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October 3, 2002
 
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Pentagon

The Pentagon burns after being hit by a hijacked passenger jet on Sept. 11, 2001. (ABCNEWS.com)
Sept. 11 Scramble
A Plane Hits the Pentagon; Bush Takes Flight; Others Give Orders From Bunkers
ABCNEWS.com

Sept. 14 — As President Bush told Americans the crash of two jets into New York's World Trade Center appeared to be the work of terrorists, the Secret Service was springing into action at the White House.


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FULL COVERAGE
9/11: Remembering
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Sept. 11's Moments of Crisis, Part 1
Sept. 11's Moments of Crisis, Part 3
Sept. 11's Moments of Crisis, Part 4
 

Just after 9 a.m. ET on Sept. 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney was in his West Wing office when two or three agents came in and told him "Sir, you have to come with us," according to David Bohrer, a White House photographer who was there.

One of the agents "put his hand on the back of my belt, grabbed me by the shoulder and sort of propelled me down the hallway," Cheney said.

They took him into an underground bunker known as PEOC, the President's Emergency Operations Center.

"It's got blast doors on each end," Cheney said. "There's a secure phone there as well as a television set."

Up above, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, whom President Bush had telephoned after the first plane hit the World Trade Center's north tower, was trying to find the rest of the president's team. But Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Peru. Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the air. And Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh was at a conference in Montana.

"As I was trying to find all of the principals," Rice said, "the Secret Service came in and said, 'You have to leave now for the bunker. The vice president's already there. There may be a plane headed for the White House. There are a lot of planes in the air that are not responding properly.'"

‘We Just Lost the Bogey’

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta already was in the bunker.

"Someone came in and said, 'Mr. Vice President, there's a plane out 50 miles,'" Mineta said.

Mineta conferred with Federal Aviation Administration Deputy Chief Monte Belger.

"I said … 'Monte, what do you have?'" Mineta said. "He said, 'Well, we're watching this target on the radar, but the transponder's been turned off, so we have no identification.'"

As the plane got closer, air officials had picked up enough information to believe the unidentified plane was headed toward Washington, perhaps toward Ronald Reagan National Airport, near the Pentagon.

At 9:30 a.m. ET, at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, F-16 fighter pilots scrambled into the air 105 miles — or 12 minutes — south of Washington.

"Our supervisor picked up our line to the White House," said Danielle O'Brien, an air traffic controller at an FAA facility near Washington's Dulles Airport, "and started relaying to them the information: 'We have an unidentified, very fast-moving aircraft inbound toward your vicinity, eight miles west, seven miles west.' And it went, '6, 5, 4.'"

"Pretty soon, he said, 'Uh oh, we just lost the bogey,' meaning the target went off the screen," Mineta said. "So I said, 'Well, where is it?' And he said, 'Well, we're not really sure.'"

‘Bang, the Airplane Hits the Building’

At 9:38 a.m. ET, 52 minutes after the first attack on New York's World Trade Center, Allan Wallace, a firefighter with the Fort Myer Fire Department in Northern Virginia, was on duty next to the helicopter landing pad on the west side of the Pentagon.

"I look up and see the airplane," Wallace said. "I hear the noise from the airplane and bang, the airplane hits the building. And that's how fast it happened."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld felt the impact on the fourth floor of the Pentagon, around the corner from the crash site.

"The whole building jumped," he said. "The table shook and the building shook, and … it felt like a bomb had hit the building.

"I went downstairs and went outside, and around the corner, and of course there it was," Rumsfeld said. "There was metal all over the grass, and there were people coming out of the building hurt, and people were assisting them."

"Everything around the firetruck and the fire station, including the blacktop that surrounds the fire truck, was on fire," Wallace said. "There were trees alongside the Pentagon that the leaves were on fire."

‘We’re At War’

High overhead, the jet fighters arrived just moments too late.

One of the pilots, Air National Guard Maj. Brad Derrig, recalled "looking down and actually seeing the Pentagon burning — you know, big black smoke billowing out of it," he said. "And I'm thinking, 'We're at war.'"

Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, at the Pentagon, put together a secret conference call including the White House, Air Force One and other government officials.

Rumsfeld ordered U.S. forces to "Def-Con Three," the highest alert for the nuclear arsenal in 30 years.

