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NATIONAL SECURITY

Voices of 9/11

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Inferno: The Pentagon death toll, including those on board Flight 77, surpassed the carnage in Oklahoma City.(AP Photo/Will Morris)

The following are first-person accounts of Americans and their experiences on September 11, 2001. These interviews originally appeared in the August 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.

With the President

Ari Fleischer
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.

 
"The president motioned me to come to his cabin. He said, 'I want you to take this all down.' "


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.

This interview originally appeared in the August 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.

 

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