Editor’s note: This In Market colum featuring former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card’s recollections of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, was originally published in September 2014.
On Sept. 10, Andrew Card spoke at a luncheon at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, an event sponsored by the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition. Card is a former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and White House Chief of Staff. He was the man who first told President George W. Bush about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I attend many events. I was at the back of the room and when he started speaking about 9/11. No one got up. No one checked their phones. How rare is that these days? Tears? There were plenty, but laughs too. Here are some excerpts of his remarks recalling the events of Sept. 11, 2001, remarks that riveted a crowd of about 500 to their seats:
“Sept. 11, 2001 was an amazing day. It was a perfect day in the lower 48. We woke up in Sarasota, Fla., And there was not a cloud in the sky in the lower 48. It was a perfect day. We arrived in this resort in Sarasota. And when we arrived, there was this terrible stench in the air, and that was because the fish had died and washed up on the beach — because of red tide — and it stunk. I don’t know why I remember this. That was my first impression of Sarasota, Fla.
We went out for dinner with his brother and he actually stayed out late, which Bushes don’t generally do.
“I was a little worried about the next day, but it wasn’t because of what would happen the next day, it was because I knew what the President was going to do the next day, he was going to go for a run. You wouldn’t worry about that, but chiefs of staff worry about things like that. Because I was worried that the terrible stench from the red tide would make him sick. And I knew the president was worried about the run, but it wasn’t because of the red tide. It was because he had invited a reporter to go running with him. And then he regretted doing it when he found out the reporter had been an All-American NCAA cross countryman. All of the Bushes, I don’t care what their gender or what their age is, they are very competitive. They don’t allow their grandkids to win at checkers.
“I went to bed worrying about the run. I woke up to check if the stench was still there – it was. I actually said the term [to the president]: ‘It’ll be an easy day.’ The president came back, [he beat the reporter] he was feeling great. We sat down to do the CIA briefing. Not that memorable …. I do remember two people asking a question. ‘Anybody hear about the plane crash in New York City?’
“At the school, Emma E. Booker Elementary School: I looked at the bulletin board and believe it or not there was a word misspelled on the bulletin board and I got a book cover and covered over that word. I didn’t want a potato moment. And the president, the principal of the school and I were standing at the door when a Navy captain … who was acting national security adviser on the trip, came up and said, ‘Sir, it appears there’s been a small twin-engine prop plane crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.’ The principal, the president and I had the same reaction “Oh, it must have been a horrible accident. The pilot must have had a heart attack or something.” And the principal then opened the door of the classroom and the principal and the president entered the classroom and the door shut. Right after the door shut, [the acting national security adviser] came up and said, ‘Sir, it looks like it wasn’t a small twin-engine plane, it was a commercial jetliner.’ ”
“My mind flashed to the fear that must have been experienced by the passengers on the plane. I don’t know why, but that’s where my mind went. But that was only a nanosecond. And then she came to me and said, “Oh my gosh, another plane hit the other tower at the World Trade Center.” Then my mind flashed to three initials. U.B.L. Osama Ben Laden. I knew about the first attacks on the World Trade Center and I performed a test. Does the president need to know? It was an easy test to pass. Yes.
“I made a conscious decision to pass on two facts, make one editorial comment and made the decision to do nothing to invite a question from the president. I didn’t want to start a dialogue. I thought quickly about what I would say and I really did think about it. I opened the door to the classroom and I stepped inside and the teacher was sitting in front of the student body and there was a dialogue she was addressing.
