The Day The President Went Missing

The remarkable pictures that show how George Bush was spirited away for ten hours on September 11

by Sharon Churcher
The Daily Mail (Mail On Sunday)
September 8, 2002

They are the most extraordinarily candid pictures ever taken of a world leader, a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of George Bush in the hours after his secret service agent bundled him aboard Air Force One following the attacks of September 11.

The President's personal photographer Eric Draper, a 37-yearold former journalist, had been ordered to compile a record that Bush hoped would dramatically change his image when these pictures were released to America's most influential wire service, The Associated Press.

Widely-perceived as one of the most inexperienced politicians ever to occupy the Oval Office, Bush has told aides that in the moments when he was pictured by Draper watching on TV the plumes of fire rising over New York, he was granted an inner strength by 'the grace of God.' The President's motorcade had just left his hotel for a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, when at 8:45 am, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre.

Shortly before 9 am the President strode into the school where Draper was due to photograph him reading to the children. White House Counselor Karl Rove rushed up and, taking Bush aside in a corridor, told him about the calamity. Rove said the cause of the crash was unclear. 'What a horrible accident!'

Bush replied, adding that maybe the pilot had suffered a heart attack. From the demeanour of the President, grinning at the children, it appeared that the enormity of what he had been told was taking a while to sink in.

'It was surreal,' says Draper, who continued to snap away.

In media-conscious America it has become an accepted tradition for Presidents to employ their own photographers to record official and personal moments for posterity.

Their works are supplied to the media and are also collected for eventual inclusion in the National Archives and presidential libraries.

Still, a more politically-experienced leader would have limited Draper's access on this grimmest of days. But the veteran news photographer says: 'I just kept working. I've learned to read the President's body language and his moods, and when to shoot and when not to. We're very comfortable with one another. When the President is working and I'm working, I'm like a piece of furniture in the room.' At 9:04 am, Bush entered the classroom and paused, as planned, for a 'photo op' in front of Draper's camera.

At the moment the second plane was slamming into the Trade Centre's South Tower, he was introduced to the second-graders. As he was getting ready to pose for yet more pictures, his White House chief of staff Andy Card entered the room and whispered in his right ear.

'A second plane hit the second tower,' Card said. 'America is under attack.' Bush blanched and grimly pressed his lips into a thin line. Then he started to read a nursery story to the children. It was about goats.

At 9:12 am an aide came into the room and told about 150 children and adults: 'There will be a hold.' The President was rushed into a special 'holding room,' and then to Air Force One. For the next ten hours he zigzagged around America, before aides finally told him it was safe for him to return to the White House that evening.

Panic begins to grip aides grouped around Bush as a wall clock ticks to 9.25 am and someone shouts at the President to watch the TV screen.

He turns, still clutching the handset of the secure telephone that accompanies him whenever he leaves the White House, activated by a special key (ringed).

Sitting at a Formica table borrowed from a classroom in the Emma E. Booker Elementary School, he has been trying to compose a statement on the pad in front of him.

In less than half an hour, the South Tower of the World Trade Centre will collapse. Bush continues to compose his speech. He wants to tell the children why he has to leave Florida. But his advisers warn him that back at the White House, the office of Vice President Dick Cheney is being flooded with confused and contradictory intelligence reports.

As many as six commercial airliners may be about to launch suicide attacks on the White House itself. At 9.30, Bush talks to local reporters about his education budget and prepares to address the 200 schoolchildren.

In the hastily-equipped war room at the school, Bush's first call is to his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

He then speaks to Vice President Dick Cheney and New York Governor George Pataki. 'He was gathering facts and making sure we were responding,' says a White House spokesman.

One of his White House spin doctors, communications director Dan Bartlett, strikes up a take-charge posture, pointing at TV footage of the burning North Tower.

'A few minutes later the President told us, "We're at war," ' says an aide.

'When he went into that classroom, he was the President of the United States, talking domestic issues. He walked out of that room as the commander in chief.'

In only minutes, Bush and his Secret Service agents have raced to Air Force One, the presidential jet.

The aircraft lifts off from Sarasota at 9:55 am and the mood of crisis on board is palpable.

Glancing out of the plane's window, the president watches one of the two F-16 fighters escorting the plane at 40,000 feet.

His Press secretary Ari Fleischer hovers over his left shoulder.

No one aboard White House aides, flight crew members or the agents, let alone the President can decide on their destination.

They have just heard that American Airlines flight 77 has slammed into one side of the Pentagon.

Finally, to ensure the President's safety, it is determined that they will fly in circles for almost two hours.

White house chief of staff Andy Card briefs Bush on the worsening crisis.

United Airlines Flight 93 has crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers overpower the hijackers. But at least the White House is safe.

The President authorises the crew to land at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

This is a 'secure location' his aides have told him, and will give him a chance to consider his next moves while Air Force One refuels.

'We are going to take care of this,' the President says. 'When we find out who did this, they are not going to like me as president.

Somebody is going to pay.'

They are back in the air, this time believed to be heading for Offut air force base in Nebraska.

Chief of staff Andy Card gives Bush a reassuring glance as the weary-looking President slumps back in his chair on the presidential jet.

Despite the crisis, Eric Draper has composed this photograph to give his boss an air of authority.

The presidential seal can be seen over a porthole, and an Air Force One bomber jacket has been draped behind the President, with the logo clearly visible.

When Bush landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, the plane had been surrounded by Air Force personnel in full combat gear green fatigues, flak jackets, helmets, drawn M-16s. His nervousness is still transparent.

At 2.50 pm, the plane lands in Nebraska and he presides over a meeting of his national security team. At the White House, there is deepening disquiet about his absence.

He finally will return to the Oval Office and Draper stows his camera at about 7pm.


Copyright 2002 Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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