On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, clocks onboard Air Force One glowed with urgency as the president’s plane began a rapid forward roll, taking off under the gravest emergency in its history. President Bush was being evacuated-a term the White House would only use “off the record.”
The first sign of crisis had come at 9:07 a.m. by my watch, as the chief of staff interrupted the president’s visit to a Florida elementary school with the whispered news of a terrorist attack against civilians. In a matter of minutes, President Bush was rushed to the steps of Air Force One, and the engines were revving for the flight back to the capital.
In each of the plane’s compartments, three digital clocks stare out from the forward wall. The LED numerals show the time in Washington, the time at the current location and the time at the plane’s destination. After a hasty refueling at an air base in
Louisiana, leaving most of its passengers and some crew standing in confusion on the tarmac, Air Force One took off with the president of the United States and a handful of others bound for the safety of a secret location. The three clocks read “1:36p” Eastern daylight time, until the destination clock snapped to Central time, “12:36p,” our only confirmation that Air Force One was headed west, away from Washington.
It was the first time in a quarter-century of flying on the president’s plane that I felt a chill of foreboding. F-16s shadowed just off the wing. No place seemed safe. I was the only broadcast reporter on the plane, assigned to represent all my colleagues, and for the coming hours I would have very limited means to tell the American people and the world about the condition of the president of the United States.
Press Secretary Ari Fleischer came to the rear of the plane to tell us he could not say where we were going or when we would ever be back in Washington. But he offered reassurance that we would be cared for wherever the president waited out the crisis. Nearly five hours had elapsed since hijacked airliners destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and a section of the Pentagon.
I marked each moment in my reporter’s notebook. Broadcasters’ lives are ruled by clocks-in the studio commanding a precise start, on wrists driving us through a day, even in the corner of our laptop screens, urging us to write faster.
9:07 a.m.-Florida. The president’s chief of staff whispers to him. The look in George W. Bush’s eyes betrays the dread.
10:29 a.m.-a weak TV signal from the ground brings us a live picture of the second World Trade Center tower collapsing with thousands trapped inside.
10:55 a.m.-Air Force One climbs past 40,000 feet and heads west, diverted from Washington.
2:47p.m.-Air Force One descends over flat, agricultural territory to a medium-size city.
We were not told that we were landing at the headquarters of the Strategic Command in Nebraska, but local news crews figured it out. We had the eerie sensation of watching ourselves landing live on the local TV channel broadcast in our cabin.
Getting out news about the president proved more difficult. At his first stop in Louisiana, we were told not to turn on our cellphones or two-way pagers because the president’s secret location could be traced. In Nebraska, Offutt Air Base was in a “lock down,” but a sympathetic custodian agreed to let us into a well-equipped conference center with ample phone jacks and power outlets for the Comrex Hotline unit I carry to feed radio reports.
My first responsibility was to call in details in a “pool report” to all the other broadcasters and reporters who were left behind. Through ABC News Radio in Washington and through the TV desk pool telephone system among the five television networks, I dictated long narratives, trying to sound as if I were on the air live so the information could be used even by our competition. Several times I was able to call in to ABC’s live broadcasts, usually on a cellphone. The first time was from a van en route to the plane as we first scrambled out of Sarasota, Fla. The driver quickly cut off the radio when she discovered she was hearing me from the dashboard and from the back seat.
Twice I was live on the air when I had to cut off the broadcast in near panic. I interrupted Vic Ratner, the radio anchor in Washington, because we were suddenly hauled back out to the airplane. At another moment in a live voice report on television, Peter Jennings asked where we were going in such a hurry. I could only be honest: “Peter, I have no idea.” In retrospect, not a reassuring message to millions of our listeners.
At 6:47 p.m. Eastern time, Air Force One touched down at home, Andrews Air Force Base a few miles outside Washington. But still, there was no sense of safety. I had only minutes for one last live broadcast as we ran to the waiting helicopters. Peter Jennings asked if the president would take Marine One. I had to answer that we were instructed not to tell our offices or the public. President Bush was indeed about to fly back to the White House lawn, past the thick smoke still rising from the damaged Pentagon.
It had been an intensive 10 hours on the move, but our focus had been on the president’s command, on concrete and twisted steel and shattered airplanes. Only when I returned to the ABC News booth at the rear of the White House pressroom, my pool responsibilities over, did I begin to hear the names of those lost and missing … Barbara Olson … a fraternity brother of my college-age sons. Only then did I sit down and cry.
It was 7:22 p.m., Sept. 11, 2001.
Ann Compton is the national correspondent for ABC News Radio.