Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla.
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.
"It's hard to comprehend that I was there on Air Force Once when this thing was evolving."
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.
This interview originally appeared in the August 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.
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