Thursday, September 17, 2009

The End of Ordinary: A Day Beyond Belief for All America

by Calvin Woodward The Associated Press September 16, 2001

WASHINGTON -- In the final moments of ordinary, you could see Spot run on the impossibly green lawn of the White House. You could see workers setting up for a barbecue as the pooch scampered underfoot.

The same Tuesday morning in Florida, President Bush went running, too. He seemed oblivious to the stench of the algae bloom known as the red tide as he jogged in the humid air of Longboat Key.

Outside the Pentagon, fireman Alan Wallace tended to routine duties.

Inside, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had some people in to talk about missile defense and the risk that terrorism seen in the past would happen again.

“Let me tell ya,” he said, “I’ve been around the block a few times. There will be another event.”

Two minutes later, a plane smashed into the first World Trade Center tower and proved him right.

Thus came the end of ordinary.

Everything before that is now a kept snapshot.

America’s day turned bloody beyond belief. Its capital, for unnerving hours, seemed to be coming apart. The president, said later to have been under a threat, flew around far away until coming home to tell the world, “A great people has been moved to defend a great nation.”

Washington’s decision-makers had 18 minutes after the first crash at the World Trade Center to mull over the possibility that what so many had seen on TV was a freakish accident. Then the second plane struck.

In Sarasota, Bush had heard about the first hit before he entered a classroom to talk about reading. He was putting on a good show, betraying no concern, when his aide Andy Card sidled up to him and leaned over.

“A second plane hit the other tower and America is under attack,” Card told him.

The president blanched. He finished with the kids. At 9:30 a.m., he went to the school library and told the nation that terrorists had apparently struck.

“It was a surreal moment,” Card said later. When the second tower in New York was struck, “it was immediately obvious that it was neither an accident nor a coincidence.”

About 10 minutes after Bush’s statement, a plane came toward the Pentagon out of an impossibly blue sky.

Wallace saw the airliner approach, strangely low.

Many watched, puzzled then horrified, as the plane went lower and lower. The hijacked airliner scored a precise hit on the sprawling but squat building, plunging into the side without even leaving skid marks on the ground.

Wallace and his partner dove under a van just before impact. Crawling out, they wanted to help. But their fire truck was on fire.

Army Specialist Michael Petrovich, 32, heaved a desktop computer through a window and followed it to safety. Retired Navy Cmdr. Paul Gonzalez, 46, a budget analyst, climbed out through the hole created by the plane just in time to turn around and see the section collapse.

Pentagon survivors staggered or ran away from the fireball, the thick smoke, the rubble. The building’s civilian and military employees evacuated -- quickly but orderly at first, in the style of military discipline.

The evacuation turned frantic when security officers began screaming about another incoming plane. It was, perhaps, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania that they were talking about.

Armed authorities rallied around the White House, apparently the hijackers’ initial intended target. Brandishing guns and using horses, they edged back the public.

Secret Service radio traffic was furious. “We have a plane on radar that looks as if it’s headed to the White House!” said one transmission shortly before the Pentagon was hit.

The Secret Service at first hustled West Wing staffers into the basement, then told them to leave the building -- but to walk, not run.

That changed in a matter of seconds. In a level voice, one plainclothes agent accompanying the stream of aides told them: “We don’t want you to walk any more. Run. And if you have heels on and can’t run, take off your shoes. Run!”

First lady Laura Bush was pulling out of the White House in her motorcade, going to a Senate hearing where she was to testify about education, when the second airliner exploded into the World Trade Center.

In a Senate office building, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, the committee chairman and a man who carries the weight of American tragedy, greeted Mrs. Bush.

“We are not going to see the business of America deferred because of terrorism,” Kennedy said when the two joined to make a statement putting off the hearing.

The first lady, her face pinched, stood back from the microphone and could barely be heard. “Parents need to reassure their children everywhere in our country that they’re safe,” she said. On her way out, the Pentagon was hit.

Even as Washington braced for more of who-knew-what, officials let the funeral for Washington socialite Joan Aylsworth Gardner proceed inside a church at Lafayette Square across the street.

Letitia Baldridge, social secretary to first lady Jackie Kennedy, said mourners stayed calm even when told was happening in the city.

“When you’re in the house of the Lord, you stop being nervous,” she said. “If one is going to go, it’s a great place to go.”

As federal emergency teams swung into action, ordering all commercial planes in the United States to land, scrambling fighter jets to protect U.S. cities, the great bulk of the bureaucracy was sent home and stores, offices and schools shut.

Congressional leaders were rushed to a mountain bunker 75 miles away.

By late morning, the city was gridlocked with people trying to get home. Drivers stewed in underground parking garages trying merely to reach street level. Sirens sounded but few horns beeped.

Bush lifted off from Sarasota shortly before 10 a.m., destination unannounced. A blurry TV feed brought news of the Pentagon disaster, the evacuations, the New York horrors to the press cabin.

Air Force One seemed to fly in a huge circle for 20 minutes, then veered west and flew higher than normal and with a fighter escort to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

His manner grim and eyes red-rimmed, Bush made another statement. “Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward,” he began.

Evidence of his order placing the armed forces on highest alert could be seen on a piece of paper attached to a door at the air base -- the bold phrase “Def Con Delta.”

Air Force One flew to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., home of the Strategic Command and an underground bunker where Bush linked electronically with his national security team in Washington. At suppertime, he landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and prepared for his evening address to the nation from the Oval Office.

The Pentagon is a five-sided doughnut housing 20,000 workers with a huge open courtyard in the middle. The world has seen the images of crews clawing at the fire and rubble from the outside.

But the courtyard was abuzz, too.

Scattering twice because of warnings of another suicide plane, volunteers eventually drifted back into the courtyard alongside rescue and fire crews and set to work. Stretchers awaited victims.

But after the first trickle of survivors, the stretchers sat unused.

Capt. Edward Blunt of the Arlington, Va., fire department, one of the first rescuers on the scene, encountered an Army man, about 50, with fingers missing on both hands. The man encouraged him to treat others hurt worse.

An estimated 188 people from the Pentagon and the jetliner died.

That evening, after yet another national security meeting, Bush went upstairs to bed, a movement captured on the squawk of a Secret Service radio at 10:21 p.m.: “Trailblazer. Second floor of the residence.”

Just west of the city, the direction from which the danger had come on a clear morning, the night sky obscured the smoke still pouring from the Pentagon on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

All that could be seen glancing back from a car leaving town was what is seen every clear night, the Washington Monument, bathed in its usual brilliant light, strong -- but now also vulnerable.

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