The only plane in the sky: 9/11 at the White House

The attacks in New York City interrupted a normal workday in Washington. Officials at the White House, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the U.S. capital were left wondering what to think about the strange events unfolding over the East Coast.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 forever left their mark, not only on the people of the United States. They also exposed all the weaknesses of the administration of the world’s most powerful empire, which was humiliated by terrorists that day. The four hijacked planes, the attack on the Pentagon and the destruction of the WTC towers were hotly contested by President George W. Bush’s closest people: Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld.

Garrett M. Graff has gathered the accounts of everyone involved in the memorable events, describing how they reacted to the news of the attacks and the emotions they felt.

The following excerpt is from the book “The Only Plane in the Sky” by Garrett M. Graff, published by SQN:

Gary Walters, chief of support staff, White House: It was just before 9:00 when Mrs. Bush came downstairs. I was waiting for her at the elevator. I remember as we were leaving, we were talking about Christmas decorations.

Laura Bush, first lady: Security Chief Ron Sprinkle, the Secret Service agent assigned to me, leaned over to me as I got into the car, and said: – The World Trade Center was hit by a plane.

Brian Gunderson, chief of staff for Richard Armey (Republican Party), the parliamentary majority leader in the House of Representatives: When we got together for our morning law firm meeting, I saw on the television – as befits a congressman’s office, there were always lots of TVs playing – that one of the World Trade Center towers had been hit by a plane. We assumed it was an avionet. I thought we were dealing with an event on the level of a school shooting – something that the national media rumbles about, but which has little impact on the work of Congress on any given day.

Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor, White House: I thought: hmmm, this is a strange accident. I called the president. We talked for a while about how peculiar it was. Then I went to a staff meeting.

Adm. James Loy, Commandant, United States Coast Guard: Early accounts even had some shadow of hope in them: “We don’t know exactly how it happened or why it happened, but, gosh, it happened and it’s a terrible tragedy. “.

Ted Olson, Assistant Secretary of Justice, United States Department of Justice: I heard about the tragedy that happened at the World Trade Center. There’s a television in the corner of my office. I turned it on and watched with horror the replays of the footage of the disaster. Could Barbara have been on board any of the planes? I made a quick calculation in my head. Thank God, none of them could have been her plane. There wasn’t enough time for the one she was flying to reach New York.

Tom Daschle, Senator (Democratic Party), Senate Majority Leader: I was looked up by Senator John Glenn, a good friend of mine. I said: – Did you see that? Some pilot flew into the World Trade Center. He replied: – Pilots don’t fly into buildings. It wasn’t a pilot.

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Matthew Waxman, staff member, National Security Council, White House: About six weeks earlier, I started working as an executive assistant to Condi Rice. Every day around 9:00 a.m. we would gather in the Command Room for a meeting between the national security advisor and all the directors. We were just in such a meeting when [the World Trade Center] was hit by the second plane.

Mary Matalin, adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney: When the second plane hit, I was right there with the vice president. We knew right away it was not an accident.

Condoleezza Rice: In that moment, everything changed.

Matthew Waxman: We went into full crisis management mode.

Porter Goss, Congressman (Republican Party), Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Intelligence: I and several senators and congressmen were in the committee room; in those days it was located in the attic of the House. Senator Bob Graham and I were to conduct a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmed, the head of Pakistani intelligence. We had visited Pakistan the week before and invited him to Washington for further discussions. He just happened to be sitting with us when one of my staffers brought the news that a plane had hit the Trade Center. Later we received a second report. Ahmed turned pale and someone had to escort him out of the room. I think even before we left, the word “al-Qaeda” came up in our discussion.

Mary Matalin: We threw ourselves into our work. As we were sitting in the office like that, calling New York, the president, and everywhere else we needed to, suddenly Secret Service agents burst into the room.

Dick Cheney, Vice President: Radar detected a passenger plane approaching the White House at 800 miles per hour.

Lewis “Scooter” Libby, head of Vice President Dick Cheney’s law office: We have learned that eight kilometers away some aircraft has gone below 150 meters and cannot be detected; it has disappeared. A person looks at his watch and thinks: hmmm, eight kilometers, 800 kilometers per hour. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

Dick Cheney: My Secret Service bodyguard said: – Mr. Vice President, we have to go, now. He grabbed me and pulled me out of the office, and then continued through the hallway to the underground shelter under the White House.

Mary Matalin: My jaw dropped. And my co-workers too, because we’ve never seen anything like this.

Condoleezza Rice: Secret Service agents came in and said: – You have to go to the bunker. I remember them leading me, almost pushing me. We had no idea where it was safe and where it wasn’t. We didn’t think the bunker under the White House was safe at this point.

Dick Cheney: They’re trained to do that. You move whether you want to move or not. You go.

Mary Matalin: We got the call to evacuate. We were originally told to evacuate to the cafeteria, which occupies the lowest floor in the west wing. We sat there for a few minutes. Then, out of the blue, a shout came from somewhere: – Run, run, run, they’re headed for the White House, run!

I was wearing a narrow purple skirt and red leather Charles Jourdan stilettos. Hardly the best outfit for running.

Gary Walters: Secret Service agents started yelling: – Clear the area, clear the area, get everybody off the White House grounds! I remember from those first moments. chaos. People were running, screaming. My mind was seized by fear.

