WASHINGTON, Sept. 11 -- Details of President Bush's reaction minutes after first learning that terrorists attacked two American cities Tuesday emerged with a graphic account of Air Force One's journey to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
Bush had been in Saratoga, Fla., to tour the Emma E. Booker Elementary School to promote his education reform package when he learned that that the two airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and a third airplane hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington.
The first airplane, reportedly a hijacked airliner, crashed into a World Trade Center tower at about 8:45 a.m. In dispatches from journalists traveling with the president, a photographer overhead a radio transmission that said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer would be needed on arrival to discuss reports of a crash.
The transmission also said that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was on the phone in the president's holding room at the school.
The president, reports said, was not visibly fazed when he arrived to greet about 16 students. At about 9:03 a.m., the second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower. At about 9:05 a.m., Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispered into the president's right ear, at which point he became "visibly serious and tense," journalists wrote in their report.
Reporters watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center and explode into a "giant orange fireball" from a small television in the school office. The president arrived about 35 minutes late to the event with about 200 people including local officials, school staff and students. It was then that Bush made his first brief comments about the tragedy.
"This is a difficult time for America," he said telling the crowd he was returning to Washington.
Journalists traveling with the president returned to the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport where Air Force One had landed. It took off about 9:54 a.m.
Six minutes later the south tower of the 110-story World Trade Center collapsed into the streets of New York. Once aboard Air Force One, journalists described the mood as "tense" as the on-board television monitors relayed the events unfolding in New York and Washington, where a third plane had hit the Pentagon. Reporters say they noticed a marked increase in Air Force One's flying altitude and was told by a source on board they were flying at about 40,000 feet.
Aboard the fight was Chief of Staff Andrew Card, senior adviser Karl Rove and communications director Dan Bartlett, education advisor Sandy Kress, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla.
At 10:44 a.m., the passengers of Air Force One learned of the attack on the Pentagon. Passengers were not told where they were going and were asked not to use their cell phones for fear of revealing the aircraft's location.
While Air Force One was en route to Louisiana, United and American Airlines announced they had possibly lost two passenger jets each. All federal agencies in Washington are evacuated and the World Trade Center's north tower collapsed.
At about 11:29 a.m. EST, the White House press corps noticed fighter jets flying on both sides of Air Force One, reporters said. When the plane landed at Barksdale Air Force Base around 11:45 a.m., it was met with military personnel in full combat gear; green fatigues, flak jackets, helmets and drawn M-16s.
At 12:11 p.m., reporters noticed a sign on the base that read: Def Con Delta, the highest possible state of military alert. Initially journalists were told that they could not identify where the president was, but local Air Force personnel said that local media had already aired where the president likely had gone, leading the Whtie House staff to rescind the order.
American airports at this point are evacuated and closed. Civilian flights in the air were ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration to land at the nearest airport. American borders with Canada and Mexico were placed on high alert shortly after noon.
Fleischer told the pool of journalists that: "We are in the process of maintaining the secure environment that the president has been and will continue to travel in. During this flight he was in regular contact with the vice president, with members of the National Security Council with other officials in the Cabinet, taking all action to protect the American people."
Bush and his senior staff were moved to a secure area within the General Dougherty Conference Center in a motorcade with a green Humvee equipped with a gun turret. At 12:36, the president climbed up to a podium at the center and with red-rimmed eyes began to address the country, saying "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward."
At the end of Bush's speech, a number of journalists were left in Louisiana with the president carrying only five reporters with him on to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Air Force One was in the air again at 1:35 p.m., a few minutes after a state of emergency was declared in Washington. Damage to the 110-story-tall World Trade Center towers caused the structures to collapse, ripping a hole in the Manhattan skyline, leaving only thick clouds of gray smoke and dust. The Pentagon attack reportedly injured at least 50 people, some seriously. The death and injury toll in New York is still unknown.
Hughes spoke firmly saying that "our fellow citizens and our freedom came under attack today, and no one should doubt America's resolve."
Hughes gave the day's first clear account of Bush's movements during the day, as well as the safety and actions of the Cheney, key Cabinet members and White House staff.
"As you know, President Bush was in Sarasota, Fla., when the first attack occurred this morning. Air Force One has now landed at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb., and the president is in a secure location," Hughes said.
After the attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York, the Secret Service immediately made sure of the safety of the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Hughes said. Agents also moved members of the president's national security team, the Cabinet and the senior White House staff to safe areas, she said. Mindy Tucker spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said the administration's response "is being directed from the White House."
Bush was meeting with members of the National Security Council Tuesday afternoon including Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice were both inside a secure section of the White House complex. Department of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld remained at the Pentagon, which that had been hit by an airplane as part of the coordinated attack. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in route back to the United States from his trip to Peru in South America.
Hughes provided a breakdown of what individual agencies were doing during the crisis.
The Federal Aviation Administration ordered all U.S. airports closed and airplanes in flight were told to land at the nearest airport. International flights were diverted to airports outside the United States, Hughes said. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta directed the FAA to suspend operations until at least noon EDT Wednesday.
Hughes gave assurances that the U.S. financial system and economy were unscathed by the day's events with the Federal Reserve open and operating "regularly and continuously."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mobilized medial personnel to help victims of the attacks. Earlier in the day the agency issued a call for blood donations.
"I encourage all Americans to help out in this time of crisis and donate blood. No matter where you live, your blood donation can help those in need," said HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency activated eight urban search-and-rescue task forces in New York and four of the highly trained teams at the Pentagon, she said. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice is setting up a hotline for families who fear that their relatives may have been among the day's victims.