In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush, aboard Air Force One, stopped in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Bellevue, Nebraska, before returning to the White House.
Fifteen years ago, President Bush’s day started at a Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. As he read “The Pet Goat,” he was first told about a plane flying into the World Trade Center.
At 9:55 a.m., President Bush left quickly from Sarasota. Typically, Air Force One leaves behind a fighter escort, but that morning the jet left without an escort. Administration officials would later say it was because they simply wanted to “get the president airborne and out of the way.”
After a two-hour stop at Barksdale Air Force Base, Air Force One headed north to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue. Offutt is the home of the U.S. Strategic Command.
Jerome Martin, U.S. Strategic Command historian, said the communication center at Offutt Air Force Base allowed the president to speak safely and freely with administration and military officials in Washington, D.C.
Martin said Barksdale had some communication capabilities, but not to the extent of Offutt Air Force Base, which explains why Bush returned to the air after a two-hour stop in Louisiana.
According to the Associated Press, during the flight from Barksdale to Bellevue, the Air Force One entourage was pared down to a few essential staffers, such as Ari Fleischer, Andrew Card, Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, Brian Montgomery and Gordon Johndroe, plus about five reporters.
During the flight, Bush remained in “continuous contact” with the White House Situation Room and Vice President Dick Cheney.
At 3:06 p.m., Bush passed through security to the U.S. Strategic Command’s underground command center and was taken into an bunker designed to withstand a nuclear blast. There, he held a teleconference call with Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, CIA Director George Tenet, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and others.
According to the 9/11 report, around 3:15 p.m., while at the Strategic Air Command, Rice said Bush began the meeting with the words, “We’re at war,” and that Tenet said the agency was still assessing who was responsible.
The meeting lasted about an hour. Rice recalled that during the meeting, Tenet told Bush, “Sir, I believe it’s al-Qaeda. We’re doing the assessment, but it looks like, it feels like, it smells like al-Qaeda.”
According to the 9/11 report, one of the reasons Offutt was chosen because of its elaborate command and control facilities. It also could accommodate overnight lodging for 50 persons, and the Secret Service wanted a place where the President could spend several days, if necessary.
“I know his Secret Service agents didn’t want him in the air,” Martin said. “They wanted him to stay (at Offutt) at little longer because there was a lack of clarity about whether the threat was over.”
According to the report, the White House staff was preparing for Bush to address the nation from the Offutt bunker, but Bush decided instead to return to Washington.
President Bush left Offutt Air Force Base at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 11. He arrived in Washington D.C. at 6:44 p.m., and he addressed the nation at 8:30 p.m.
On Sept. 20, 2011, President Bush, on TV and in front of joint session of Congress, declared war on terror.
The U.S. would go on to wage conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq with the 9/11 attacks in the forefront of the nation’s consciousness for days, months and years after it happened.