Voices of 9-11: `A Cacophony of Information'

Updated: September 1, 2011 | 5:26 p.m.
August 31, 2002
AP Photo/The White House, David Bohrer

Operations Center: The vice president confers with the president. Mary Matalin is to Cheney's right.

The following are first-person accounts of Americans and their experiences on Sept. 11, 2001. These interviews originally appeared in the Aug. 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.

Mary Matalin, 49
Assistant to the president
Counselor to the vice president

I was standing at the vice president's outer desk-this oft-told story-and the Secret Service swept in and carried him away. Nobody knew what to do. Then we got evacuated to the mess. I was not freaked out by this, but then all the mess people were getting evacuated out of the building. So I just went with that crowd, and that's the crowd that was saying, "Run, run, run! A plane is going to hit the White House!"

I was going to a labor meeting that day, so I had dressed up in my one good outfit and these hideous high heels. Just walking in those shoes and that skirt was a nightmare. I thought, "Well, I should go home to work; I'm not going to be able to work here." I stepped in front of a cab and said, "Take me to Virginia," and the guy jumped out, left the car running, left the door open, and just started running. And I looked around-cars were all just stopped, and no phones worked, and it was like The Day After.

Then out of nowhere, my cell phone rings, and it was the President's Emergency Operations Center saying, "The vice president wants you now. Where are you? You've got to get back here!" I go running back in those high heels from hell, and get to the Pennsylvania Avenue gate, and there were guys with guns: "You can't go there! You can't go there!" I'm not usually one to fight with men with guns, so I put whoever that person was from the bunker on the phone with the guy with the gun, and still there was much confusion, and finally that guy on the phone convinced the guy with the gun to escort me to the next guy with a gun-and I'm not talking about water pistols here. So, they finally escorted me all along this labyrinth, and it occurred to me then, if I hadn't thought it was serious earlier, that something very, very globally serious was going on.

I walked right into the midst of the vice president saying, "How should we make a public statement?" He was very firm that the president should do it. Did we have ideas? And my construct was that: A) The government was attacked; B) the government exists still; and C) the military has been deployed, and the civil defense is on duty. Whatever else you wanted to say, those were the things they needed to know, first and foremost. So he was then on the phone with the president talking about that.

Then I tried to get ahold of my kids and my husband. I called his office and said to his staff, "Take two cars, get two kids, and bring them to one place. Do it! Do it! I don't know what's going on, and I'm not going to be able to call you back. Tell James I'm safe."

Then I tried to go back to work. There are two video functions in the bunker. One is the teleconferencing, and off to the side was this big-screen TV. But there was some technical problem: You could only have the sound on one or the other. The vice president obviously wanted to keep talking to the Pentagon, but then he couldn't hear what was on CNN. He just demanded that it get fixed, now. How could it not work? It was as mad as I'd ever seen him up to that point.

Once you are underground, then you're underground-totally at the mercy of what was running on CNN. It wasn't a chaotic situation, but it was a cacophony of information. For some reason, we all were looking at the TV when the second tower fell. It was some kind of pivotal moment, which to this day I can't articulate. I don't think we worked any differently before or after it, but it was unimaginable. I don't ever remember being scared, except for my kids.

When the president got to Offutt, he and the vice president were teleconferencing and the vice president was saying, "I'm about to brief the leadership." And the president filled the screen-he leaned into the screen and he said, "Make sure you tell them that this is the focus of my administration, and we're going to get these guys!" You could have heard a pin drop. That was the first time that we'd seen him. It was an emotional turning point. We felt more oriented, and connected, not so cut adrift. It was like we were all now in one place.

An embarrassing moment: Karen Hughes and I wanted to do something with the press. I said, "Let's bring the press back in." And the Secret Service would not let the press back in the grounds. I guess they thought the White House was still a target. And I just lost it, and I started screaming: "We have to talk to America! This is ridiculous!" I wasn't trying to not protect the press, but I made a scene, which I immediately regretted.

So then Karen and I were kind of like, "Where can we go that we have a press facility?" And I'm like, "Well, I'm not going anywhere in these high heels!" Someone figured out that we could be driven to the FBI, which is where we ended up for the statement. Karen was uncharacteristically nervous. I held her then: "Breathe! Breathe! You'll be great." She took a deep breath and steeled her shoulders, and she went out there and she was great. Then we came back to the bunker.

