Inside the Situation Room and with the president on Sept. 11
This story was reported in conjunction with a news partnership with McClatchy Newspapers and reporter Mike Bohn.
For John Sherman, Rob Hargis, Clark Lystra and Deborah Loewer, the first indication that anything had gone wrong on Sept. 11 came from watching television.
The story of this foursome is not only extraordinary, but before now, it had never been shared. On that fateful day, Sherman and Hargis were in the Situation Room at the White House, the residence's secure communications hub. Lykstra raced there from his home, and once together, they all contacted their director, Loewer, who was traveling with President George W. Bush in Florida.
Their story recalls the first few moments after the attack, figuring out who would stay when the White House eventually was evacuated, and what went into informing President Bush while he visited with elementary school students.
"When the motorcade stopped, that's when I got out of the motorcade and ran up to the limousine," Loewer said. "(We) initially told him what we knew of the first attack, then we proceeded into the school."
Moments later, the second plane hit the World Trade Center. The attack was real, and it wasn't over.
"We were then in receipt of a call from two of the president's staff that said, 'The White House has been evacuated, why are you still there?'" Hargis said.
They were still there because the president had to stay informed and connected to the rest of his administration. That meant someone had to stay.
At one point, Sherman had two phones pressed to his ear - one had an aide to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the line, the other had the Air Force.
"We were directed again to leave," Hargis said. "I said to the staff, we're being ordered to evacuate the Situation Room."
"It got very quiet for three or four seconds. Everyone looked at me and then people went back to work."
Meanwhile, in Florida, President Bush was brought up to date. Memories of that day conjure up the image of Chief of Staff Andrew Card leaning over and whispering to the president that a second plane had hit the towers.
But Loewer was the one who originally told Card.
"I entered on stage left, went to Andy Card and whispered in his ear that a second commercial aircraft had impacted the second World Trade Center tower," Loewer said. "I said the nation is under attack. Andy then went over to the president and said words similar to those."
Back in Washington, those left in the White House Situation Room were entering their names into a notebook with an ominous name.
"Frank said we need a list of everyone who's in this facility right now, and literally handed me a yellow notebook and said put your name down," Hargis said. That book was called the "Dead List;" in theory, if the White House were desetroyed, there would be a record of the dead on hand.
The same thing happened as the president and his staff got on Air Force One.
As the day went on, fighter jets were scrambled and foreign leaders were contacted, all while Secret Service agents ran by with stinger missiles and gas masks were delivered (and not worn).
The threat wasn't over until all members of the Dead List could bravely disprove its name.
"It was a privilege to be in that position and to be able to assist during that day," Loewer said.
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