One of the most iconic images of 9/11 is of a member of President George W. Bush’s executive staff leaning in to tell him that the planes crashed into the twin towers.
Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card was the man in the photo.
Card visited DPAC Sept. 9 to recount his experience as an important player in the nation’s survival during and after the devastating attacks. A Massachusetts politician, he served as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Transportation from 1992 to 1993 and as George W. Bush’s chief of staff from 2001 to 2006.
Just as it is said how everyone can recount what they were doing when they heard the nation was under attack, Card has vivid memories as well.
“Not a cloud in the sky,” Card said.
“It was a perfect day everywhere in America.”
He said he had heard people discussing a plane crash in New York City as he exited the motorcade which prompted an insignificant phone call to the national security advisor before meeting the second-grade class at a Florida school – the same class Bush was reading to when informed of the attacks.
Card then went into Mrs. Daniels’ classroom to see a line of second graders, “on their best behavior,” patiently waiting for the arrival of the president.
This is when the national security advisor informed the president that a “small twin engine prop plane” had crashed into one of the towers at the World Trade Center.
“The president, the principal, and I all had the same reaction. ‘Oh what a horrible accident, the pilot must’ve had a heart attack or something.”
After Bush proceeded into the classroom with the principal, the national security advisor advised Card that what they thought was a small plane was actually a commercial jetliner.
“Captain Lauer came up to me and said, ‘Oh, my God. Another plane hit the other tower at the World Trade Center,” he said. “My mind flashed through three initials – OBL. Osama bin Laden.
“I knew about the attack on the World Trade Center in February of 1993. I knew about Al Qaeda.”
It was Card’s job as chief of staff to ensure that Bush had all of the tools to make the right decisions.
The president was being conducted through a dialogue with the second-graders and they were just about to take out their books to read with him when Card caught the president off guard.
Card said he did not want to interrupt the dialogue or do anything to scare the children, but the president needed to know.
“A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack,” is what he whispered in the President’s ear.
Card said he could see Bush imagining his obligation as president as he nodded his head to that statement. “I believe that was the day he truly became president. It wasn’t his agenda. It was his obligation to keep his oath.”
For a few moments, the press team stood in confusion of the president who continued to nod in shock while the children stayed attentive, waiting for him to start reading.
Card made several quick decisions to get the crew back on Air Force One, call the FBI and inform the vice president. Bush, who was scheduled to speak about education, immediately told his audience that he needed to go back to Washington, D.C.
While on the plane back to Washington, Bush called Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to tell him that the U.S. is not doing anything that would generate a war with him and he does “not want him to react in a way that is not appropriate.”
“I was very impressed that he did that,” Card said. “No one told him to do that, but he did.”
He said Bush also ordered the National Security Team to shoot down any commercial jetliners that would not respond to their immediate request to land.
“[Bush] leaned across the aisle and said to me, ‘I cannot imagine receiving that order.’”
United Flight 93 crashed into Shanksville, Pennsylvania a few minutes later.
Card said he had wondered if it had been someone from national security who caused the crash, but instead, it was passengers of the plane who had learned about the attacks and decided to “do something about it.”
“They were the first heroes of the War on Terror,” Card said. “And every one of them would have earned a Medal of Honor had they been in the military.”
Card and the executive team then flew to Nebraska with only the essential staff.
“It was straight out of the movies,” he said. “You could hear all of the communication between the FAA and the military … the misinformation.”
Card said they kept mistaking U.S. planes for unidentified planes out of fear.
He added Bush wanted to return to D.C., and on their flight back, they were able to watch what was happening at the World Trade Center on a television.
“It was haunting,” Card said. “That image still haunts me to this day. The EMTs, firefighters, policemen that ran toward the building rather than away from it saved lives and gave theirs.”
Card acknowledged the 95 people from Massachusetts who died in the attack. He also asked everyone old enough to remember to never forget the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives to try to save others, and also told those too young to remember about what happened on 9/11.
“There is a picture of me whispering in the president’s ear on Sept. 11. I am not iconic. The picture is. It defines an era,” Card added.
Card also mentioned how in the days that followed, Bush gave an empowering speech that united the nation as Congress was voting on a war resolution that passed almost unanimously.
“Everyone that day [Sept. 14] dropped some of their favorite labels. Republican, democrat. We all proudly said ‘We are Americans.’
“Record numbers of people said they wanted to become a police officer. ‘I want to become a firefighter. I want to join the military. I want to join the intelligence services.’ We celebrate that.”
Card added that we need to recognize the pain that still lingers even after 20 years and amongst the families of the Massachusetts citizens who sacrificed their lives during the 9/11 attacks.
“They will never forget and we promised we wouldn’t either,” he said.
Card also encouraged the audience to get involved with democracy through voting and running for office, and thanked those who have already been taking part.
“We’re a great democracy,” Card said, “Polish it.”