The next day, with 10 minutes' notice, some staff got evacuated and moved to the first of the undisclosed secure locations with the vice president. It felt more like a campaign to me-you just collapse into bed at night and have a coma sleep. When we were at this location, while I was working, we were kind of in a netherworld. Late one night, I turned on the TV. All this stuff was happening out there in the real world, on this little, teeny screen, and we were so removed from it, and yet so working on it; and I remember sitting on the end of the bed, and it hit me: Real people died. I just sat there and I did cry. I wasn't sad; I wasn't angry. I was like, this doesn't happen in civilization.

That Sunday night I asked the senior staff, "Was someone going to tell us how to talk to our kids? What should we say?" I thought our circumstances would require particular tutelage in how to speak to our children. It was my then-6-year-old, Matty, who said, "Mommy, I think we should"-I cry when I talk about this-"I think we should pray for Osama bin Laden." I just did what I'm doing now; I couldn't even speak. She said, "He's just a sad person and he's very sick, and we need to pray for him." And I remember thinking, where does this child get this gift? That came from something inside her.

Maj. Michael R. Fenzel, U.S. Army, 35
Former White House fellow, National Security Council

The odd thing about that day is that we were almost totally focused on another issue-and that was, U.S. citizens taken hostage abroad. We were in the final stages of approving a policy, and I was working on a document associated with that when I got a call from the Situation Room, a guy named John who was the shift leader, and he said, "Listen, are you watching CNN?" I said no, and he described what was going on.

I remember hearing someone say, "We're under attack." And it was just such a foreign concept to hear that-that we're under attack. And then to make the logical leap, "Well, the group of us down in this Situation Room are really responsible during this crisis." I mean, it was really overwhelming to someone whose job, before coming to the White House, was to manage soldiers and to lead them into combat, and here I am thinking to myself, "With a suit on, I'm never going to be leading anyone into combat." Well, here, I'm clearly not leading anyone, but I'm part of the effort to manage the crisis.

My boss, Richard Clark, decided to manage the crisis with a video teleconference, and Dr. Rice concurred, because everyone would be sitting in a seat, and every agency would be talking to every other agency. But it was very difficult to talk to the "bunker," the President's Emergency Operations Center. We've got this sub-group that has basically come up, the Counter-Terrorism and Security sub-group that's on the screen, and then you've got the vice president. Here are the people who are really in tune with the language of counter-terrorism, the language of crisis management, and so it was difficult to communicate initially and so I said, "I'm going to go over there and make sure the volume is up high enough for the vice president, so I can translate this counter-terrorism-ese."

So I made my way over to the East Wing, through the West Wing, and I walked outside, and there was no one there. That was probably one of the striking moments of the day for me. It was kind of like a kick in the teeth. No one was there. If you've ever been over there, it's the busiest place in the world in the middle of the day, and here we are, 10 o'clock and there's no one there. It's like tumbleweeds, man. Doors locked that are never locked. There's nobody. I ran into the Secret Service guy from our office and he said, "Where are you going?" I said, "I'm going over to the bunker." And he said, "Oh, you're going to have a hard time getting over there. I better come with you." A much smaller group of people was over there. I would imagine no more than 20 in the Situation Room, down to about 10 in the bunker.

I was simply in a position where I understood that language, and was transferring it to people who needed it. The transference of energy between the Situation Room and the bunker, between all these teams in government, it was tremendous, it was kinetic. I mean, whatever would be happening at Transportation, in terms of grounding aircraft, decisions from the president would be transferred back just as quickly. If something happened at the Pentagon, you knew it in real time because of this video teleconference.

I found myself sitting across from the vice president, or listening to Mary Matalin and Karen Hughes brainstorming about a speech that had to be written. I found myself in a number of surreal circumstances throughout the day, really just trying to stay focused on what needed to be done.

At the bunker, there's a very long table and there are secure telephones at every one of the seats. There are screens, there's the map, there's the clocks with the different times up. And you have these people that are sort of sitting around a room, deliberating. And if someone had a bit of information, they provided it, whether or not you were a director, or the national security adviser, or the vice president, or a radio person, a technological person working on a screen. And everyone was interacting. It was almost as though for a day, rank wasn't what was important. Information was king, and everyone was working together.

