With Bush after the planes hit targets

Last Updated : 04 May 2018, 03:15 IST

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Arshad Mohammed:

“Mr President, are you aware of the reports of a plane crash in New York?”

I called out that question to Bush in the Florida classroom where, unbeknownst to me, he had just learned the second World Trade Center tower had been hit by an airplane.
Those minutes in the Emma E Booker Elementary school, where Bush silently came to grips with the attack on the US illustrate the blessings and the frustrations of being in the media pool that travels everywhere with the president. Bush brushed off my question and emerged a short while later in the school library to say: “Today we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”

Caught off guard by the hijacked plane attacks, Bush gave an initially halting response, and spent the day flying across the country on Air Force One fleeing some unseen enemy instead of returning immediately to Washington, moves that raised doubts about his leadership in the tumult of the crisis.

Bush then sped away from the school in a long motorcade. Before we boarded the plane, a team of security agents and sniffer dogs checked the media pool at the foot of the stairs -- an unusual step as we’d already been screened once -- and one that suggested the secret service was taking no chances.

Within minutes of takeoff, it was clear we were not flying home along the Florida seaboard on the route we had taken the day before, with beaches and blue water beneath us. Instead, we flew over land, made at least one sharp turn, and climbed steeply to an altitude far beyond normal.

We had no idea where we were going until a young press aide told us our destination was Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, that Bush would make a statement, and that we could report what he said but not where he said it. On landing, there was none of the pomp and ceremony that normally awaits the president. Instead, before Bush descended from the Boeing 747, soldiers encircled it, with an officer at one point brusquely ordering one to “get to that wingtip -- now!”

Barred from using our mobile phones so that the calls could not be traced to give away Bush’s location, reporters were taken to a windowless conference room. Aides scurried to set up a podium and two flags for Bush to make a statement we could later report from “an undisclosed location.”

After vowing to “hunt down those responsible for these cowardly acts,” Bush got back on Air Force One leaving behind aides, agents and mediapersons, to be flown back to Washington.

Published 11 September 2011, 18:02 IST

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