Former staffers remember the White House Situation Room on 9/11

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 29, 2011 

A White House Situation Room military coin was minted for the duty officers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

T.J. KIRKPATRICK/MCT

In the minutes following the extraordinary assault on New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, horrified air traffic controllers tracked another plane, this one headed for Washington, D.C. — American Flight 77.

Victor Padgett, a supervisor at Reagan National Airport, called the Secret Service command center at the White House at 9:33 a.m. He urged an evacuation and then punctuated the call with a warning.

"What I'm telling you, buddy, if you've got people, you'd better get them out of there. And I mean right goddamned now!"

President George W. Bush was traveling in Florida. Secret Service agents rushed Vice President Dick Cheney through a tunnel to a bomb shelter under the White House's East Wing. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other senior staff members also dashed to the bunker.

In the White House Situation Room, the nerve center of presidential crisis management, the on-duty staff stuck to their stations. For the rest of the day, even as fears of more attacks spread through Washington, a dozen men and women would work feverishly to keep information flowing to Bush, Cheney and key White House personnel.

Theirs is an untold story of dedication, professionalism and courage on one of America's darkest days.

At 9:37 a.m., just as Cheney reached the shelter, American 77 crashed into the Pentagon. As people streamed even faster out of the White House, Cheney's press secretary, Jennifer Millerwise, said a Secret Service agent yelled, "Women, drop your heels and run!"

In the Situation Room, a less frantic air prevailed. The senior duty officer, Rob Hargis, took a call from a National Security Council official, who urged the team to leave. Hargis turned to the others in the room and said evenly, "We have been ordered to evacuate. If you want to go, go now."

The room fell silent. No one moved.

"We're staying," Hargis said on the phone, and moved to another call. With Bush in Florida and Cheney in the bomb shelter, Hargis thought, the White House would be disconnected from the crisis if the Situation Room didn't keep operating. Stephen Hadley, Rice's deputy, confirmed Hargis' decision.

"I guess we're expendable," Don Gentile, the Situation Room's senior analyst at the time, joked darkly.

Senior White House staffer Frank Miller quietly collected everyone's names and gave them to the watch team's communications technician, Scott Heyer, for transmission to the CIA operations center. If an aircraft hit the White House, the agency would know everyone who was in the Situation Room.

The duty officers called it the "Dead List."

EXTRA VIGILANT

President John F. Kennedy created the Situation Room in 1961 to gain control over his national security apparatus. Hostage to a glacial information flow from the Pentagon, CIA and State Department, Kennedy and his advisers wanted to receive important information in near real time.

Unlike the popular perception, the Situation Room isn't one room but a multi-room facility, and isn't a bunker but sits on the ground floor of the West Wing. The Sit Room, as the staff calls it, quickly became indispensable as the president's alert center and intelligence hub, and is staffed around-the-clock by a rotating cast of personnel from each military branch, the State Department and intelligence agencies.

On Sept. 11, the director was U.S. Navy Capt. Deborah Loewer, but she was absent, accompanying Bush on his visit to a Sarasota, Fla., elementary school.

In the months leading up to 9/11, the Sit Room had been extra vigilant because of increased reporting of a possible terrorist attack on U.S. interests in the Middle East. At 6:30 a.m. that day, Hargis, a civilian Pentagon employee, held an impromptu drill. "OK," he said, "there's been a large bombing in Yemen. Who does what?"

"We were pretty keen on recognizing an event early," recalled John Sherman, one of two assistants to Hargis and a senior executive at what's now called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. "But we had no thoughts that morning about an attack on the homeland."

The first airliner hit the Trade Center's north tower at 8:46 a.m., and the Sit Room learned of the attack on cable TV news. Hargis immediately called Loewer's cell phone and passed along the scant available information.

When live TV captured a plane hitting the south tower, the Sit Room rapidly transitioned to what Hargis called "controlled chaos."

Gentile, who now works as a staff assistant to the director of national intelligence, later described the next five hours as "the most intense experience of my life." Phones rang constantly as the team answered urgent questions, supported Bush's traveling party and participated in conference calls with other operations centers.

In Florida, Loewer also saw the second aircraft on TV. She slipped into the back of the classroom and told White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card that the nation was under attack. Card then whispered the same message to Bush with cameras running.

RUSHING TO HELP

While tens of thousands rushed out of Washington, D.C., off-duty Sit Room personnel pushed against the tide to get to the White House.

Clark Lystra, an Army Special Forces officer, lived in southwest Washington and was due to relieve Hargis at 5:30 p.m. "When the second plane hit, I ran to the metro station," Lystra recalled. After a short subway ride, he cautiously approached a Secret Service barricade. "I raised both arms in the air, holding my White House badge as high as I could get it."

In the Crystal City neighborhood in Arlington, Va., Bob Riley, a duty officer from the State Department, felt his apartment shudder when American 77 hit the Pentagon, about a mile away. Riley hopped on his bike and rode into the District. Stopped by police near the Washington Monument, he showed his badge to a uniformed Secret Service officer.

"He told me to follow him and then got in his car. With his flashing light and siren on, he drove slowly to the White House and I pedaled along behind."

Senior duty officer Ed Padinski donned his naval officer's uniform before driving in from Virginia. "It helped get me through all the traffic checkpoints," he said.

Richard Clarke, the senior director of the NSC counterterrorism office, also rushed to the Sit Room. From a small conference room in the rear of the complex, he and several of his staff began a day-long secure videoconference among key federal agencies.