Noelia Rodriguez, 43
Press secretary to first lady Laura Bush

It was such a beautiful day. We were getting ready to leave the White House. Mrs. Bush was going to the Capitol that morning to brief the Senate Education committee on the findings of the Early Childhood Cognitive Development Summit we'd held at Georgetown University in July. Senator Kennedy was really interested in that-he'd attended the session.

Richard A. Bloom

Noelia Rodriguez: "What seemed like two dozen of these ninja guys surrounded the [first lady's] car."

I was waiting for Mrs. Bush by the motorcade behind the White House. Sandra Sobieraj of AP was walking by with her cell phone in her ear. She said, "Noelia, all I can say is that your boss's comments better be pretty spiffy because there's a plane accident in New York City." She wasn't being flippant as much as letting me know something else was happening. This visit to the Capitol was big news-or so we thought. The first lady hadn't been up there to do this before, and the former first lady, Senator Clinton, was going to attend. I looked at the Secret Service agent standing beside me, and we both kind of arched an eyebrow and went back into the White House to turn on the television. Somebody said something about a helicopter, but it didn't look like a helicopter was what hit the building. Then we got the cue that Mrs. Bush was coming downstairs, and we went to meet her. Her lead agent told her a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Her aide Sarah said, "I wonder if this means Senator Clinton won't be at the hearing, because she'll probably have to go to New York."

Mrs. Bush's limo and motorcade left the White House at 9:07. We didn't know it, but by then the second plane had struck. I rode in the staff van. My deputy was in the press van, and as we headed to Capitol Hill she called me and said, "A second plane hit the World Trade Center!" Our van got really quiet. When we arrived at the Capitol at 9:16, I jumped out and ran to the limo and got inside. The agents had already told the first lady. Senator Kennedy came to meet her. He seemed concerned, but stayed calm and focused. I thought it was a very gracious gesture on his part to meet Mrs. Bush. We all went into his office. Senator Judd Gregg came in. Nobody could get a cell to get through, and we took turns using the office phone. Senator Kennedy's dog Splash was there, and I remember everybody petting the dog. His presence, the normalcy of a pet, seemed to have a soothing effect on everyone.

At some point, Mrs. Bush talked to the president. She didn't want to say anything publicly until the president spoke to the nation, but we didn't know when that would be. Karen Hughes wasn't in the office and she wasn't with the president, so I talked to her assistant. "The president is going to be on television in 15 seconds," she said. We watched him, and then Mrs. Bush and I went to a private room in Senator Kennedy's office, and we began writing down what she should say. She wanted to reassure everybody, and we wanted everyone to pray for those in New York. We didn't know about the Pentagon, so we addressed our comments to the people of New York. When we went to the press, Larry McQuillan of USA Today asked, "Is there a message you could tell to the nation's children?" and that's when Mrs. Bush said, "Parents need to reassure their children everywhere in our country that they're safe." That's what people remember her for that day.

We then went to Senator Gregg's office. My worry was the pool reporters. It's funny what you think about in an emergency. We put them all in a room, and the agents said to me, "We have to leave here-and we can't take them with us." Larry said, "Don't worry about us." We left the Capitol at 10:10. Mrs. Bush had a lot of staffers there and some of us were in the limo, which was parked in the portico at the Capitol, and we were talking excitedly: "What could this be? Where are we going? What's next?"-just chatter, you know. Then the driver said something like, "Ladies, this is a time to pay attention." He meant it was a time to be quiet. I think he wanted to hear the instructions he was getting in his earpiece. Just then, what seemed like two dozen of these ninja guys surrounded the car-Secret Service agents all dressed in black. Mrs. Bush then got in the car, and they took us to the "secure location" you've heard about. In the car, we seemed to be going in slow motion. On the way there, we asked, "Why today?" I remember saying, the only thing I can think of is 9/11, you know 9-1-1. We were just trying to make it all reasonable. But it wasn't. There was nothing reasonable about it.

