‘We’re The Only Plane In The Sky’: Recount 9/11 As Told By Those Aboard Air Force One On That Fateful Day

The terror attacks on September 11, 2001, created an unforgettable moment for nearly every American alive at the time.

Many people can recall where they were on that fateful day, 18 years ago, when they heard the news or saw the reports that a commercial plane was hijacked by a group of terrorists and flown into the side of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City.

The place, the activities going on, the people they were with — even the smell of the room — were among details seared into the memories of millions of people when they heard America was under attack.

Each person has their own memories of the situation, including those in leadership and those working in the Bush administration at the time of the attack.

White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, White House Assistant Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe, White House senior education adviser B. Alexander “Sandy” Kress, and Central Intelligence Agency presidential briefer Mike Morell were among those who detailed their stories and their memories of the tragedy in a lengthy article for Politico Magazine in 2016. The piece is revisited each year on 9/11.

Politico Magazine reports: “The story of those remarkable hours—and the thoughts and emotions of those aboard—isolated eight miles above America, escorted by three F-16 fighters, flying just below the speed of sound, has never been comprehensively told.”


This oral history, based on more than 40 hours of original interviews with more than two dozen of the passengers, crew and press aboard—including many who have never spoken publicly about what they witnessed that day—traces the story of how an untested president, a sidearm-carrying general, top aides, the Secret Service and the Cipro-wielding White House physician, as well as five reporters, four radio operators, three pilots, two congressmen and a stenographer responded to 9/11.

Seemingly countless quotations from those involved, remembering each moment provide a glimpse into how the most senior level of the Bush administration responded to the attacks and how the Secret Service acted quickly to secure the president and those accompanying him.

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Check it out:

Staff Sgt. Paul Germain, airborne communications system operator, Air Force One: We thought it was weird even just when the first plane hit. People who know airplanes, that’s some real stuff right there. Big airplanes just don’t hit little buildings. Then, as soon as that second plane hit, that switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree.

Col. Mark Tillman: Everything started coming alive. We were hooked into the PEOC [the White House bunker] and the JOC [Joint Operations Center], for the Secret Service. They’re all in the link now.

Andy Card: Another plane hit the other Tower. My mind flashed to three initials: UBL. Usama bin Laden. Then I was thinking that we had White House people there—my deputy, Joe Hagin, and a team were in New York preparing for the U.N. General Assembly. I was thinking that Joe was probably at the World Trade Center, that’s where the Secret Service office was, in the basement.

Mike Morell: I was really worried that someone was going to fly a plane into that school. This event had been on schedule for weeks, anyone could have known about it. Eddie [Marinzel, the lead Secret Service agent] wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as possible.

Rep. Adam Putnam: There’s some debate within the staff that I can hear about how the president needs to address the nation. They’re saying, “We can’t do it here. You can’t do it in front of fifth-graders.” The Secret Service is saying, “You’re doing it here or you’re not doing at all. We’re not taking the time to do it somewhere else. We need to get him secure.”

The White House chief of staff broke the news to President Bush, who responded appropriately as not to “do anything to create fear.”

Then, Secret Service moved the president and those with him aboard Air Force One. The plane, for a moment, became the only plane flying in U.S. airspace as the president called a halt to all air travel over the U.S.

Here’s more from the Magazine:

Col. Mark Tillman: As the motorcade’s coming in, I’ve got the 3 and 4 engines were already running.

Andy Card: When the limo door opened, I was struck that the engines on Air Force One were running. That’s normally a protocol no-no.

Buzz Buzinski: You never lose the excitement of seeing the motorcade. I’m on the back stairs watching as they pull up. I was wondering, “What’s the president thinking? What’s Andy Card thinking? What are they doing to make it happen?” You could feel it. You could feel the tension. We’d been attacked on our soil. You could see it on their face—Andy Card, Ari Fleischer, the president.

Sonya Ross: They brought out the bomb-sniffing dogs. They were drooling all [over] the luggage. I had dog spittle all over my bags.

Buzz Buzinski: Everyone other than the president and his senior staff enter through the back stairs, so about 80 percent of the passengers came past us. You could see fear and shock. People couldn’t believe what they had just seen. They didn’t know what to do.

Sandy Kress: Getting on the plane was different than it ever had been. There was a lot of attention to our credentials, who we were. We had to show ID and our badge, not just the badge. And this even though the crew knew most of us.

Eric Draperpresidential photographer, White House: The Secret Service wanted to get him on the plane as quickly as possible. I figured that I’ve got to stick like glue to the president. Obviously, I know it’s going to be a big day. My goal was to find him as quickly as possible on board, but Andy Card said at the top of the stairs, “Take the batteries out of your cellphone. We don’t want to be tracked.” That brought me up. “Are we a target?” I wasn’t thinking of that.

Read even more from their experiences by clicking here.


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