Clear the skies
Date : 08 September 2002
Genre : Politics
September 11th 2001
Doug Mills, AP White House Photographer: 'We could see at a distance the President with the Secret Service jogging. Everything about it was ordinary - extremely ordinary. The President had a good jog. The plan for the day was going to be education. He was going to a classroom. And then we were heading back to Washington. Obviously it didn't all end that way.'
The Presidential motorcade heads for a local school. The morning
intelligence briefing over, the threat level considered low. Before the day
ends George W. Bush will have embarked on a remarkable odyssey - unlike any
For hours the country will effectively be run from a blast proof bunker. And
America will be reeling from the most devastating attack since Pearl
Northeast Air Defence Sector, Rome, New York State
At this remote military outpost known as Huntress Control they are - as
usual - scanning the skies, looking for signs of attack from the air.
It so happens that on this morning they are conducting a major war game
called Vigilant Guardian when they receive a call.
Sgt. Jeremy Powell: 'It was the first thing in the morning. We were in the
middle of an exercise. Boston Centre gave us a call - said hey we have a
hijack, a possible hijack, one of our airlines might be hijacked. But since
we were in the middle of an exercise he didn't say 'real world' or
'exercise'. So had to ask him, is this real world or is this exercise, and
he said no, no it's real. We have a no shit hijack. This is real world.'
Robert Marr: 'I'll call 1st Air Force and let them know we've got a
'Duff', F15 Pilot, Otis Air Force Base: 'I was just standing up by the ops
desk and I was told I had a phone call. I asked who it was and they said the
Tower calling and something about a hijacking. It was flight American 11, a
767, out of Boston going to California. At the time we ran in and got suited
The two pilots - known as 'Duff' and 'Nasty' - scramble. They are two of
only four fighter pilots on alert, covering the North Eastern United States.
For years the threat of attack from the air had been considered so small
that on this day the United States mainland is being defended by just 14
planes dispersed at 7 bases.
Duff: 'We went out, we hopped in the jets and we were ready to go - standby
for a scramble order if we were going to get one.'
Neither pilot at this time has any reason to believe that this is other than
a routine exercise.
Duff: 'It's just peacetime. We're not thinking anything real bad is going to
happen out there.
Marr: 'Battle stations is attained.'
American Airlines Flight 11 crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade
Unidentified observer: 'Holy Shit!'
Marr: 'Looks like we've got a possible hijacking. Plan on scrambling the
jets out of Otis, down to military air space south of New York. Scramble
Otis! Scramble Otis!'
The two F15 pilots are 250 kilometres from New York. As they take off they are
unaware that one plane has already hit the World Trade Center.
Duff: 'When we took off we started climbing a 280-heading, basically towards
New York City. I was supersonic.'
The President's motorcade is nearing the school in Florida. One of his aides
travelling with him takes a call reporting an accident in New York and asks
to be kept informed. At this stage the President knows about the first plane
but presumes it's an accident.
A second plane - United Flight 175 - hits the South Tower of the World Trade
Duff: 'It was right about then when they said the second aircraft had just
hit the World Trade Center, which was quite a shock to both Nasty and I,
because we both thought there was only one aircraft out there. We were
probably 70 miles or so out when the second one hit. So, we were just a
matter of minutes away.'
Nasty, F15 pilot, Otis Air Force Base: 'For a long time I wondered what
would have happened if we had been scrambled in time.'
Duff: 'We've been over the flight a thousand times in our minds and I don't
know what we could have done to get there any quicker.'
Unidentified schoolteacher: 'Get ready ... give yourselves a pat on the back
Pres. George W. Bush: 'Yeah!'
Ann Compton, White House Correspondent, ABC News: 'There were about 5 of us
standing at the back of this second grade classroom - little kids there
running through their reading drills with their teacher - it seemed like the
most innocent, most normal, most kind of ordinary place in the world. But I
did a double take when the President's Chief of Staff came in, leaned over
and whispered into the President's ear. Now that's remarkable, nobody ever
interrupts the President, even when he's in front of a group of six year
olds, it just isn't done.'
[Andy Card whispers in President's ear.]