"The smoke got intense at one point," said Air Force Gen Richard Myers, working his first day as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I actually recommended to [Rumsfeld] maybe we ought to think about an alternate location."

"I decided I'd prefer to stay," Rumsfeld said.

Instead, Rumsfeld sent his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to a secret, remote bunker where there is a duplicate of the Pentagon's command and control system.

‘This Can’t Be Happening to Us’

As the plane hit the Pentagon, it literally reverberated in congressional corridors, and congressmen could see smoke rising. Police warned congressional leaders the Capitol building could be next.

"People were just as fearful as I've seen," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "I saw looks in senators' faces, looks in staff faces that I've never seen before."

Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., the speaker of the House of Representatives, said: "I'm thinking to myself, 'Here I am, speaker of the House, something I never dreamed would ever happen to me, and we're evacuating the Capitol. This can't be happening to us.'"

Hastert, third in the line of succession to the presidency, was placed in a secure automobile and soon found himself "hurtling through the back streets of Washington," he said.

"We were like everybody else," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. "We were in complete chaos."

Some leaders rushed to the west front of the Capitol, where military helicopters awaited.

"We flew over the Pentagon," Daschle said. "We saw the remnants of an airplane into the side of the Pentagon, with this whole facade caved in, with black smoke and thousands of people gathering around. It was a terrible sight."

‘Wheels Up in Nanoseconds’

In Florida, the president virtually was shoved aboard Air Force One, as other officials and reporters were prodded to race aboard.

"As the president sat down in his chair, [he] motioned to the chair across from his desk for me to sit down," White House adviser Karl Rove said. "Before we could, both of us, sit down and put on our seat belts, they were rolling the plane. And they stood that 747 on its tail and got it about 45,000 feet as quick as I think you can get a big thing like that up in the air."

The plane was in the air by 9:55 a.m. ET.

"It seemed we were 'wheels up' in nanoseconds," said Ellen Eckert, a White House stenographer. "The chatter in the press section of the plane where I was sitting was, 'Where are we going? Where are we going?' And we were looking out the windows trying to see if we could figure out geographically where we were going."

That's exactly what President Bush was being asked to decide.

"He said, 'I'm coming back,'" said Rice, who was on the other end of a phone line in the White House bunker. "And I said, 'You may not want to do that, Mr. President, because Washington's under attack. We don't know where the next attack is coming.'"

She said the vice president gave Bush similar advice.

"There was a little bit of pulling and pushing with him to suggest that we should fly to a secure location where we could have good communication, and then make a decision when he should return to Washington," White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said.

At that point, Secret Service agents were suggesting to reporters aboard Air Force One that they would not be returning to Washington.

‘Get the Damn Planes Down’

Deep beneath the White House, Transportation Secretary Mineta issued an unprecedented order to have planes approaching the Eastern Seaboard turn around and head west, westbound planes keep heading west, and planes near their destinations land. At the time, more than 4,000 planes were in the skies over the United States.

FAA policy normally allows pilots to use their own discretion on where to land in an emergency, but on this morning, "I said, 'Screw pilot discretion. Get the damn planes down,'" Mineta said.

Up above, the Secret Service ordered the White House staff to evacuate.

"As soon as we were outside, Secret Service agents told us to run," said Jennifer Millerwise, press secretary to the vice president. "One of them yelled, you know, 'Women, take off your heels and run. Take off your heels and run.' And so I did."

At that point, dozens of fighters were buzzing in the sky, as more F-16s scrambled at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

"We were told to get airborne and protect the capital," Air Force Capt. Brandon Rasmussen said. "It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that one day I'd be orbiting over the Pentagon that had just been hit, looking for possible incoming aircraft."

‘You’re Going to Have to Shoot It Down’

In the Pentagon command center, there was a report of another hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, which apparently had switched off its transponder and turned toward Washington.

"We rapidly developed some rules of engagement for what our military aircraft might do in the event another aircraft appeared to be heading into some large civilian structure or population," Rumsfeld said.

"They said if we get … another one of these, you're going to have to shoot it down," recalled a fighter pilot code-named "Nasty," who was still airborne after responding to the first report of a hijacked plane.
  •
Moments of Crisis: Part 3 — Shoot-Down Orders

ABCNEWS' Charles Gibson contributed to this report.

 
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