It was 90 minutes frozen in time.
The period, from when America learned the first of two jetliners had crashed into the World Trade Center, shortly before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, to when the second of its two towers collapsed, killing thousands, ranks among the most emotional, deadly, and traumatic moments in U.S. history.
And for those who watched the attacks unfold — whether it be in front of a television or standing alongside President George W. Bush — the haunting memories are still hard to shake, 20 years later.
“I remember every minute of that day,” said Andrew Card, the former chief of staff to President Bush from 2001 to 2006. “I was completely focused on being cool, calm, collected, and objective to help him make tough decisions….[but emotions] later would catch up with me.”
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As the country approaches its 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Card sat down with NBCLX to share his memories of what was happening behind-the-scenes that day with President Bush and his top advisors.
“The lower 48 states did not have a cloud; it was a perfect day,” said Card, who began his Sept. 11, 2001 in Sarasota, Fla., where President Bush was making a morning appearance at Emma E. Booker Elementary School.
“I went in to see the president, I told him it's going to be an easy day. You're meeting with second graders; it's your favorite topic — leaving no kid behind in education and getting rid of the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
8:46 a.m. — American Airlines Flight 11 Crashes Into WTC North Tower
“As we're getting to the motorcade [to the school],” Card said, “I do remember two people asking a question — Dan Bartlett and Karl Rove. ‘Did anybody hear about a plane crash in New York City?’”
Initial reports were that the plane was a small prop plane, rather than a commercial jetliner.
“I'm standing at the door to the classroom with the president and the principal of the school and a Navy captain by the name of Deb Loewer, who was the acting national security adviser on the trip, says to the president, ‘Sir, it appears a small twin engine prop plane crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.’
“The president, the principal and I all had the same reaction: ‘Oh, what a horrible accident. The pilot must have had a heart attack or something.’
“That was actually verbalized. And then the principal opened the door to the classroom and she and the president walked into the classroom.”
9:03 a.m. — United Airlines Flight 175 Crashes Into WTC South Tower
“I'm standing there,” Card recalled, “and Captain Loewer comes up to me [at the classroom door] and says, ‘Sir, it appears it was not a small twin engine prop plane; it was a commercial jetliner.’
Card said moments later, Loewer delivered another shocking message.
“She said, ‘Oh my God. Another plane hit the other tower at the World Trade Center in New York City.’
“I knew it couldn't have been a coincidence,” Card said. “I knew it wasn't an accident.
“I then performed the test that chiefs of staff perform all the time: Does the president need to know? This was an easy test to pass, yes.
“I thought about what I would say to him; I actually thought about how to say it to him….I knew he was sitting in front of a press pool and second-graders. So I didn't want to have a dialog with him. So I decided I'd pass on two facts [and] do nothing to invite a question.
“Then I open the door and walked in.”
9:05 a.m. — The Whisper
“I knew the message I was delivering was a historic message,” Card said, “and I knew the venue was really strange.
“This isn't like walking into the Oval Office to tell the president something or waking him up in the middle of the night…I'm in front of second-graders with cameras watching me. And I can't really have a conversation with him.
“I leaned over [and] whispered into his right ear, ‘a second plane hit the second tower — America is under attack.’
“That was all I said to him. And then I stood back from him about three steps, because I didn't really want him to turn around and talk to me.
“I was pleased that he did nothing to introduce fear to those kids and nothing to demonstrate fear to the media that would have translated it to the satisfaction of the terrorists all around the world.
“It is a frozen-in-time moment, and I honestly believe...that's the moment he realized he was president and what his job was: keep the oath [to] preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
9:10 a.m. — The Rush to the Airport
“‘Get Mark Tillman, the captain of Air Force One...we're going to have to get out of here,’” Card recalls ordering. “We weren't planning to leave for several more hours.”
All of the national television networks were now covering the two towers, both aflame, as the FAA banned all flights in and out of New York City airspace. Bridges and tunnels into the city were also closed, while passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 77 send out alerts that their flight had been hijacked as well.
President Bush delivered a short address to the nation, from the Emma E. Booker School, at 9:31 a.m., and then rushed out to Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport.
9:37 a.m. — American Airlines Flight 77 Crashes Into the Pentagon
“That's when the President and I are in the limousine,” Card said. “We're both on our phones; I'm calling back to the White House [and the president] was frustrated because he's calling Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and he can't get through.
“He says, ‘I can't believe I can't get through to the secretary of defense! How come I can't get through the secretary of defense?’
“And that's I find out on my phone call, it looks like [the Pentagon] had just been hit.”
Minutes later, the FAA shut down all American airspace and ordered all flights over the U.S. — or heading to the country — to land. Thousands of flights made emergency landings. But panic set in over several that could not be immediately reached.
It also wasn’t clear if the attacks would be limited to just hijackings. The White House, U.S. Capitol, and other major landmarks in Washington were evacuated.