Mills: 'His face just went blank as if 'Oh, my God'. When the Chief of Staff
whispers in your ear, 'Mr President, a second aircraft has just hit the
World Trade Center - America is under attack,' I mean I can't imagine what
was going through his mind.
Duff: 'We were to proceed to Manhattan directly and set up a combat air
patrol. It was like you're in the middle of a bad B-movie - flying over
Central Park, chasing down aeroplanes and watching the Towers burning and
flying by the Statue of Liberty. It was a very surreal kind of experience.
It shouldn't have been happening.'
At the school, President Bush uses a secure phone to call the Vice
President. He turns often to look at a TV screen and declares 'we're at
war' - unaware a third hijacked plane is airborne.
Major Dean Eckmann, F-16 pilot, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia: 'The
scramble horn goes off and we get the yellow light, which is our battle
stations. So at that point I go running out to the aeroplanes - to my
assigned alert aeroplane - get suited up and I get into the cockpit ready to
Dean Eckmann and Craig Borgstrom are the remaining two pilots on alert in
the North East. Controllers are aware of other hijacked planes. These pilots
are told to fly to Washington to protect the capital. But their base is
almost 300 kilometres away.
Eckmann: 'They go 'active air scramble, vector zero one zero one, max
speed'. And then I push us over to the tower frequency and get our departure
clearance and they launch us out right away.'
Even while last minute pre-launch checks are being made, the controllers
learn that a third plane - American Airlines flight 77 out of Washington -
may have been hijacked.
Marr: 'North East sectors back on. We ought to be getting the weapons crews
back in. Get the scramble order rolling. Scramble.'
Eckmann: 'We can carry M9-Heat Seekers, Side Winders for the M7-Sparrow,
plus we have an internal 20mm Vulcan Cannon, and we were pretty much armed
with all that. We had a pretty quick response time. I believe it was four to
five minutes we were airborne from that point.'
The pilots get a signal over the plane's transponder - a code that indicates
an emergency wartime situation.
Emma E. Booker School, Sarasota, Florida
President Bush decides to make his first comments: 'Today we've had a
national tragedy. Two aeroplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in
an apparent terrorist attack on our country. And I've ordered that the full
resources of the Federal Government conduct a full-scale investigation to
hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act. Terrorism against
our nation will not stand.'
Officer Kevin Dowd, Sarasota Police: 'The Secret Service agent ran out from
the school and said we're under terrorist attack we have to go now.'
Compton: 'It was a mad-dash motorcade out to the airport.'
Dowd: 'The Secret Service agents all had weapon barrels that were visible
and they were pointing up at the ready position in case they needed to be
On the radar screens an Air Traffic Controller spots an unidentified blip.
It's a plane with its transponder turned off and its heading straight for
Washington DC. It's flying low at 800 kilometres per hour. Air Traffic Control
immediately warns the Secret Service.
Gavin Hewitt, BBC presenter: 'Here at the White House, Secret Service agents
rushed into the Vice President's office. Sir, they said, we have to leave
immediately. Before he could respond they grabbed him under the arms,
practically lifting the Vice President off the ground. They took him to the
White House basement, along a tunnel, to an underground bunker.'
Vice President Dick Cheney, now secure, takes charge (at the Presidential
Emergency Operations Centre). One of those who joined the Vice President
there was his wife Lynne Cheney.
Lynne Cheney: 'My husband had talked to the President and they decided that
the thing to do if the airline continued to approach was to shoot it down.
That was one of the more horrific moments I can remember.'
Eckmann: 'They said - all aeroplanes, if you come within (I believe it was)
30 miles of Washington DC, you will be shot down.'
Also in the bunker Norman Minetta. He was talking to the Federal Aviation
Administration as a suspect plane approached the capital.
Norman Minetta, Secretary of Transportation: 'The young man said to the Vice
President - 'The plane's ten miles out. Do the orders still stand?' - and
the Vice President whipped his head around and said of course they do.'
Some fears turned out to be unfounded but one threat quickly became real.
Unidentified pilot: '... American Airlines plane headed east over the Pike
towards the Pentagon.'
