ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE-- It began as one of the most ordinary of trips with the president. He was talking about education at a time when everyone else wanted to talk about the economy. The stories out of Florida were hardly Page One material.
That all changed Tuesday morning. My cell phone rang as President Bush's motorcade coursed toward Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. A colleague reported that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. No further information.
I called the AP desk in Washington, seeking details. Same scant information. But I knew it had to be grim. I searched for a White House official to question, but none was on hand until 9:05 a.m. Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, walked into S. Kay Daniels' second grade classroom, where the president was observing a reading lesson. He whispered something to Bush, and the color drained from the president's face. Bush looked at the children, at the cameras, at the children again. Card stood off to the side briefly, then left the room. Bush picked up a textbook in an attempt to follow the lesson, his concentration gone.
Clearly Bush now knew what we were trying to confirm.
Within minutes we digested the unfathomable: Not one, but two planes had plowed into the World Trade Center. Unreal. I tried to stay cool as we chased a rumor that the president was going to leave Florida and fly directly to New York (that turned out to be false). We were hustled to the school library, where Bush was supposed to trumpet the merits of reading. Instead, he was juxtaposed against an irrelevant "Read to Succeed" banner, telling stunned children, teachers and parents that terrorists had hit America harder than ever.
"Terrorism against our nation will not stand," he said.
I wasn't ready for that word "terrorism." I wanted to believe a computer, maybe a human, made things go horribly awry in New York. I figured we would jet back to Washington, and the shocked president would disappear behind closed doors to figure it all out. But that word, terrorism, spoke to a much deeper horror.
Our motorcade sped from the school toward Air Force One. After all, this was the type of high-level crisis for which we reporters are forever braced.
This meant getting on an airplane right after terrorists crashed four others. So even though Air Force One is often considered the safest plane in the world, I felt more vulnerable than ever. On a day like today, the president was surely a target too.
My cell phone rang. My sister Terea was calling from Atlanta. "Where are you? Are you safe?" she asked. Yes, I told her, I was with the president. We exchanged I love yous. "Call Mommy," I told her. Our mother has a profound fear of flying. I couldn't bear to deliver news of the flight I was about to take.
In a few frantic minutes, the Secret Service lined up everybody's bags, even those of staffers, so they could be searched for the third time in as many hours. Normally, the press corps is annoyed by multiple searches -- "mags," we call them -- in so short a span of time. This time we gladly yielded to the will of the bomb-sniffing dogs.
I called my boss once more. Above the whir of the Boeing 747's engines, I told her to expect a conference call from us during the flight.
"OK," she said. "A plane has crashed into the Pentagon. I gotta go."
I reeled with disbelief, and scooped up my stuff to scramble up the plane's rear steps. The Pentagon? Hit by a plane? What did this mean for Air Force One? Would they come after the president's plane, too?
There had been nerve-racking flights aboard Air Force One before.
In June 1996, the plane hit turbulence over Texas as President Clinton flew from New Mexico to South Carolina. I was tossed two feet out of my seat. Tex-Mex dinners went airborne with us. Glasses and dishes were broken, but even the president had a good laugh in the end.
This flight was not going to have a similar ending.
Our fears deepened as Air Force One climbed into the sky at 9:55 a.m. EDT. Not only was the Pentagon hit, the White House was evacuated. There was nowhere for the president to go.
The plane's crew scanned the airwaves for TV signals so we could keep up with the drama unfolding on the ground below. I noted the lunch menu: Hawaiian chicken sandwich, macaroni salad, strawberry pudding cake, choice of beverage. Stewards offered beverages, but lunch didn't materialize.
I wasn't hungry anyway. My stomach was in my throat. Grainy TV footage showed the airplane that smacked into the World Trade Center and burst into a fireball.
Disbelieving cries of "Oh my God" rippled through the cabins, over and over again.
For the next two hours, local TV broadcasts brought a torrent of horrible news. All airports were shut down. The Treasury Department, Congress, the State Department were evacuated. The Pentagon was burning. Another plane was down in Pennsylvania. One tower collapsed. Then the other fell. No one dared try to measure the loss of life. And Bush was in an airplane, up among the clouds.
For nearly two hours we speculated about where we might be, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky. White House aides asked us to refrain from using our cell phones and pagers so the signals wouldn't alert terrorists to the president's whereabouts.
Finally, we touched down at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., apparently chosen at random. Our greeters were a few soldiers in camouflage fatigues, toting machine guns and officers in blue uniforms. We watched Bush go into a building to make phone calls before addressing the nation from the general's conference center. We debated how we might divide our duties should White House pare down Bush's entourage to fit inside a Washington bunker.
The White House decided for us that our group of 12 would shrink to five: CBS cameraman George Christian, Ann Compton from ABC Radio, AP photographer Doug Mills, CBS sound technician Erick Washington and myself. The rest would go back to Washington on a support plane.
We spread out in the press cabin, awaiting word on where we were going, what Bush was doing. Our destination was Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., so Bush could go to the U.S. Strategic Command for a national security briefing. Only then would we return to Washington.
Apparently, Bush's impromptu hopscotch across America was designed to give his national security team time to assess the danger he faced.
Chatting with White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on that third flight, I realized an odd bit of trivia. Six years ago Tuesday, I'd reported to the White House for my first day as a reporter there.
"Some anniversary party you threw," Fleischer quipped. We laughed nervously, then went to the cabin across the aisle for a glimpse of the F-16 escort that hovered above our left wing.
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