned on me that when President Bush was talking to New Yorkers, he was talking to my family. That's when it came home to me. And I cried.
Kia Baskerville, 30
Associate producer, CBS News
I went on the Florida trip at the last minute, replacing our White House correspondent, John Roberts. Bush was visiting Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. As the presidential motorcade headed to President Bush's first event, I received a call on my cell phone from a producer who said that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. Fifteen minutes later, I was standing in a second-grade classroom with 20 students who were getting ready to read for the president. I received another phone call, this time from CBS radio correspondent Mark Knoller. "Kia, a plane has now crashed into the second tower, so it looks like this is deliberate. You need to ask Bush about this."
After the speech, the Air Force One travel pool was told to go back to the motorcade for an immediate departure. In five years of traveling with the White House press corps, I have never run so fast to avoid missing a presidential motorcade. On the way to the airport, we listened to the radio with our mouths wide open in disbelief: Not only had two planes crashed into the trade center complex, but a commercial jet had just crashed into the Pentagon.
In our small, cozy cabin in the back of Air Force One, the 12 or so members of the White House travel pool did what millions of other Americans did that day: We turned on the news. As Air Force One flew on-we knew not where-we tuned in to one local news report after another, using the plane's satellite TV system. We were not prepared for what we saw. As I looked at the faces of my colleagues, I saw they were all filled with fear and terror. Then the steward came by and took our drink orders. There isn't time to feel guilty about ordering a Bloody Mary at 10 in the morning while you are flying on a targeted plane watching the World Trade Center collapse in front of your eyes.
After two hours, we should have been landing or starting our descent. We asked a passing Secret Service agent how high up we were, and he told us 45,000 feet-I thought to myself, we're not going home. Twenty minutes later, Gordon Johndroe, a White House press aide, came back to tell us that a national emergency had been declared and they were evacuating the president. He then said, "Do not turn on your cell phones. The president will make a speech, and we'll find a way for it to be broadcast; we'll keep a press presence with him. The president has spoken to Laura and the vice president. He's making calls and preparing a statement."
With fighter jets on both wings, we landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Scores of F-16s and B-52s were parked and looking ominous. Military personnel with large machine guns surrounded the plane. The press corps was rushed off and huddled under the wing while Ari Fleischer debriefed us on what would take place next-a second address to the nation.
After an intense, quick equipment and conference call setup, all five networks took the videotape live to air. For those few minutes, as the tape played to air, there was an intense silence as everyone listened to what President Bush had to say. As it played, our military escort signaled us to wrap up and prepare to head back to the base. By the time I returned to the base, Andrew Card had made the decision to take a smaller contingent of travel pool members on the rest of the journey-which did not include me. So, as we stood on the tarmac, the remaining press corps and White House aides watched Air Force One taxi down the runway, headed for its next destination, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. At this moment, so many things ran through my mind, including, How will I get back home to my family, with all airports closed to incoming and outgoing traffic? But a plan was already in place to fly the remaining few of us back to Washington aboard a government transport jet used by the Cabinet.
At 5 p.m., on course to land within minutes at Andrews, I looked out the left side of the plane to see the sun beginning to set and smoke from the Pentagon still rising. Until you saw, with your own eyes, the devastation that had taken place, it all didn't seem real. I was anxious to be on the ground, to call home, to check in at work, to just try to regain some sense of normalcy.
I checked in with my boss, Tom Mattesky, and got my marching orders: Go to the White House. The president was returning, and CBS was designated as pool for his Oval Office address to the nation. I was to assist our special-events producer, Tom Seem. I had no idea I'd be cuing the president to go on worldwide television. By 8, I was at the White House. The president entered the Oval and began to practice reading his text from the prompter. He made it very clear that he wanted no noise and no movement. I had to interrupt his train of thought to let him know he would have to focus on me because I'd be giving him the countdown. Then it was time. "Thirty seconds, 15, seconds, 10 ... 5, 4, 3, 2, 1," I said as I pointed my finger, signaling him to begin.