“Could Air Force One be a target, where somebody is sitting at the end of the runway with a Stinger missile? Yes, that was a concern,” Card said.
9:55 a.m. — Air Force One Departs Sarasota
“We started rolling even before they shut the door to Air Force One,” Card remembered. “The president wasn't in his seat. I wasn't in my seat. And the plane was already rolling down the runway.
“When we took off, we didn't go off like this,” Card said, using his arms to visualize a normal departure angle. “No, we went kind of straight up, right up to 48,000 feet, which is pretty high.
“And we're flying in a zig-zag pattern, waiting for fighter jets to catch up to us.”
Card said there was an immediate argument over where Air Force One should go.
“The president...had a shouting match with me, where I did not shout at him. He wanted to go back to Washington, D.C...and I'd say very calmly, ‘I know you do, but I don't think you want to make that decision right now.’
“He is literally yelling at me, ‘I am the President of the United States! We're going back to Washington, D.C.!’
“[But] I said, ‘I don't think you really want to make that decision right now.’ And then I talked to the pilot, Mark Tillman, [who said] “I don't like going back to D.C. until I know we can land at Andrews Air Force Base...I don't care if he's the president...I'm in charge of everybody on this plane, including him, so I’m not going to put him in danger.’
Card said staffers discussed options and decided that Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana would be the best immediate option.
9:59 am – WTC South Tower Collapses
The first of two 110-story towers — once the tallest buildings in the world — collapses before many of its occupants can evacuate.
The deadly collapse was broadcast live around the world, with onlookers and journalists alike gasping in shock.
Onboard Air Force One, Card says he overheard the president authorize airstrikes on any other hijacked jets.
“The vice president is asking the president if he would authorize our pilots to shoot down commercial jetliners if they're not responding to the FAA orders to land,” Card recalls hearing, as the president gave the go-ahead.
“He hung up and he leaned forward, and said [to me], ‘I was an Air National Guard pilot. I can't imagine receiving that order.’
“I was very impressed that he had empathy for the people who have to make things happen. And then minutes after that, Flight 93 crashes into the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.”
10:03 am – United Flight 93 Crashes in Rural Pennsylvania
Upon learning of the events in New York, passengers aboard a fourth hijacked jetliner, United Flight 93, decide to take matters into their own hands.
After forcing their way into the cockpit — a fight that was documented on the cockpit voice recorder — passengers forced the plane down instead of risking another attack on a populated area.
The plane crashed in an uninhabited field in Shanksville, Penn., about 80 miles outside Pittsburgh. Card said the president wondered if his command led to the passengers’ death, but military fighters did not ever have a chance to catch up to the plane before passengers determined their own fate, in order to save others’ lives.
10:28 am – WTC North Tower Collapses
As the North Tower continued to burn, live television broadcast images of black objects plummeting from the top floors, where the first plane had crashed.
Those objects were WTC occupants, jumping to their death as a last resort to escape the inferno.
“You could see the TV on the plane and nobody's talking,” Card said. “When you saw people jumping out of the towers...that was haunting. It still haunts me today.”
The second tower gave way at 10:28 a.m., spewing a second cloud of concrete and steel dust across miles of Lower Manhattan.
Nearly 2,800 individuals were killed in the initial attacks, with at least several hundred more dying from 9/11-related injuries and conditions.
After several hours at Barksdale Air Force Base, it was deemed still unsafe for the president to return to Washington. Instead, he recorded an address to the nation and departed for Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home of U.S. Strategic Command.
At 1 p.m., his taped remarks from Barksdale were broadcast.
At 5:20 p.m., another building in the World Trade Center complex, the 47-story-tall 7 WTC collapsed, although it had already been evacuated earlier in the day.
“The president is [still] frustrated,” Card remembers. “He wants to talk to the American people; he wants to be seen doing his job.”
President Bush and Air Force One finally left Nebraska for Washington late in the afternoon, even though the concern about missiles around the capital still existed.
“People on the plane were nervous…the fighter jets came right beside us, so they could intercept whatever could be shot at us. The pilots were so close to us, we could see their faces.”
Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 6:55 p.m., as the president and aides then boarded Marine One for the short ride to the White House.
“We’re looking out the window,” Card said, “and you can see smoke billowing from the Pentagon. The president turns to me and said, ‘That’s the face of war in the 21st Century.’”
Bush then addressed the nation from the Oval Office at 8:30 p.m., telling America, “our way of life — our very freedom — came under attack.”
Card said he went to finish up work when the president went to bed around 9:30 or 10 p.m., but soon thereafter, found himself again with the president and First Lady, getting whisked into a bunker under the White House over another threat. It ultimately proved to be a false alarm.
“I get home, I'm guessing 11:30 or 12 o’clock,” Card said. “I felt very blessed.
“[But] 2,977 people died on that day and as a result of that day…and I want to remember those people who died….we owe it to all of those people that made sacrifices to remember them.
“So I don't feel any compunction at all saying: don't forget...and make sure you don't let me forget.”
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.