When we got to the secure location, Mrs. Bush told us, "Find phones, get hold of your families, and let them know you are OK." I couldn't reach my mom in Los Angeles, but I did finally reach my brother in Brownsville, Texas, and told him to call Mom. Many of the women on our staff are quite young. Some were crying; others, you could see the shock on their faces. Mrs. Bush was worried about them. She was trying to show by example that everything was going to be OK. She was also concerned about the staff we'd left behind at the White House.

About 1:30 p.m., we were escorted back to the White House to get our purses and keys. And we got the pets, Spot, Barney, and I think India came too. She's the cat. That was the first time I felt afraid. I remember seeing a couple of empty strollers near the East Wing entrance. They must have belonged to visitors who were on a White House tour that morning. It showed how fast they must have evacuated the place. To us, the agent said, "Be fast. Run. Get your things." Later, I found out that when they evacuated the White House, one of the uniformed agents yelled at them, "Take your shoes off and run!" This whole thing was hard on some of these young women. It's pretty heady stuff-you work at the White House, then one day, without warning, you're being told to take off your shoes and run for your life! My deputy left after that, she moved back to California.

Anyway, we went back to where Mrs. Bush was. At about 4:30 p.m., we returned to the White House one final time that day. After we showed our IDs, the agent said, "Thank you, ladies, have a nice day!" I know it's just an automatic response, but it didn't make sense. I said, "I think it's too late for that." Then it was time to go home. Most of us had cars, but I take the subway to work-the Orange Line. I didn't want to go underground. Who knew what was coming next? But I did it. I remember that the people on the subway were very quiet. The other thing I remember about that day is how beautiful it was. It didn't make sense that this would happen on such a beautiful day.

Ashleigh Adams, 27
Former deputy press secretary to Laura Bush

That morning, Mrs. Bush was scheduled to speak at the Senate Education committee. My responsibility was to gather the White House press corps that was going to the Capitol. I walked over to the West Wing press lobby, and there they were watching the footage from the first airplane hitting the tower. I remember thinking, "That's awful." But it never occurred to me that this was the beginning of probably the worst day in American history.

It must have been only a couple of minutes after we departed the White House that the reporters' and photographers' pagers and cell phones started to go off, and someone shouted to me, "Ashleigh, the second twin tower was hit."

Once we arrived at the Capitol, it was a bit chaotic. Ali Harden, Laura Bush's press deputy, was terribly upset about what was going on. She was visibly shaking and crying. One advance-team member's father was in the World Trade Center, and he didn't know whether his father was alive. That was really emotional, to be with the two of them. Then Noelia Rodriguez, Laura Bush's press secretary, said, "You're going to have to tell the reporters that they are on their own." That was hard because I knew something horribly wrong was going on.

At one point, we were all going to leave, and then Mrs. Bush got out of the motorcade, and they told us to stay in the staff van. Everyone was distraught. We didn't know what was going on. We could hear airplanes flying around above us, and I really felt like a sitting duck. We knew something was going on in D.C., because we could see people running around. A lot of us were under the impression that there were car bombs going off throughout the city. Everyone was trying to dial out on their cell phones. I don't know if this was my imagination, but at times, it really did feel like the earth was shaking. We felt something, because at one point, all of us on the staff jumped out of the van.

I remember getting a call-somehow my mom in California got through, and she was crying. I can only imagine how many times she must have had to dial. It was a very poignant moment for me, to say, "Mom, I'm OK." You just feel like an adult when you have to reassure your parent.

From the Capitol, we went to an "undisclosed location." It felt like we were in a war, because the Secret Service was driving next to the motorcade, and they were hanging out of the windows with their machine guns out. I had been around the agents, and I had never seen them with their guns.

At the location, we took turns using the telephone, and then we went to another floor where there was a large-screen TV. Mrs. Bush didn't want the volume up, so we just sat there watching the TV like a silent movie. The image we kept seeing over and over was the image of the two planes hitting the towers. We heard a lot of false rumors throughout the day. Because the TV was on, but we didn't have volume, it was hard to have a true sense of what was going on. I felt so detached. It was surreal.

September 11 was a part of the reason I left the White House staff and moved to California. After something like that happens, you put your life into perspective. My family is out here, and my fiance is in California. September 11 reminded me that you can have a fabulous job, but it isn't anything if, at the end of the day, you go home and there's no one there to share it with.