At the end of his address, I looked up to see a very somber man sitting behind the desk that belonged to many past, great leaders. I realized that life was bigger than all of us, especially today. The president didn't speak or look at anyone for several minutes. He just sat there, as still as could be. My heart went out to him. He noticed my stare and affirmative nod-as if to say, it's going to be all right-and he proceeded to tell me what a nice job I had done. An exhausted smile grew on my face as he walked out wishing us all the best. It was a very proud moment for me, but also the saddest.
Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., 60
President Bush had scheduled a visit to Booker Elementary School in Sarasota to give a major speech on education on the morning of September 11. I'd spent the weekend in Washington, but I flew down in order to be with the president and to fly back on Air Force One with him. Adam Putnam was the other congressman. It was his district that joined my area in Sarasota. The president was scheduled to arrive at Booker at 9 o'clock in the morning. I was told something had hit the World Trade Center, but I didn't think too much more about it. We all weren't focused on that.
The classroom was small, so there were a limited number of people in that room besides the students. I went into the auditorium-type room and was awaiting the president's speech. The second plane hit at 9:05 or so. We all started to realize the magnitude of what was happening. We were just in a state of shock: "This can't be true. This can't be true."
Matt Kirk, of the Legislative Liaison Office at the White House, was assigned to us, and he tried to keep us updated. Things were in a state of flux, and the Secret Service agents were moving around. There was a question about whether the president was going to make a speech to the nation from the school, or go over in front of Air Force One. The White House staff felt the quickest way was to just do that right there.
Matt, Adam, myself-we went out and got in our van in the motorcade. I had my BlackBerry with me and I would get some news, and Matt Kirk could get some news from his little pager, but it was limited. This was, say, 9:15 to 9:30. The president came out, got in his limousine, and then we just drove very rapidly over to the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. The president got on the plane, and it took off about 10 o'clock. We were told to tighten up our seat belts very tight, because the plane has the ability to take off very steeply. When we took off, we were told there was no communication, because they didn't want anyone to know where Air Force One was, and the press was told that too.
In many ways, for most of that day, I had far less news and information than most of the people around the world. It was frustrating. You wanted to be able to flip between NBC or CBS or CNN. Air Force One did not have, at that time, the ability to pick up television. Matt Kirk would go up and try to talk to someone else and pick up some news. Somebody would come back and share some information. The president's political adviser, Karl Rove, came back a couple times, just giving us an update. It was very tense with the staff, because there obviously was a great security concern by the Secret Service and the crew.
Around 10 o'clock, we were heading due north. And then, you could sense a turn to the west. I would say 10:45, maybe 10:30 or so, the plane changed course. We were told we weren't going back to Washington. We didn't know where we were going. I remember looking out my window and looking down at that Gulf Coast of the Alabama-Mississippi-Florida area.
We started to pick up some TV reception. We saw that the collapse of the towers had occurred. It was so surreal. I kept thinking of a Tom Clancy novel I remember reading, Debt of Honor, where they crash a 747 into the Capitol during a Joint Session of Congress. I thought of that book. I said, "Wait, this can't be some kid from Bradenton, Florida, on Air Force One. This isn't happening. It can't be. Am I dreaming or something?" I remember Karl Rove coming back and he said, "There are 40,000 people who are working at the World Trade Center at this time." No one knew the magnitude could have been that high. And then, to hear about the Pentagon!
About 11:30, we got called up to the president's office. It was Adam, Matt, and myself. The president was at his desk. They actually called in a photographer. There's a little sofa that can seat four or five people, and a chair where Andy Card sat. Behind us was this TV screen on the wall. I didn't even know it was there until I got the photograph, and you saw the World Trade Center, a fuzzy picture of it, right over our heads.
The president was telling us that there were some other planes-six, maybe nine, planes-that were unaccounted for, and that a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania, so the decision was made not to return to Washington. He was very serious, very determined, very focused, and very collected. And I felt much more emotional at that moment than he was. You saw he was in control. I felt choked up. It was almost like you're speechless.
He said he was determined to make sure that the people who were responsible for this would be identified and punished. There was speculation on the plane, but not with him, that it was bin Laden. The belief was, the only people capable of such an evil deed were either a government-and they didn't think it was any government behind this-or the bin Laden organization.
