U.S. Command Takes Wing Amid Chaos


In the minutes and hours after hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the president's whereabouts were kept secret, his words short and his movements seemingly erratic.

Vice President Dick Cheney was in a command bunker underneath the White House within 15 minutes of the attacks. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in his office when the plane hit on the opposite side of the Pentagon, helped load casualties onto stretchers before hunkering down with top aides in the National Command Center, a secure section below his office that serves as the nerve center of the Defense Department.

Focus Was on Keeping the President Hidden

With chaos reigning outside, government leaders at the White House and federal agencies were focused on running the country--and on keeping the leader of the free world hidden. After leaving Sarasota, Fla., President Bush spent much of the day in the air, Air Force One shuttling him, with military escort, between military installations in Louisiana and Nebraska, his route secret, before flying to Washington in the early evening.

Former President Clinton said the feint was part of a Secret Service and military plan to keep the president safe.

"He needs to take every conceivable precaution in the event there are more attacks planned and there is a plan to attack the leadership of the United States," Clinton said in an interview with Associated Press.

For a few minutes, however, before the enormity of the attack was clearly known, the president tried to stick to his schedule.

"Really good readers, hoo!" Bush said in praise of a class of 18 second-graders at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. "Must be sixth-graders," he joked. At another point, he posed an oft-asked question to schoolchildren, asking how many of them read more than they watch television.

But when the small-group event ended at 9:12 a.m., Bush returned to a "holding room" at the school, where he called the vice president, New York Gov. George Pataki and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

In the same room, meanwhile, White House deputy counselor Dan Bartlett was on another phone talking to his boss, presidential counselor Karen P. Hughes. They were discussing what Bush would say in his public remarks in the school's library, where 200 or more children, parents and teachers were awaiting him.

When Bush got off the telephone, he asked for some paper, and an aide handed him a sheet of lined, legal paper. The president began scribbling notes on it. Then Bush was given a handful of large index cards, upon which he began writing.

Bush Appeared to Choke Back Tears

In the library, meanwhile, word began circulating through the crowd, and soon a somber silence fell over the room.

At 9:27, the president emerged from behind the curtains without any introduction, and with a puff of his cheeks, exhaled deeply and strode grimly to the lectern to deliver a brief statement.

"I've ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and their families and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act," Bush said in part. "Terrorism against our nation will not stand."

At his speech's end, Bush appeared to choke back tears and his voice caught briefly in his throat.

He left immediately afterward.

Cheney and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice were in constant contact with Bush from the command bunker, according to an administration official. They were accompanied by Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, and one other aide. Aides said Bush convened a midafternoon National Security Council meeting by teleconference from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, as his government struggled to respond to an attack of unprecedented proportions.

Congressional leaders also were secreted away. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, third in line for the presidency, was helicoptered to a secure location 74 miles from Washington, congressional aides said. By early afternoon the rest of the congressional leadership left by helicopter.

Other members of Congress and senators spent the day meeting in the headquarters of the Capitol police, about three blocks from the Capitol building, which had been evacuated. Much of the time was spent in conference calls with the leadership, hashing out when to return to session.

First Lady Laura Bush, who was to have made her debut testifying before the Senate on education, emerged grim-faced from the Capitol with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who announced the hearing was postponed.

The first lady and a handful of aides were driven by motorcade to a secret location away from the White House, where they gathered around a television and channel-surfed for the latest news, according to one person in the group. She spoke with her husband on a secure military phone line before he took off from Sarasota, and with her twin daughters. The 19-year-old girls, Barbara at Yale University and Jenna at the University of Texas, also were moved to secure locations.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft was on his way to Milwaukee for a Justice Department event when the planes struck. His plane landed in Milwaukee and immediately headed back to Washington, Justice officials said.

Motorcade's Rifles Startled Onlookers

Most top FBI and Justice Department officials huddled throughout the day at a special information operation center within the FBI building. Present at the meeting were the FBI's Mueller, James W. Ziglar, head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Ashcroft and Larry Thompson, deputy attorney general.

When a caravan of three vehicles arrived carrying top officials, a large automatic rifle pointed out a window of each car, startling onlookers on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was in Lima on Tuesday for a special meeting of the Organization of American States, said he was informed of the attack on the World Trade Center during a breakfast in Lima with Peru's new president, Alejandro Toledo.

"I made an immediate decision to return home," Powell told reporters on the eight-hour flight to Washington. He said he planned to contact many of the world's leaders during the next few days to discuss the crisis.

But he would not say what sort of diplomatic offensive he had in mind.

He also said he ordered all U.S. embassies and consulates around the world to review their security procedures in light of what he said must be considered an increased threat.

Times staff writer Norman Kempster contributed to this report.

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