Drama of 9/11 unfolds in US press aide’s handwritten notes aboard Air Force One

There six pages are the only original verbatim text of what US president George W Bush said on Air Force One, on September 11, 2001, as he and senior aides absorbed the plane attacks on the twin towers in New York City.
This file photo taken on September 11, 2001, shows chief of staff Andrew Card whispering into US president George W Bush’s ear during a school reading event in Sarasota, Florida, shortly after the  World Trade Center towers in New York City were hit by hijacked airplanes. The towers collapsed that day, claiming 2,753 lives. September 11, 2016, marks the fifteenth anniversary of the event. Paul J. Richards / file, AFP
This file photo taken on September 11, 2001, shows chief of staff Andrew Card whispering into US president George W Bush’s ear during a school reading event in Sarasota, Florida, shortly after the World Trade Center towers in New York City were hit by hijacked airplanes. The towers collapsed that day, claiming 2,753 lives. September 11, 2016, marks the fifteenth anniversary of the event. Paul J. Richards / file, AFP

WASHINGTON // The notes are handwritten on a legal pad, and provide a verbatim account of the shock, pain and grim determination aboard Air Force One on September 11, 2001.

They were scribbled by Ari Fleischer, press secretary for president George W Bush. He is releasing them to mark the 15th anniversary on Sunday of the worst attack on American soil since Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

There are six pages, the only original verbatim text of what Bush said on Air Force One as he and his senior aides absorbed the news.

“We’re at war,” Mr Bush told vice president Dick Cheney in a phone call. Hanging up and turning to his aides, he added: “When we find out who did this, they’re not going to like me as president. Somebody’s going to pay.”

Mr Fleischer adopted the role of presidential note taker as Air Force One lifted off from Florida after the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon were attacked by hijacked passenger jets.

“I always took notes. It’s how you do your job,” said Mr Fleischer. “But on September 11 it was instantly clear how much more important it was to have a record of what the president did and said. I basically glued myself to his side almost the entire day and remained in his cabin on Air Force One to listen and take notes.”

Mr Fleischer has used some of the material for his annual tweets about September 11 and in speeches. He also made them available to the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks. But he has not previously released them in full to the public.

The story that unfolds in his notebook begins with the raw emotions Bush and his aides experienced, the president already itching to retaliate.

“I can’t wait to find out who did it,” said Mr Bush. “It’s going to take a while and we’re not going to have a little slap on the wrist crap.”

There is a dramatic period in which the president tries to overcome opposition from the Secret Service, which does not want him to return to Washington. The plane first took him to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, then Offutt airbase in Nebraska. He got back to Washington that night.

“I want to get home as soon as possible,” said Mr Bush. “I don’t want whoever this is holding me outside Washington.”

An aide responded: “Our people are saying it’s too unsteady still.”

Mr Bush said that was the message he was hearing from vice-president Cheney as well.

Chief of staff Andy Card said, “The right thing is to let the dust settle.”

Mr Fleischer’s notes include an eerie reference to a communication heard on the plane from the ground that “Angel is next.” t the time, “angel” was the code name for Air Force One. There was great concern on-board that the plane was a target.

He said an armed guard was stationed outside the door leading to the Air Force One cockpit, just in case someone was a threat on the plane itself.

A month later, Mr Bush and his team were told the reference to “angel” was a miscommunication from the ground. One offshoot of the September 11 attacks was a major renovation of Air Force One’s communications abilities.

The president, who had only been in office for eight months, had another priority in mind as well: making sure his family was safe. His wife, Laura, and their two daughters were whisked to secure locations.

“Barney?” Bush said, inquiring about his beloved Scottish terrier.

“He’s nipping at the heels of Osama bin Laden now,” replied Mr Card.

* Reuters

Published: September 9, 2016 04:00 AM

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