September 11, 2001 - White House Historical Association Quarterly Issue 62

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On the morning of September 12, 2001, hundreds of men and women showed their badges at the White House gates as they reported to work. They were following their daily routine, just as they had the previous morning under a historically intense blue sky.

Flowing through the gates were presidential aides and appointees, the first lady’s staff, White House correspondents, photographers, chefs, interns, curators, ushers, butlers, florists, engineers, housekeepers, groundskeepers, calligraphers, and others. In the intervening twenty-four hours, many had watched live coverage of the terrorist attacks in New York on televisions throughout the White House complex, many had heard and even felt the impact when a hijacked passenger plane slammed into the Pentagon, and all had been ordered to run if they “wanted to live.” They had seen the smoke fill the air above Washington and felt relief when military jets arrived to protect the White House—which was not only their workplace, but likely an imminent target. They had navigated evacuating crowds of Washingtonians and tourists, worried about their loved ones when cell phones failed, and cemented bonds with colleagues, all the while keeping their obligation to support the president first and foremost in their minds.

White House History Quarterly chose the twentieth anniversary of September 11, 2001, to look back, going behind the scenes at the White House and on Air Force One, on that singular day in the history of the President’s House, when the staff was suddenly confronted with the possibility that the house, along with their lives, could be lost within minutes. The Quarterly is honored to share their many unknown stories, publishing the accounts for the first time in this issue. Beginning in 2002, Donna Ayasdi Smith, associate curator of collections and registrar in the Office of the Curator, compiled the memories of her colleagues who serve on the Executive Residence staff. Anita McBride, then a special assistant to the president, shares the stories of the Executive Office of the president's staff, who regrouped following the evacuation and continued to carry out their duties. We are also privileged to present the story of September 11, 2001, through the unique experience of White House correspondent Ann Compton, who documented the president’s journey as he led the nation not from the ground, but from the White House in the air, Air Force One. Our Presidential Site feature for this issue takes us to Camp David, the weekend of September 15, 2001. The president's personal cook, Matthew Wendell, recalls preparing food for the president and his advisors, who retreated to the cabins in the mountains that weekend to continue their long meetings in the aftermath of the attacks. Wendell explains how he sought to prepare comfort food to help ease their stress and sadness.

In his televised address to the nation delivered at 8:30 p.m. on September 11, 2001, President Bush announced that government offices in Washington would reopen for all workers on September 12. He called for prayers for the families of the thousands whose “lives were suddenly ended by evil. And he continued, “These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.” That American resolve is defined in the experiences witnessed and documented by Ann Compton, Anita McBride, Donna Ayasdi Smith, and Matthew Wendell. Their accounts underscore the courage and dedication to service of those who reentered the gates and returned to service at the White House.