Six Years Ago : "America Is Under Attack"

Mark Knoller is a White House Correspondent for CBS News.
On this morning six years ago, a few hours before the date 9/11 took on historic meaning, President Bush was up early as usual.

He had spent the night at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key in Florida and left his suite to go for a run. A reporter invited to jog along said Mr. Bush hit a "very impressive" pace of just over seven minutes a mile.

By 8:30, the President was in his limousine heading for the Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. It was the last stop on a two-day swing in the Sunshine State to spotlight an education initiative called "Putting Reading First."

But it was during the drive to the event that American Airlines Flight 11 was deliberately crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Reporters in the presidential motorcade overheard a message crackle over the White House two-way radio: there was call waiting for the President from National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice.

Once at the school, Mr. Bush took the call and was told about the incident in New York. But it wasn't immediately seen as an act of terrorism. That realization only came a few minutes later as the President was watching teacher Sandra Kay Daniels lead her second grade class in some reading exercises.

At about 9:05, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card was seen to walk over to the president and whisper in his ear. We would learn later that Card told him: "A second plane hit the second tower – America is under attack."

That was about two minutes after United 175 was flown into the south tower of the Trade Center.

Some would later question why President Bush did not immediately leap to his feet, but he remained seated for a few more minutes – apparently so as not to alarm the youngsters. He complimented them on their reading skills. "Really good," he said, "these must be sixth graders."

As he left the classroom, he was asked about the incidents in New York. He said he would have something to say "later."

He returned to his holding room and spoke by phone with Vice President Cheney back at the White House. He had been taken by the Secret Service to the subterranean command post known as the PEOC (pronounced: pee'-ahk) - the Presidential Emergency Operations Center.

Mr. Bush also conferred with FBI Director Robert Mueller and New York Governor George Pataki.

At 9:30AM, the President entered the media room at the Emma Booker School. An audience of about 200 local officials and school personnel was waiting to hear a speech on his proposals for education reform. But those remarks were scrapped.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America," he said.

"Today we've had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country."

The President said he would be returning to Washington to oversee the federal response. He boarded his limousine and raced to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Air Force One was wheels up at 9:55AM.

But Mr. Bush's travel plans had to be altered. He was told by the Secret Service and Vice President Cheney that it was not safe for him to return to nation's capital.

Minutes earlier, both the U.S. Capitol and the West Wing of the White House had been ordered evacuated. There were still more planes in the air the FAA suspected were in the hands of terrorists and headed to D.C.

In the press cabin of Air Force One, reporters watched TV coverage of what was happening. At 10:28, the horrific sight of the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsing was seen live. "Everyone we saw was shaken and aghast," pool reporter Judy Kean of USA Today wrote later of the scene aboard the presidential aircraft.

Uncertain of the president's destination, Air Force One circled above Florida for about twenty minutes. Only then, did the 747 head west, though reporters were not immediately told where the plane was headed.

U.S. fighter jets were spotted taking positions on both sides of Air Force One. Members of the press pool were directed to turn off their cell phones – for fear the signal could be tracked from the ground.

Nearly two hours after take-off, the plane came in for a landing at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. On the tarmac, military personnel in full combat gear quickly established a security perimeter around the aircraft. They wore flak jackets, helmets and carried M-16s in the ready position.

Using the built-in staircase of the 747, President Bush stepped off the plane. Because his visit was totally unexpected, there was no limousine waiting for him. Instead, he got into a dark blue Dodge Caravan. And his highly-abbreviated motorcade included a green Humvee with a gun turret on the roof. Mr. Bush was first driven to a conference center, and then to the headquarters building of the 8th Air Force. A sign on the glass window of the door reflected the highest state of terrorist alert: "Threatcon Delta."

Reporters traveling with the President were directed not to report the President's location, but local media got word of Air Force One's arrival – and the order was eventually rescinded.

Mr. Bush consulted again with VP Cheney and other officials about the situation and at 11:36 Central Time, he appeared before the small pool of reporters to make another brief statement.

"Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended," he said.

He said he wanted to reassure the American people that "the full resources of the federal government are working to assist local authorities to save lives and to help the victims of these attacks."

"Make no mistake," he said, "the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts."

There was no live coverage of what the President said. The pool video tape had to delivered to a local station with a satellite truck so the statement could be shared with all the networks and broadcast to the nation.

By 12:38 pm Central Time, President Bush was back on Air Force One and wheels up from Barksdale. But he was again advised not to return to Washington, and so he headed north to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

He eventually got back to the White House just before seven in the evening. During an interview a year later, I asked Mr. Bush about the flight that evening aboard Marine One as he headed to the landing zone on the South Lawn.

"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--that we're in a new war. It was a visual reminder about the struggles that laid ahead for our countries, and it was a--it was just—it was a--it--it was an impressionable moment for me."

Later, that evening, President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He said the attacks on America that day shattered steel, "but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve."

Six years later, Mr. Bush still speaks of the need for American resolve to complete the mission in Iraq.

While the U.S. engagement in Iraq has the nation divided, one statement Mr. Bush made on the evening of September 11, 2001 remains undeniable: "None of us will ever forget this day."

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.