We May Have to Shoot Down This AircraftBreaking News
tags: terrorism, 9/11
Nearly every American above a certain age remembers precisely where they were on September 11, 2001. For a small handful of Americans—many of them among the most senior officials in the U.S. government—that day conjures memories of a bunker underneath the White House, built for the Cold War but never used until that Tuesday morning 18 years ago.
What had begun as an odd incident, with the crash of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., quickly escalated 17 minutes later when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. As the world realized the country was under attack, Vice President Dick Cheney and senior White House aides were rushed to that bunker under the White House, known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC). There, underneath the executive mansion’s north lawn, they tried to figure out how many more hijacked planes were in the air. They knew of at least one: United Flight 93.
This excerpt from the forthcoming book The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (Avid Reader Press) is based on contemporaneous transcripts of 911 calls and cockpit voice recorders from September 11, as well as both archival primary source interviews with key participants—conducted as early as 2002—and supplemental original interviews by the author, as recent as this spring, including the first-ever interview with the Navy officer who ultimately asked Cheney for authority to shoot down hijacked airliners. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gary Walters, chief usher, White House: It was a little bit before 9 a.m. when Mrs. Bush came downstairs—I met her at the elevator. As we were walking out, I remember we were talking about Christmas decorations.
Laura Bush, first lady: My Secret Service agent, the head of my detail, Ron Sprinkle, leaned over to me as I got into the car and said, “A plane has hit the World Trade Center.”
Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser, White House: I thought, Well, that’s a strange accident. I called the president. We talked about how odd it was. Then I went down for my staff meeting.
Matthew Waxman, National Security Council, White House: I had started about six weeks earlier as Condi Rice’s executive assistant. At about 9:00 o’clock, we would have a daily Situation Room meeting for the national security adviser and all the senior directors. It was during that meeting that the second plane hit.
Mary Matalin, aide to Vice President Dick Cheney: I was with the Vice President when the second plane hit, and we knew instantly that this was not an accident.
Condoleezza Rice: It was the moment that changed everything.
Matthew Waxman: We went into full crisis response mode.
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