Gary J. Walters, 55
White House chief usher

I've worked at the White House for 32 years, and I've been in the Usher's Office since 1976. It's the office responsible for the activities in the executive residence and on the grounds of the White House, those events that most people refer to as social activities-state dinners, receptions, bill signings, various activities that occur on the grounds. The executive residence staff, which I manage, is 95 persons. We really are a service organization for the first family and their guests.
Richard A. Bloom

Gary Walters: "If I'd put my legs any closer together, my knees probably would have been knocking."

On that morning, September 11, I escorted Mrs. Bush out to the South Portico. She was going down to Capitol Hill. As she started to get into her limousine, her lead agent bent over and said that he'd just gotten word that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. That occurred at 8:55. At 9:05, I came back into my office and found my staff and a couple of police officers gathered around the television. A second plane had hit the second World Trade Center tower. I was just completely shocked. We all kind of stood there, mesmerized by the discussion on television.

I called Cathy Fenton, the White House social secretary, and asked whether there was going to be a congressional picnic, as scheduled for that evening. We had already set up the South Grounds for 1,500 people. The social secretary said that she'd have to talk to the political people in the West Wing and get the definitive answer. But I made the decision to start taking the picnic tables away from the South Grounds so the president could come in by helicopter. He was down in Florida, doing an event. The White House is his home, and this is where the American people expect the president to be. So there wasn't any doubt in my mind that what we were doing was the correct thing. I got the staff together and started sending them out to the South Grounds-anybody I could think of-because I knew that we had to try to move as quickly as possible.

At about 9:40 or 9:45, I received a call from Cathy Fenton that the picnic had been canceled. At that point, I moved to the South Grounds to supervise. As it turned out later, I knew the exact time because it was reported on television: It was 9:48. A policeman shouted that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I heard a muffled thud, and looked toward the southwest and saw a huge cloud of black smoke rising above the tree canopy.

The staff and anybody else who was around started to run, taking off in all directions. And I yelled for everybody to stop and not to panic. I knew we had to get those tables out. I even felt more urgency, since obviously this was a coordinated attack now. As I got people organized and calmed down a little bit, I heard a loud commotion coming from the vicinity of the Southeast Gate, and I saw our executive chef, Walter Scheib, running as I had never seen him run before, top speed. A police officer came behind Scheib, yelling that a second plane was incoming, and that everybody needed to get out, and get out now. So I also started yelling for everyone to leave.

I was able to get the attention of a couple of my staff. We went to the southeast knoll, a rise in the South Grounds, and the four of us proceeded to stand there, watching the sky and watching the police. It wasn't a good place, but I still had to get those tables out. We joked, should we run over and hide behind a tree if we see a plane coming in? Should we run down and dive in the fountain? I guess it was gallows humor at that point. But I think we were just trying to keep each other calm.

At some point, I looked up at the Rose Garden and there, amongst all the chaos, I saw Dale Haney, one of the grounds crew who takes care of the first family's dogs. He had Barney under his arm, and had Spotty with a collar on and a leash, and he looked like he didn't know what to do. And I was yelling at him to just get out. I didn't learn until later that he'd gone out the Northwest Gate with some others. He took the dogs with him. He's taken care of the dogs ever since the Ford administration.

After we'd been standing on the knoll about 15 minutes, one of the police officers joined us. He proceeded to relay general information he was getting over his police radio. And we all were watching the skies, as I guess everybody in Washington was. While we were standing there-it was about 10:20 to 10:25-we got some information from the police officer that another aircraft may be bound for Washington. I was scared to death.

Soon after that, we heard a loud double boom coming from the southwest. The officer said that the Metropolitan Police had gotten a report that there was a car bomb that had gone off at the State Department. One of the people standing next to me looked up and saw a fighter jet down above Reagan Airport. We realized that the double boom had been a plane breaking the sound barrier. So we probably understood before most of Washington did that that report of a bomb at the State Department was not accurate. That plane took off westward, and as we later found out, it was on a chase path to the plane that was coming in from Pennsylvania. At least that's what we think.

After we'd watched this jet go in the opposite direction, we looked to the east. We could hardly talk. There was a large 747 approaching right over top of the Capitol. We all just kind of stood there, mesmerized, understanding that if that plane was the one coming toward the White House, it didn't matter where we ran to. Our time had come. It continued to climb and finally went out of sight. It was obviously a military aircraft, but it was a 747.

