President Bush after he receives news of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Meanwhile at the White House, there was total confusion. Counterterrorism Director Richard Clarke arrived at the mansion at the same time as news of the second plane hitting. He realized the President was not there and went immediately to the office of the Vice President. "The Vice President asked, what do you thinks going on? I said it's pretty clear to me -- when two buildings get hit simultaneously, more or less simultaneously, by two large aircraft, this is a terrorist attack. Which means it's al-Qaeda because no other terrorist organization has that kind of capability and intent. I also suggested to him it wasn't over. And the President was a thousand miles away."
The President was now in an adjacent classroom with his staff watching the events in New York on television. He was on the phone with the White House. "We asked the President to stay away, not to return to Washington because as far as we were concerned, Washington could be a combat zone and the last thing in the world we wanted was the President to fly into a place that was about to blow up," explains Clarke.
The 9/11 Commission Report - this is the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States
The story of what went on behind the scenes with the President that day is still filled with mystery and controversy. Bush made his first televised statement to the nation at 9:30 and then his Secret Service bodyguards were supposed to whisk him away to Air Force One. Unfortunately, it turns out that the motorcade sped off in the wrong direction. After several kilometres, the Secret Service had to perform an embarrassing U-turn in order to head for the airfield.
Inside the presidential limousine, there was more chaos. The President was trying to speak to his staff at the White House but all the secure telephone lines were down. The communications system overloaded. Mr. Bush was reduced to trying to contact Washington on a borrowed cell phone but even that didn't work. "The President said to us, you know I could not, for awhile the communication from the White House broke down and I couldn't reach them and they couldn't reach me. That was scary on both sides because the President is the only one who can give certain orders that need to be given," says Kean, chair of the 9/11 Commission.
Mr. Bush expected the communications problem to be solved when he boarded Air Force One in Florida at 9:45 am but the phones there worked only sporadically. Kean recalls, "In the case of any kind of attack in the United States, what you're supposed to do is get the President off the ground, and Air Force One then becomes the command centre. And the President is then safe and is commanding the forces of the United States from the air. The communications didn't work."
Former Senior Advisor
The President's Senior Advisor Karen Hughes, was trying to call him through the White House switchboard. "The operator came back and I remember his voice was kind of shaky and he said - 'Ma'am we cannot reach Air Force One.' And that was a very, very, frightening moment because, of course, I never had that happen before."
On September 11th, not only was the President out of touch the White House was left unprotected. At 9:30 am, two more jet fighters took off from Langley Air Force Base near Washington but due to mistaken communication they were given a flight plan which took them east out over the ocean. They went almost 250 kilometres in the wrong direction. In the White House, Richard Clarke was wondering why there were no jet fighters overhead, "We certainly asked right away for combat air patrol. I would guess that probably the defence department had already requested it. It seemed like it took forever."
Things were about to get worse. Shortly after 9 am, American Airlines realized that another of their planes, Flight 77, was probably hijacked. Again, relaying the news to the U.S. military would be delayed this time by half an hour. Lt .Colonel Steve O'Brien of the Minnesota Air National Guard happened to be in the Washington area that day. He took off from Andrews Air Force Base at 9:30 in a C-130 cargo plane. Unaware of what was going on, he was pointing out the sights of the national capital to his crew. Then, air traffic controllers asked him to look out for the American Airlines plane. In fact, the hijacked aircraft was about to collide with him. "At that time, we had been converging to the point where he had started to roll up into a forty-five degree bank turn and was almost filling up our entire windscreen. It was fairly close. I would say within a half mile or so. Then maybe five, ten seconds later they came back and asked us if we still had him in sight and if we did they'd like us to follow the aircraft. That was strange, because I've never in twenty-something years of flying have I been asked to follow an aircraft, especially a commercial aircraft," says O'Brien.
American Airlines Flight 77 would crash into the Pentagon at 9:37 am. O'Brien witnessed the crash from the air, " We saw the explosion and I knew right away what had happened. The way it hit the Pentagon, it didn't look like it was an accident. I mean most pilots, if they've got an emergency going on in their aircraft, they are going to do everything they can to avoid populated areas, certainly avoid hitting a big building if they can."
AA Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
After the Pentagon was hit, Richard Clarke gave the order to evacuate the White House. "On a given day, there're probably a couple of thousand people in that area and we evacuated all of that very early on. We just told people to leave, get out of the city."
As almost everyone was rushing out of the White House, the President's Senior Advisor Karen Hughes, was on the way in. "I walked in and there was no one there. Everyone that I'd seen had had guns drawn, looking as if they were ready to use them if need be. So I didn't want to surprise anyone. I remember yelling, hello, hello, is anyone here? And two Secret Service agents ran around with their weapons drawn, ran into the foyer and then they, once they realized it was me, took me to meet the Vice President."
After the Pentagon was hit, the Vice President was taken to a bunker deep in the ground under the White House. He ordered emergency measures designed to ensure continuity of the U.S. government in the event of nuclear war. Around Washington, senior government officials were rushed off to bomb shelters and other secure locations in case more planes hit more key decision-making centres.
At 9:42 am, the senior air traffic controller in the U.S. ordered that all planes land immediately at the nearest airport, a high-risk procedure that had never been attempted. "Someone did say are you sure you want to do that, but at that point I knew that's what I wanted to do. I felt we had to do something to change the texture of the whole thing occurring. At least this would separate the good guys from the bad and what was left up there would have the military to deal with," explains Ben Sliney who was in charge of air traffic control.
But the military had no plan to deal with the last hijacked flight on September 11th - United 93.
ABOUT THE DIRECTOR
The PBS Frontline broadcast of Trail of a Terrorist was a co-winner of the prestigious Gold Baton at the Dupont-Columbia Awards in 2002, considered the highest honour in American Broadcast Journalism.