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One-two punch put Bush aides in motion Sept. 11

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press September 8, 2002.

AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON - Sept. 11 went by in a horrific flash for senior government officials challenged to respond.

First, a routine morning was shattered by what seemed a freak accident - a plane going into the World Trade Center. Then came the second plane and confirmation America was under attack.

Snap decisions. Chilling moments. Several close aides to President Bush reconstructed their morning in interviews with The Associated Press.


Andrew Card, White House chief of staff, was with President George W. Bush at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., when he learned in a phone call from Washington that a plane had gone into one of the twin towers.

"I remember (thinking) it was a horrible accident, the pilot must have had a heart attack," he said.

Bush got a few details from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who was back in Washington, then went into the classroom to meet the pupils and staff.

"And then word came that a second plane had hit and that the first plane was a jetliner and the second plane was a jetliner," Card recalled. "And I remember thinking to myself, what would I want to know if I were the president?"

He decided Bush must be told quickly, carefully.

"I tried to be very, very efficient with my words, and I was consciously efficient. I said, `A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.' "

"I viewed this as a very grave situation, so I used those words. But more than that, I wanted it to be very succinct. I did not want to stand up in front of the cameras and have a conversation with him. I didn't want him to turn to me and say, `What are you talking about?' So I tried to pick terms that would not invite a conversation."

Dressed in blue jeans and a Tshirt, Karen Hughes was heading from her Washington home to do some volunteer work. The president's communications director had celebrated her wedding anniversary the night before and had missed Bush's trip.

Her cell phone rang. An aide told her a small plane had hit the World Trade Center and "it looked pretty bad." Hughes doubled back into the house, turned on the television and watched the second plane hit.

"I literally dropped to my knees and said a prayer for those people and our country," she said. "It was so horrible and so sickening."

Rice recalled: "I was standing at my desk getting ready to go down to a staff meeting, and my executive assistant came in and he said, `A plane has hit the World Trade Center.' And I thought, `What a strange accident.' "

She discussed it briefly with Bush on the phone. "And he said, `Well, keep in touch.' And I went back down to my staff meeting. And a note was handed to me a few minutes after we started, saying that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center, and I thought, `This is a terrorist attack.' "

Rice was trying to find other national security officials when she heard that a plane had hit the Pentagon.

"Shortly after that, I was told by the Secret Service that I had to go to the bunker because they thought a plane might be headed to the White House." Rice spoke with Bush again and advised him not to return to Washington right away. She called her aunt and uncle - "Let everyone know I'm OK" - then headed for the bunker.

Vice President Dick Cheney was already there and on the phone with Bush. "I think he was saying he was coming back," Rice said. "And the vice president was telling him the same thing - `You really shouldn't come back.' "

Rice dispatched a military driver to pick up Hughes and bring her to the bunker. Along the way, Hughes saw city streets filled with soldiers and military equipment. "It looked like a foreign capital during a coup," Hughes said.

From the car, Hughes tried to call the president, but she got a chilling reply from the military operator.

"Ma'am, we cannot contact Air Force One," he said.

Outside the White House, a guard called his supervisor to see if he could let Hughes pass by. "Are you sure it's Karen Hughes?" the supervisor barked into the phone, loud enough for Hughes to hear.

The baby-faced guard - she thinks he was a soldier - bent over and peered into Hughes' window.

"It's her, sir," the man said into the phone. "I've seen her on TV."

Joe Allbaugh, the Federal Emergency Management Agency director and an old Bush pal, was in Big Sky, Mont., for a conference with state emergency response directors. While going to the conference room, he saw a plane strike the trade center on television.

He walked into the meeting and said, "You all will have to excuse me. I have more pressing matters."

It took several hours for Allbaugh to get to Washington and to the labyrinth of secure hallways beneath the White House. He and top military officials got stranded in one corridor and missed Bush's evening speech to the nation.

Later, Allbaugh came across Lynn Cheney, the vice president's wife, who appeared to have been crying.

Allbaugh joined a meeting in the bunker with Bush and military leaders. The topic was war.

"Get the troops ready," the commander in chief said.

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