Press secretary to first lady Laura Bush
It was such a beautiful day. We were getting ready to leave the White House. Mrs. Bush was going to the Capitol that morning to brief the Senate Education committee on the findings of the Early Childhood Cognitive Development Summit we'd held at Georgetown University in July. Senator Kennedy was really interested in that-he'd attended the session.
I was waiting for Mrs. Bush by the motorcade behind the White House. Sandra Sobieraj of AP was walking by with her cell phone in her ear. She said, "Noelia, all I can say is that your boss's comments better be pretty spiffy because there's a plane accident in New York City." She wasn't being flippant as much as letting me know something else was happening. This visit to the Capitol was big news-or so we thought. The first lady hadn't been up there to do this before, and the former first lady, Senator Clinton, was going to attend. I looked at the Secret Service agent standing beside me, and we both kind of arched an eyebrow and went back into the White House to turn on the television. Somebody said something about a helicopter, but it didn't look like a helicopter was what hit the building. Then we got the cue that Mrs. Bush was coming downstairs, and we went to meet her. Her lead agent told her a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Her aide Sarah said, "I wonder if this means Senator Clinton won't be at the hearing, because she'll probably have to go to New York."
"What seemed like two dozen of these ninja guys surrounded the [first lady's] car."
Mrs. Bush's limo and motorcade left the White House at 9:07. We didn't know it, but by then the second plane had struck. I rode in the staff van. My deputy was in the press van, and as we headed to Capitol Hill she called me and said, "A second plane hit the World Trade Center!" Our van got really quiet. When we arrived at the Capitol at 9:16, I jumped out and ran to the limo and got inside. The agents had already told the first lady. Senator Kennedy came to meet her. He seemed concerned, but stayed calm and focused. I thought it was a very gracious gesture on his part to meet Mrs. Bush. We all went into his office. Senator Judd Gregg came in. Nobody could get a cell to get through, and we took turns using the office phone. Senator Kennedy's dog Splash was there, and I remember everybody petting the dog. His presence, the normalcy of a pet, seemed to have a soothing effect on everyone.
At some point, Mrs. Bush talked to the president. She didn't want to say anything publicly until the president spoke to the nation, but we didn't know when that would be. Karen Hughes wasn't in the office and she wasn't with the president, so I talked to her assistant. "The president is going to be on television in 15 seconds," she said. We watched him, and then Mrs. Bush and I went to a private room in Senator Kennedy's office, and we began writing down what she should say. She wanted to reassure everybody, and we wanted everyone to pray for those in New York. We didn't know about the Pentagon, so we addressed our comments to the people of New York. When we went to the press, Larry McQuillan of USA Today asked, "Is there a message you could tell to the nation's children?" and that's when Mrs. Bush said, "Parents need to reassure their children everywhere in our country that they're safe." That's what people remember her for that day.
We then went to Senator Gregg's office. My worry was the pool reporters. It's funny what you think about in an emergency. We put them all in a room, and the agents said to me, "We have to leave here-and we can't take them with us." Larry said, "Don't worry about us." We left the Capitol at 10:10. Mrs. Bush had a lot of staffers there and some of us were in the limo, which was parked in the portico at the Capitol, and we were talking excitedly: "What could this be? Where are we going? What's next?"-just chatter, you know. Then the driver said something like, "Ladies, this is a time to pay attention." He meant it was a time to be quiet. I think he wanted to hear the instructions he was getting in his earpiece. Just then, what seemed like two dozen of these ninja guys surrounded the car-Secret Service agents all dressed in black. Mrs. Bush then got in the car, and they took us to the "secure location" you've heard about. In the car, we seemed to be going in slow motion. On the way there, we asked, "Why today?" I remember saying, the only thing I can think of is 9/11, you know 9-1-1. We were just trying to make it all reasonable. But it wasn't. There was nothing reasonable about it.
When we got to the secure location, Mrs. Bush told us, "Find phones, get hold of your families, and let them know you are OK." I couldn't reach my mom in Los Angeles, but I did finally reach my brother in Brownsville, Texas, and told him to call Mom. Many of the women on our staff are quite young. Some were crying; others, you could see the shock on their faces. Mrs. Bush was worried about them. She was trying to show by example that everything was going to be OK. She was also concerned about the staff we'd left behind at the White House.
About 1:30 p.m., we were escorted back to the White House to get our purses and keys. And we got the pets, Spot, Barney, and I think India came too. She's the cat. That was the first time I felt afraid. I remember seeing a couple of empty strollers near the East Wing entrance. They must have belonged to visitors who were on a White House tour that morning. It showed how fast they must have evacuated the place. To us, the agent said, "Be fast. Run. Get your things." Later, I found out that when they evacuated the White House, one of the uniformed agents yelled at them, "Take your shoes off and run!" This whole thing was hard on some of these young women. It's pretty heady stuff-you work at the White House, then one day, without warning, you're being told to take off your shoes and run for your life! My deputy left after that, she moved back to California.
Anyway, we went back to where Mrs. Bush was. At about 4:30 p.m., we returned to the White House one final time that day. After we showed our IDs, the agent said, "Thank you, ladies, have a nice day!" I know it's just an automatic response, but it didn't make sense. I said, "I think it's too late for that." Then it was time to go home. Most of us had cars, but I take the subway to work-the Orange Line. I didn't want to go underground. Who knew what was coming next? But I did it. I remember that the people on the subway were very quiet. The other thing I remember about that day is how beautiful it was. It didn't make sense that this would happen on such a beautiful day.
This interview originally appeared in the August 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.
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