The president was saying, "We are going off to an undisclosed location." He was able to very calmly explain where we were and what we were getting ready to do. The only one speaking was the president. And I don't remember really even asking questions.
I remember saying as we were leaving, "God bless you, Mr. President." You could see the weight on his shoulders. He had been through a lot in those last couple of hours. And he obviously knew a lot more than we knew. He talked about how he had given the order-he actually said it had been while he was driving over from the school to Air Force One-to bring all the planes down from the air. He was saying how we had an AWACS and six fighters surrounding us. He was saying we were going to land at an undisclosed location, and that we would be getting off the plane there, and he was going on to another undisclosed location.
When we got to Barksdale Air Force Base, all you saw were just rows and rows of B-52 bombers. There was a van, a Humvee, there were people standing around with automatic weapons, which you don't see in the United States. We're seeing it today-but we did not see it until September 11. And you could see the president go out. We were left there on the plane. That's when we got good TV, from noon to 1:30. We could not have any contact-no cell phones or BlackBerrys. Then the president came back about 1:30. We exited the plane and stood there on the tarmac, and Air Force One took off.
I was able to call my wife, who was at home on Capitol Hill. The White House had called her and told her I was on Air Force One. I said something like, "Honey, I'm OK." I was able to tell her where I was and that there was another plane that was going to take us back to Washington. They flew us to Andrews Air Force Base, and I got home about 6 o'clock. We had to be about the only plane in the air, with the exception of the fighter planes, because everyone was grounded, I guess. I'll never forget the landing. You saw the Pentagon smoke.
I remember when I came home and walked in the house, it was very emotional. I hugged my wife. We just squeezed each other. It was hard to comprehend. I just didn't want to talk to anyone, besides my son and daughter, because it was just still so emotional. I choke up sometimes just talking about it. It's just hard to comprehend that I was right there on Air Force One when this whole thing was evolving. This was obviously the most significant event during my congressional career. You realize that the U.S. is vulnerable-that we're not immune to some of the problems elsewhere around the world, and it makes you think that life is very precious. I didn't know anyone personally who perished that day, but it brought that home to me.
The President's Day on September 11, 2002:
9:00 Bush arrives at Sarasota, Fla., school to give speech. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. tells him a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.
9:30 Bush meets privately with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who briefs him. He delivers first public remarks on the tragedy.
10:00 Aboard Air Force One en route to Louisiana, Bush calls Vice President Cheney and puts America's military on a high-alert status. Gets news that a plane has crashed near Pittsburgh.
11:40 Bush arrives at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., where he makes series of telephone calls from a general's conference room.
1:15 Bush departs Barksdale conference room for Air Force One in a camouflaged Humvee.
3:07 Bush arrives at U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
4:07 Bush meets with National Security staff.
4:36 Bush departs for Washington. En route, he calls first lady Laura Bush and says, "I'm coming home, see you at the White House." Works with aides on his prime-time speech.
6:55 Bush arrives at White House to prepare for prime-time speech.
8:30 Bush speaks to the nation.
8:35 Bush attends National Security meeting.
10:21 Meeting ends. Secret Service radio squawks with news that Bush has gone home to bed. "Trailblazer. Second floor of the residence."
About This Issue: This special report features the accounts of more than 50 Washingtonians who talked with National Journal reporters about their experiences on September 11, 2001. The accounts are in the words of the members of Congress, White House aides, Pentagon personnel, waitresses, cabdrivers, and other area residents who agreed to be interviewed. Conducting the interviews were National Journal staff members James A. Barnes, David Baumann, Carl M. Cannon, Richard E. Cohen, Courtney Crimmins, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., Robert Gettlin, Siobhan Gorman, Erin Heath, Corine Hegland, Louis Jacobson, James Kitfield, Margaret Kriz, Neil Munro, Mark Murray, Molly C. Norton, Patrick B. Pexton, Marilyn Werber Serafini, Alexis Simendinger, Bruce Stokes, Peter H. Stone, Stuart Taylor Jr., Kirk Victor, and Shawn Zeller.