Anxiety peaked as the hijacked United Flight 93 appeared headed for Washington. Rumors flew that the Capitol or the White House might be the plane's target. Cheney and Bush quickly authorized U.S. fighter aircraft to engage the hijacked aircraft. By that time, however, the courageous passengers had rushed the terrorists, preventing the need for an unthinkable air-to-air encounter. The plane crashed at 10:03 a.m. near Shanksville, Pa.

'WE SAW MOST EVERYTHING'

For hours, Hargis and his team had constant contact with Cheney and Rice, who struggled with limited communications in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, and with Air Force One. Calls streamed in from members of Congress, evacuated staff and one agitated aide to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose thick accent challenged Sherman, a Texas native.

"Everyone viewed us as the only all-source center," Padinski said. "We saw most everything, whether classified or media reporting."

Some of the early calls reflected the fog of uncertainty that day. False alarms had a car bomb exploding at the State Department, a fire on the National Mall and an unidentified aircraft bound for Washington — none of which materialized into major threats.

Hargis fielded a call about a reported fire in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, an aging granite edifice next to the White House. Hargis asked Sherman if it was true.

Sherman, with a phone on one ear, calmly stood up and pulled aside the window's curtains behind his workstation. Seeing no smoke, he dryly reported, "If it's on fire, it's not serious," and went back to his phone call.

"That was one of the moments when I thought we might make it," Hargis recalled with a smile.

DIRECT THREAT TO WASHINGTON

Bush made a brief statement at the Sarasota school about the attacks, and at 9:54 a.m. Air Force One hurtled into the air. They were initially bound for Washington, but Bush's advisers soon urged the president to change course.

One reason was the direct threat to Washington, the seat of government, which had caused Cheney and other officials to initiate Continuity of Government measures. A Cold War legacy, the procedures provide for the continuing functioning of national authority and safe refuges for top leaders, such as the "undisclosed location" that Cheney would occupy over the following weeks.

The other reason was more immediate: A threat to "Angel," the Secret Service's code word for Air Force One, arose at about the same time. It added to the urgency surrounding Bush's safety, but later the threat was determined, like so many others, to be unfounded.

Bush ended up flying to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Crews refueled the aircraft and removed some passengers, and Bush taped a video message to the country. The party then departed for Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where an underground shelter provided protection and a videoconference capability for the president and his advisers to talk to officials in Washington. Back at the White House, the Sit Room faced another anxious moment when Clarke's team had sent for a few gas masks. When it became clear that there weren't enough masks for everyone, some questioned the apparent lottery, while others wondered what they didn't know.

'PROFESSIONALLY MANAGED DIN'

Minutes after American 77 hit the Pentagon, officials in the Federal Aviation Administration Command Center in Herndon, Va., ordered all aircraft aloft in U.S. airspace to immediately land. Unable to link directly with Herndon, and getting little operational information from FAA headquarters, the Sit Room relied on the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the Pentagon's command center for details.

As the day progressed, another dimension of Sit Room responsibilities intruded into the "professionally managed din," as Sherman described the buzzing atmosphere in the facility. Foreign governments began calling their oft-used number for the Sit Room, where duty officers handle all calls for the president from foreign heads of state.

It's a well-orchestrated minuet of diplomatic protocol and communications wizardry that took on added seriousness on 9/11.

"The calls poured in," Lystra said. Calls expressing concern and solidarity came from Germany, Belgium, Argentina, France, Brazil and other countries.

A more substantive call involved Russian President Vladimir Putin. At 10:45 a.m., Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the U.S. military to assume Defense Condition 3, a heightened state of readiness last implemented during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Within minutes, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, called the Sit Room, saying that Putin wanted to speak with Bush.

After a few more calls, the Sit Room arranged for Rice to speak with Putin at 11:50 a.m. When she told the Russian president that U.S. forces had gone on alert, Putin responded, "I know, I've seen them." Each country had been engaged in military exercises that day, but Putin understood that the U.S. DefCon 3 status wasn't a threat to his nation. He told Rice that Russian forces were standing down, forestalling any tensions between the two countries, and offered his country's help.

Rice acknowledged later in a TV documentary that the conversation truly marked the end of the Cold War.

AGONIZING HOURS OF UNCERTAINTY

Between official calls, the duty officers tried to contact their spouses with quick words of reassurance. Loved ones at home suffered agonizing hours of uncertainty, as many did across the country.

Fueled by adrenaline, the Sit Room crew worked without a break throughout the day and into the night. Two cooks from the White House staff dining room, who also stayed behind, kept the staff in sandwiches.

Lystra, who now works as a defense consultant, would end up staying on for most of his own 12-hour night shift. At 9 p.m. Loewer sent Hargis, now a defense contractor, home to get four hours of sleep before returning.

As Hargis and Sherman left, each man paused as he crossed the Potomac River into Virginia to reflect on the burning Pentagon. They grieved for colleagues lost there and considered the impending global response to the terrorist attacks.

Bush returned to Washington at 6:42 p.m. Loewer rode with the president in his helicopter to the White House, with a brief in-flight detour to the Pentagon.

"It was a horrible sight," she said.

Loewer arrived at her ninth-floor apartment in Crystal City at midnight, exhausted. She opened the door to her home and found the room filled with acrid smoke. It had blown in from the burning Pentagon, which she could see glowing a half-mile away. She had left her balcony door ajar the day before, and the soot and smell triggered her pent-up emotions.

"That's when the enormity of the attacks really hit me," said Loewer, who retired as a rear admiral and now works as a research fellow. "I had seen so many things that day, but I had been working the whole time. This was more personal."

Moved as so many other Americans were that day by the enormity of the nation's loss, Loewer went to her balcony and draped an American flag over the railing in tribute.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bohn is an author and former director of the White House Situation Room. His most recent book is "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service