Mike Walter, CNN correspondent: 'I heard the roar of the engine. I rolled
down the window. I looked up, I saw the jet banking and could clearly you
could see the AA on the side, I knew it was an American Airlines jet and it
went into a steep decline & accelerated.'
[Security camera footage of plane hitting the Pentagon]
Voice on police radio: 'We've just had an aeroplane crash, Eastern area,
what appears to be the district area.'
American Airlines Flight 77 hits the Pentagon with 64 people on board. The
fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base had been 160 kilometres away at the
moment of impact - that's 12 minutes flying time. Now, though, the pilots
can see the smoke rising from America's military headquarters.
Dennis Hastert, Speaker, House of Representatives: 'I went to my staff I
said, 'That smoke is not supposed to be there. What happened?' And just
moments later he came back and said, well, there was a third plane that's
gone into the Pentagon.'
Porter Goss, Chairman, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: 'I
tried to call the Speaker and all the phone lines were obviously very jammed
by that time so I just ran down his office which is two floors below and got
in to see him just as the plane hit the Pentagon.'
Hastert: 'So I'm thinking two planes in the World Trade Tower, a plane into
the Pentagon, here we're sitting in this beautiful building on a hill, which
is really the epitome of freedom and liberty and democracy - a symbol around
the world - we've got to be a target if there are more planes out there.'
Goss: 'I said Mr speaker I think we need to leave now.'
Minetta: 'I said bring down all the planes - have them get on the ground as
soon as possible. Now at that point we had something like 4 836 planes in
All flight controllers are told to go to condition Air Traffic Control Zero.
It means clearing the skies of all private and commercial planes - something
never attempted before.
Minetta: 'It's just an immediate reaction to bring the planes down because
at that point also we probably had maybe about ten unaccounted for aeroplanes.'
[Cockpit Voice Recording, Flight 93]
'This is the captain. We'd like you to remain seated. There is a bomb on
board. We are going to turn back to the airport. We have our demands, so
please remain quiet.'
Controllers intercept an alarming message from United Flight 93 bound for
California. It appears to be turning back east, possibly towards the
Capital. And it is not responding.
[Recording of ATC trying to talk to hijackers]
'United 93, I understand you have a bomb on board, go ahead. United 93,
Cleveland, do you still hear the centre? United 93, do you still hear,
Marr: 'I have determined of course that with only four aircraft, we cannot
defend the whole north eastern United States. That was the sensation of
frustration of - I don't have the forces available to do anything about
People begin running from the Capital building.
Unidentified staff member: 'I can't take this. I'm going home!'
Word is spreading that there is a fourth hijacked plane, twenty minutes out
and approaching fast.
Lt. Dan Nichols, Capitol Police: 'That day I thought we were going to lose
the capital of the United States to a terrorist attack.'
Unidentified police officer: 'Let's get away from the building.'
Two jets are diverted from a training mission in a desperate attempt to head
off United Flight 93. These planes, like others called on that day, have not
even been armed.
Marr: 'Sometimes the only way to stop an aircraft is with your own aircraft
if you don't have any weapons.'
Police officer: 'Find out who is missing, who is missing from your office,
or if everyone is accounted for. So if you can please co-operate ...'
Nichols: 'You'd spot people's shoes that people were so frantically trying
to get out of the buildings they actually ran out of their shoes and left
their shoes behind.'
Hastert: 'Two of my security people grabbed me - one on each side - and said
we think a plane's coming for the Capital. And so I was exited out, down
through the tunnels, into our car and shuttled off at high speed to Andrews
Goss: I turned to look at the Speaker and he was gone. The security people
had taken him away. As you know, he's third in line of succession, so he was
whisked away literally.'
Collapse of South Tower
Nasty: 'The New York controller did come over the radio and say if we have
another hijacked aircraft we're going to have to shoot it down.'
Unidentified broadcaster in helicopter: 'It's down! The whole Tower, it's
gone! Holy crap!'
Duffy: 'From where we were sitting you could see there were people dying and
it had to stop. So if that's what its going to take, that was our job. We would have done it.'
Compton: 'We raced to where Air Force One was prepped and ready to go.