“The teacher instructed the students to take out their books and that’s when I walked up to the president and leaned over and whispered in his right ear and said, ‘A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.’ That was all I said to him and I stood back from him so he couldn’t ask any questions. I saw his head kind of bobbing up and down and then I went back and stood at the back of the classroom. Right in front of him were very innocent second graders. He did nothing to introduce fear in front of those very young students. He didn’t jump up with his hair on fire or fall to the floor in the fetal position. I suspect he was reflecting on his obligation, the oath that he took to preserve, protect and defend. I think that’s the day he became president. I was also pleased that he didn’t get up because if he had come into that holding room with me everyone would have gravitated to him and he would have shouted out orders and they would have all turned and started doing things. Instead, I could be in that room and say, “Get the FBI director on the phone, get a line open to the vice president, get a line open to the White House Situation Room.” To the Secret Service I said, ‘Turn the motorcade around, we’re going to have to get out of here.’ To the crew of Air Force One, I said (get ready to take off) … The president walked into the room after about seven and one-half minutes. I didn’t realize it was that long, but that’s how long it was. What was the first thing he said after everyone glommed onto him? He said, “Get the FBI director on the phone!” We said, ‘He’s right here Mr. President.’ He worked on his remarks and I saw a transformed president of the United States. He was all business. He went in and addressed the crowd in the gymnasium. He only gave a one minute address and he started right off and I was listening and I was upset because what was the first thing he said?
“He said, ‘I have to go back to Washington, D.C.’ and I knew we weren’t going back to Washington, D.C.
“On the way to Air Force One, I’m in the back of the limousine with the president and the president is on the phone, I’m on the phone. We’re trying to track down someone at the Defense Department. He’s calling Secretary Rumsfeld and is a little frustrated we can’t find him and that’s when we hear about the second attack on the Pentagon, American Airlines Flight 77. We get out of the limousine and an unusual thing was happening. We were right at the foot of the stairs of Air Force One and the engines on Air Force One were running. That is a no-no. You don’t start the engines until the president is safely on the plane.
“The president bounds up the stairs, gets on the plane. The door shuts and we’re rolling almost before the door is locked. We take off at a very steep altitude because the pilot is concerned there may be stinger missiles at the end of the runway. The president is all business. He’s making phone calls back to Washington, D.C., trying to track down what’s happening at the Pentagon, trying to find out what’s happening around the rest of the country. He has the foresight to call President Putin to say, ‘We’re going to the highest alert. Don’t overreact. We’re not getting ready for a nuclear war.” Nobody told him to do that, but he did it. Yes, he had the phone call that related to “Do you give our airmen, our pilots permission to shoot down commercial jetliners?”’ I was sitting right across from him as he authorized that. He hangs up the phone and he says, “I was a pilot … I can’t imagine a young pilot getting that order.” He was all business, making tough decisions. One of the decisions he made was we’re going back to Washington, D.C. The Secret Service was saying, “No, we’re not.” The pilot of Air Force One was saying, “No, we’re not.” I said, “Mr. President, I don’t think you want to make this decision right now.” At the same time, the pilot was saying, “Where are we going?”
“It was on the flight back to Washington, D.C., that we picked up communication about the Towers collapsing. The very first hero of the war on terror was a civilian named Todd Beamer, who said, “Let’s roll.” And all those people on that plane, who prevented that plane from being used as a weapon by the bad guys. Instead it was used as a weapon to neutralize them. Those are the people who deserve the first Medal of Honor on that plane. The fighter jets were so close to us we could literally see the faces of the pilots in the fighter jets as we’re coming to land at Andrews Air Force Base. We get off the plane, get on to a helicopter, Marine 1. It lifts off and normally it flies nice and straight to the White House … This time we flew very low to the ground because it’s very hard for a stinger missile to hit you if you’re very low to the ground. And we flew in a very serpentine way, back and forth. All of a sudden you could see smoke billowing from the Pentagon. And the president said, ‘That’s the face of war in the 21st century.’
“I tell you that story, but the truth is I don’t want you to remember my version of the story. I would like you to remember where people were attacked. The World Trade Center. Innocent people went to work and didn’t come home. First responders answered the call and many of them didn’t come home. Folks who worked at the Pentagon didn’t come home. Folks on a plane in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, didn’t come home. We say we’d never forget. That was Sept. 11 and I plead with you.”
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.