Rafael Lemaitre, staff member, Office of National Drug Control Policy, White House: I wasn’t sure where to go. All I knew was that I should get away from the White House and that I wasn’t getting on the subway for the hell of it. I took a quick step north along 17th Street. I’ll never forget the sight of the homeless blind man standing in his usual spot at the exit of the Farragut North station begging for change. He seemed unaware that people were rushing in the opposite direction of the usual morning rush hour. He continued to ask for change. It was an absurd picture.

Christine Limerick, hostess, White House: The expression on the faces of agents who were told they had to stay. I’ll never forget that, because we were at least given the opportunity to escape.

Ian Rifield, special agent, U.S. Secret Service: We were pretty sure the plane was going to hit us. The coordinator from the [Secret Service] joint operations center basically told us yes: – Everyone who survives the crash will go to an alternate center and from there we will continue. He wasn’t kidding.

James Davis, special agent in charge, FBI headquarters, Washington, DC: There was this general impression that we were in retreat. They evacuated the building; it was extremely frustrating because agents want to operate. I stayed behind a little bit and suddenly realized that there was no one on the fifth floor but me. I wondered if our building would be the next target. I thought: I wonder if it will hurt?

Secret Service agents herded the Vice President and his top advisors into a bunker known as the PEOC below the North Lawn. It was built back in the days of World War II.

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Dick Cheney: Moments later, I found myself in a fortified command center somewhere deep beneath the White House.

Cmdr. Anthony Barnes, deputy director, Continuity of Government in Emergencies Program, White House: Vice President Cheney was moved into a bunker with his wife. The PEOC is not one big hall; it consists of three or four rooms. In the operations room, my team handled telephone communications. In addition to that, there’s the conference room where Mr. Cheney and Condi Rice were staying – that’s where the TV screens, phones and so forth are.

Mary Matalin: It took a while for everyone to get there. The bunker has never before been used for its intended purpose – that is, as an air raid shelter.

Cmdr Anthony Barnes: Moments later, I looked around and saw Condi Rice and [White House Communications Director] Karen Hughes, and Mary Matalin, and [Transportation Secretary] Norm Mineta. Mr. Mineta displayed a map on one of the monitors that showed where every plane in the country was located. We stared at this picture. There must have been thousands of tiny icons of airplanes on it.

Mary Matalin: The vice president was sitting right in the middle of the room. The atmosphere was tense, with all sorts of feelings, but we were really focused on work, work, and more work. First of all, we were trying to locate all the planes, identify them and ground them.

Cmdr Anthony Barnes: It all started happening very quickly.

Matthew Waxman: I was still sitting in the Command Room, but I got a message that Condi Rice wanted me to join her in the PEOC and help her with her work. I wasn’t sure what the situation was on the surface, in the White House. I wasn’t sure if anyone had locked the National Security Advisor’s office. During the day, the safes stood open and top-secret documents lay on our desks. From my perspective, perhaps the scariest moment was when I went upstairs to see if the door had been locked. I stood alone in the National Security Advisor’s office and realized that the White House had indeed been evacuated. I was probably the only person in the entire West Wing. It was only then that it occurred to me that I may have been in mortal danger myself.

Cmdr Anthony Barnes: Each of my boys in the control room had at least two phones to my ear. On one line I was talking to the Pentagon operations center. On another I had FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency; Federal Emergency Management Agency]. And everybody was asking us what to do and how to do it.

Matthew Waxman: From time to time the picture would disappear from the screens. The vice president was terribly annoyed by this. We had technical difficulties that day. One of my jobs was to hold the phone and make sure the PEOC stayed connected to the national security decision makers. The idea was to keep the line open – with me on one end and my counterpart on the other – in case the Vice President or the Security Advisor needed to talk to either of them.

Cmdr Anthony Barnes: For the first hour there was total chaos because there was a lot of misinformation circulating. It was difficult to judge what was fact and what was not. A lot of things we had no way of confirming, so we had to treat them as if they were true until someone could point us in the right direction.

A few miles from the White House, across the Potomac River, the Pentagon’s resident commanders of the armed forces – including staffers from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff – realized that the country was at war.

Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense: I was just having breakfast with some congressmen when somebody looked into the room and said that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. We interrupted breakfast and I went to listen to the intelligence report. While I was sitting like that, someone came in and said that another plane had hit the other tower.

Col. Matthew Klimow, executive assistant to Gen. Richard Myers, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon: My first instinct was to cover the windows in my office in case a bomb exploded. I was worried about glass shards. Every time I recall that moment, I realize how little it would have mattered if the plane had hit my part of the building.

Victoria “Torie” Clarke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs: We went to talk to the secretary of defense, who was standing at his desk. – Here’s what’s going on and how much we know, we said. – The command center is about to start getting a handle on the situation. He replied something like: – Let’s look at my schedule, we’ll probably have to move something around. His special assistant said: – We’re taking everything out of your schedule. This is your schedule for today.

Joe Wassel, communications officer, Office of the Secretary of Defense: We all started thinking: what’s next? What do we do? What can be done? A discussion ensued where one of my colleagues even said: – We could be next. He was referring to the Pentagon.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Braman, cook, United States Army Ground Forces: Around 9:25, my wife called – in a panic – and said that a plane had hit the Trade Center in New York. I remember reading that morning that some general from the Afghan Northern Alliance had been assassinated over the weekend. I said to my wife: – You know what, I bet those two cases are connected somehow. Later I realized that she didn’t want to hear that at all – she just wanted to know if I was okay. I told her: – Don’t worry about anything. I love you.

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