The President was hustled quickly on board Air Force One - no waving
goodbye, no shaking hands - on board and the door sealed. And the Secret
Service agents standing with the 13 of us from the press who get on the rear
stairs were yelling 'move it, move it, move it!' We scrambled on board the
aircraft and took off very, very quickly.'
Dowd: 'I've never seen a plane take off like that. From where we were
standing, looking back on it, the angle was almost ... from where we were
looking at it, it looked like it was going almost straight up.'
Compton: 'And for the first time that day, I felt a chill of foreboding. We
were alone on an aircraft, the skies were empty. The terrorist threat was
still undefined to us. We knew very little. The TV signal that we could see
in the front of our cabin of our screen was very weak. It showed smoke
coming from the Pentagon. It had more questions than answers.
Mills: 'No one is to use their cell phone or pagers - no two-way paging, no
cell phones, period. And we're like 'why?'. Well, 'we could be being
tracked'. It was unprecedented.'
Television commentary: 'It's worse than any disaster movie you could
Compton: 'I've always known there's a Doomsday scenario of how to evacuate
and keep a President safe to maintain the American government's chain of
command in the worst nuclear disaster. I never thought I would be sitting on
that military aircraft watching the plan go into effect.'
Brig. General Jim Hunter, Vice Commander, Cheyenne Operations Centre: 'There
was a lot of discussion as to where the President should go, they wanted to
keep him moving, a moving target's obviously harder to hit.'
North American Aerospace Defence Command, Colorado
Tracking Air Force One - with the President on board - is the responsibility
of a command post inside Cheyenne Mountain. This is the nerve centre of
North America's air defence.
Dug into the granite are fifteen two-storey buildings mounted on springs;
designed to continue to operate in the event of a nuclear attack.
That created a problem on September 11. In searching for potentially hostile
planes, the military could see less than a fifth of the 4 000 planes in the
air. They were tracking 001 - the President's plane - yet they found
themselves partially sighted just as the Federal Aviation Administration was
reporting a growing number of hijacks.
Lt Col. Bill Glover, Commander, Air Warning Centre: 'We were receiving calls
from the FAA now that were saying hey this may be a possible hijack or this
aircraft may be a possible hijack. We did not know how many more there were.
Were there 5,6,7, or 8?'
Hunter: 'Eventually during the morning we had the President, The Vice
President and the Secretary of Defence of the United States on the line.'
Glover: 'When the Vice President called, he said that our primary
responsibility at this time - because at that time we didn't know how many
more there were - was we had to protect the civilian government
infrastructure there in Washington DC.'
Marr: 'The words that I remember coming over the phone over our secure lines
were basically we will take lives in the air to preserve lives on the
The fourth plane - United Flight 93 - crashes into the ground in
Pennsylvania. For a time the President didn't know if fighter planes have
shot it down. Only later does the story emerge that passengers had fought
with the hijackers. Had it proceeded to Washington, Flight 93 would have
Lynne Cheney: 'It was a great relief, I can assure you to everyone, when we
learned that the plane had not been shot down, that in fact it had crashed
for other reasons - we weren't sure why. But I remember my husband saying
that he suspected there were heroes on that plane.'
Alarms sound in the White House: 'Everybody out. Evacuate the White House.'
Across the road from the White House in Lafayette Park, police and secret
service agents run into the streets with automatic weapons. The capital
becomes a city of panic and rumours. It is believed wrongly that a bomb has
exploded at the State Department. All government buildings begin to
Police officer: 'Everybody start heading that way, come let's go!'
Television reporter: 'Oh, it collapsed right now. As you can see - I assume
you're taking my picture but I do not have a monitor - just now we had a
middle section from the E-ring of the Pentagon collapse from the amount of
fire and destruction from this. So obviously there was a great deal of
Those inside Cheyenne Mountain now take an unprecedented step to defend
their command centre.
Hunter: 'The blast doors were closed that morning for the first time in
anger since this place was opened for operations in 1966. We'd received
intelligence that there might be another airliner airborne from a city in
the United States whose target was specifically Cheyenne Mountain. So we did
what we call buttoning up the mountain we closed the blast doors and
everybody that was in the mountain was going to stay for a while.