In the vicinity of the White House, it just became very quiet. It was quiet enough for us to hear the aircraft in the air. About 11 o'clock, we were all getting a bit antsy. I realized I was standing with my legs rather wide apart, and I realized that if I'd put my legs any closer together, my knees probably would have been knocking. Everybody was still scared to death. I mean, nobody knew when the next shoe was going to fall. We continued to try and use our cell phones, and I was trying to get a handle on where my people were. We also learned that the White House perimeter had been closed to everyone. I think that was our first indication that we weren't going anywhere.

I needed to do something, and I knew the guys with me needed to get rid of the nervous energy that had built up, so I said, "Guys, let's go move some picnic tables." So we went over and physically started carrying the picnic tables off the lawn. The police officer who was there started helping us. I finally was able to reach my wife and parents, to let them know that I was OK. But I was unable to reach my daughter, who is in college up in Boston. My wife told me that my daughter was absolutely distraught because she heard that a plane had crashed into the White House.

We ended up with about 12 people, I guess, who were helping us to move the 165 picnic tables. We finished moving the tables around 1 o'clock. The reason the time sticks in my mind is because I was able to finally get ahold of my daughter. She was crying, and I teared up because, I mean, a father doesn't like to hear his daughter cry.

I finally went into the Usher's Office and turned on the television, and was just horrified. Immediately, I thought that the plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania was headed for the White House or the Capitol. To this day, there is no doubt in my mind.

About 2 o'clock, one of my assistants, Daniel Shanks, finally was able to get ahold of Walter Scheib, the chef, and get him in through the security. We needed to have a chef, because if the president was coming back, he was going to need some food.

About 3:15, I called down to Chef Scheib and I said, "Walter, we've got all this extra food from the picnic!" I have to say, with a heroic effort, I don't know how else to put it, these guys-the chef; George Hannie, the maitre d'; Buddy Carter, the butler; Daniel Shanks, of my staff; Bob Gallahan, a plumber-over the next three hours, they served over 650 meals. We served the Secret Service officers and agents, any of the staff, the Metropolitan Police, the Park Police-anybody who was inside the perimeter and hadn't had anything to eat since early in the morning.

About 3:45, I received a call from the military. They wanted to know if we would clear the South Grounds so the president could land. I kind of laughed, and I told him that it had already been done. They were quite surprised. I'd also had a call from the Executive Clerk's Office about the status of the White House flag. The president asked that the flag be reduced to half-staff, and we did so. Within two minutes on the television, three of the networks had it on.

About 6:55, the president arrived by helicopter. I can watch the president's eyes and get a pretty clear picture, and he was obviously very on-track, very purposeful. I could tell just from the way he came off the helicopter, there was a definite plan in his mind, and he moved with purpose. I wondered where the helicopter would have landed if we had not stayed and moved the tables, because obviously the landing pad at the Pentagon was right where the plane went in, and the Secret Service wouldn't have wanted him to come in on the Ellipse. So I thought, Well, you guys have done a pretty good job!

The president and Mrs. Bush said thank you to the whole staff. They've always been very good about appreciating, but it was nice to hear. I stayed at the White House that night. I told my wife, "If the president can stay here, I can."

About This Issue: This special report features the accounts of more than 50 Washingtonians who talked with National Journal reporters about their experiences on September 11, 2001. The accounts are in the words of the members of Congress, White House aides, Pentagon personnel, waitresses, cabdrivers, and other area residents who agreed to be interviewed. Conducting the interviews were National Journal staff members James A. Barnes, David Baumann, Carl M. Cannon, Richard E. Cohen, Courtney Crimmins, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., Robert Gettlin, Siobhan Gorman, Erin Heath, Corine Hegland, Louis Jacobson, James Kitfield, Margaret Kriz, Neil Munro, Mark Murray, Molly C. Norton, Patrick B. Pexton, Marilyn Werber Serafini, Alexis Simendinger, Bruce Stokes, Peter H. Stone, Stuart Taylor Jr., Kirk Victor, and Shawn Zeller.

This article appeared in the Saturday, August 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.

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