'I've never been in combat and that morning was the first morning that I had
ever really faced a real threat.'
Glover: 'We were receiving all kinds of input from everybody. We received an
input that there was a yellow transport truck coming up the hill with 7
Islamic folks in the front cab.'
Hunter: 'Once I realised we had those blast doors closed I think they could
have launched airliners at this mountain all day and we never would have
felt the effects of it because we have 26 hundred feet of granite above us.
We have two 25-ton blast doors protecting us.'
Collapse of North Tower
Duff: 'I decided to go take a look at the North Tower see how it was doing.
So I flew by. Nasty and I were both over by the north tower over the top,
looking down at it. And right at that moment it just started falling away
from me and I couldn't really comprehend what was happening.
'It wasn't until I saw some of the plume coming up from the bottom of the
building that I realised that it was imploding upon itself. And at that
point I had the sickest feeling I've ever had in an aeroplane.'
Nasty: 'My father worked on a skyscraper in Chicago when I was a kid and I
think 18 000 people worked in the skyscraper. So when the Towers came down I
thought at least 30 000 people were killed. Sorry, stop [starts crying].'
Duffy: 'Watching that go on, it felt like we were at war and like at that
point we were losing.'
Nasty: 'We were going to take whatever it took to keep that from happening
US Strategic Command, Nebraska
Sign: 'Conference in session'.
Unidentified speaker: 'Good morning, sirs. This update-briefing is classified.'
America's nuclear strike-force is controlled from US Strategic Command. That
day military commanders - from their blast proof bunker 20 meteres underground - are conducting a major exercise involving America's nuclear forces. They decide to cancel the exercise immediately. And, like American forces world-wide, are now put on Defcon-3. This is the highest state of alert since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Brig. General Kelvin Coppock, Director of Intelligence, US Strategic Command: 'This command has practised for fifty plus years for the unthinkable. We did not know how big it was going to be. With the aeroplanes we had to worry about other types of activities, such as chemical or biological attacks. So we war-gamed those to see where would they occur, how would they occur, what our response would be.'
This is also the home of the National Emergency Airborne Command - which operates the so-called Doomsday planes. Their purpose is to control nuclear forces from the air in time of crisis. It is decided to deploy the Doomsday planes.
Onlookers: 'What was that plane? It's the Doomsday plane.'
Secret Service agents take to the roof of the White House, looking for more
planes. During the day, 21 aircraft are identified as possible hijacks. That
morning, it's decided to execute a secret plan to ensure the survival of the
American government and its leadership.
Nichols: 'In order to ensure continuity of government we evacuated the leadership completely out of the City of Washington to a secure location.'
Hastert: 'I then flew out to a non-disclosed location. And I remember being in that helicopter and flying across the southern tip of Washington, looking down and there's nobody on the streets, no cars moving on the streets. I went across the Potomac River and looked down. Never dreamed that when I was ... I would ever be Speaker of the House, but if I would, we'd be doing something like this.'
For the first time, the President activates a top-secret plan - originally designed as an insurance policy against Armageddon. Its purpose is to ensure the line of succession to the Presidency and protect America's political leadership, come what may.
Top Congressional leaders and Cabinet Members are now removed to secret
locations housed underground. For those in direct line to succeed the President, the prospect that they could be running the country by the end of the day no longer seems the stuff of dreams.
Hastert: 'I'm immediately behind the Vice President to succeed the President and we knew the President was pushed onto Air Force One and we thought he was safe. We knew that the Vice President was in a secure location. But anything could happen on a day like this.'
Described as small cities built into granite, the secure locations are designed for long term occupation. They are intended to provide every basic facility for the Senate and House leadership.
This bunker is located under a hotel. The entrance disguised as a television repair shop. There are decontamination suites in the event of a nuclear attack. This place has been decommissioned but there are thought to be 50 active sites throughout the country.
That morning about 100 senior civil servants are also dispatched to underground bunkers. They are to provide the basis for a shadow government in case of further attacks.
The Congressional leadership remains protected until it is considered safe for them to return to Washington later that day.
Hastert: 'I was eventually joined by the other leaders of the Senate and House and just like the rest of America watched over TV the happenings of that day.
The President - aboard Air Force One - is advised by the Vice President that it is unwise to return to Washington while any civilian planes remain in the skies.
George W. Bush now summons two congressmen who are on the plane with him.
His television is showing pictures of the collapsed Twin Towers.
Compton: 'At 11:31, Ari Fleischer said, 'Off the record, President Bush is being evacuated'. And I said, 'Evacuated - you can't say that off the record - that is historic!'.'
Ellington Field Air Force Base, Texas
F16's are launched to provide a fighter escort for the President's plane, which is now thought to be a target.
Unidentified officer: 'We have a whirl-wind event in progress. All personnel report to their stations.'
Putnam: 'There was a substantial and credible threat to Air Force One.'
Lynne Cheney: 'The report came in that a phone call had been received that said that Angel was coming down, this has since been reported. This is not a widely know reference to Air Force One and so it was assumed that this person had some knowledge of what he was talking about.
Some on board are told incorrectly 'we could be next' after a caller had
rung in using the secret code words identifying the plane. Fighter pilots
were instructed they could use deadly force to protect the President.
Major Rolando Aguila, fighter escort pilot, Air Force One: 'We were given -
for the first time ever in alert history we were given - carte blanche to
shoot anybody down who wasn't responding.'
Compton: 'F16 jet fighters appeared off the wings.'
Mills: 'They were so close that we could see the pilot's head as he flew
right off the left wing of the plane. I was scared to death.'
First stop for the President's plane - the home of the B52 bomber -
Barksdale Air Force Base.
Mills: 'It was just eerie. Once we got to the bottom of the steps, 2 or 3 cars pulled up and these military officers in fatigues - camouflage - have M16s, and they're jumping out and running around Air Force One, 'you take the left wing, I got the right wing' and yelling at each other.'
The President is put inside a humvee with a gun turret. A military convoy takes him to a building where he calls the Vice President and the Secretary of Defence. By now the country is on nuclear alert. America's borders have been sealed. A State of Emergency has been declared in the nation's capital.
With so much still uncertain, Air Force One is re-supplied on the basis it may be the President's flying command centre for the foreseeable future.
America's skies are cleared of over 4 000 commercial planes in less than three hours.
The President is advised that there are still concerns about possible hijackings of international flights. He is warned not to return to Washington and heads for an airbase with an underground command centre.
Airforce One lands at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
The President is taken to a cinder block bunker sixty feet below the ground. Here he holds a videoconference with eight members of the National Security Council. Osama Bin Laden has already been identified as the likely source of the attacks.
There is still concern about six international flights but while at the Offutt base the threat is reduced to just one plane.
Major General Larry Arnold, Commander, 1st Air Force: 'The last aircraft that we were concerned about was a flight from Madrid to JFK Airport in the United States. We had a conference call going with everyone in the world. The White House was on this conference call, we were on this conference call, all the military, the FBI, the CIA, every agency that you could imagine was there. The President and the Secretary of Defence were on this call and the President desperately wanted to get back to Washington DC.
'We were able to determine that aircraft was not being hijacked by calling the company. The company confirmed that the aircraft had turned around, had indeed flown back to Madrid, had landed and they had talked to the pilot. We found that out by calling the company direct.
'And so I just picked up the conference call and said, 'Mr President, we have confirmation - that aircraft has turned around, is on the ground and we have no other aircraft in the system'. And with that he got in his aircraft and flew back to Washington.'
The President finally returns to Washington. In a matter of hours the country has been changed. America had been found unprepared for a new type of war. Innocence had been lost.
An escort of six helicopters was waiting for him. Three hundred fighters were defending the skies.
America would soon realise there was no immunity from the world's conflicts.
Pres. George W. Bush: 'It was a traumatic day of course and I remember being
glad to get back to Washington. And the chopper pilot flies by the Pentagon.
And I saw one of the great symbols of our strength up in flames. And it
reminded me that we are in a new war - a visual reminder about the struggles
that laid ahead for our country. It was just an impressionable moment for
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.