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A number of key White House officials will later claim that, when they learn of the first crash at the World Trade Center, they initially think it is just an accident:
President Bush says that, when he learns of the crash while in Sarasota, Florida: “my first reaction was—as an old pilot—how could the guy have gotten so off course to hit the towers? What a terrible accident that is” (see (Shortly After 8:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sammon 2002, pp. 42)
White House chief of staff Andrew Card, who is with the president, says: “It was first reported to me… that it looked like it was a, a twin-engine pro—prop plane, and so the natural reaction was: ‘What a horrible accident. The pilot must have had a heart attack.’” (Card 9/11/2002)
Adviser Karl Rove, who is also with the president in Florida, is later questioned about his feelings after the first crash. When it is suggested, “I guess at that point, everyone is still thinking it is an accident,” Rove concurs, “Yes, absolutely.” (Rove 9/11/2002)
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, also traveling with the president on this day, says, “[W]hen only the first tower had been hit, it was all of our thoughts that this had been some type of terrible accident.” (CNN 9/11/2006)
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who is in her White House office, is informed of the crash by her executive assistant (see Shortly After 8:46 a.m. September 11, 2001). She later recalls, “I thought, what a strange accident.” (O, the Oprah Magazine 2/1/2002; Rice 9/11/2002)
White House counselor Karen Hughes receives a phone call informing her of the first crash as she is about to leave her Washington, DC, home. She later recalls, “they thought it was a small plane at the time… so, of course, my immediate thought was what a terrible accident.” (Hughes 9/11/2002; CNN 4/6/2004) She adds, “We all assumed it was some kind of weird accident; at that point terrorism didn’t occur to us.” (Hughes 2004, pp. 234)
The 9/11 Commission will later describe, “In the absence of information that the crash was anything other than an accident, the White House staff monitored the news as they went ahead with their regular schedules.” It will only be when they learn of the second tower being hit at 9:03 that “nearly everyone in the White House… immediately knew it was not an accident.” (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 35) However, when couterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke is called some time after the first crash but before the second by Lisa Gordon-Hagerty—a member of his staff who is at the White House (see (9:00 a.m.) September 11, 2001)—she tells him, “Until we know what this is, Dick, we should assume the worst.” (Clarke 2004, pp. 1) And when CIA Director George Tenet learns of the first crash, reportedly he is told specifically, “The World Trade tower has been attacked,” and his initial reaction is, “This has bin Laden all over it” (see (8:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Woodward 2002, pp. 4)
Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke is driving up to a gate outside the White House when Lisa Gordon-Hagerty—a member of his staff who is already at the White House—calls and tells him, “The other tower was just hit.” He responds: “Well, now we know who we’re dealing with. I want the highest level person in Washington from each agency on-screen now, especially the FAA.” He ordered Gordon-Hagerty to set up a secure video conference about five minutes earlier. A few minutes later, according to his own recollections, Clarke finds Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in Cheney’s White House office. Clarke tells Cheney: “It’s an al-Qaeda attack and they like simultaneous attacks. This may not be over.” Rice asks Clarke for recommendations and he says, “We’re putting together a secure teleconference to manage the crisis.” He also recommends evacuating the White House. (A slow evacuation of the White House will begin around 9:20-9:25 (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001).) Rice notes the Secret Service wants them to go to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) below the White House, and as Clarke leaves the other two, he sees Cheney gathering up his papers. In Cheney’s outer office, Clarke will recall, he sees eight Secret Service agents instead of the usual two, ready to move to the PEOC. (Clarke 2004, pp. 1-2; Australian 3/27/2004)
Personnel in the White House Situation Room request protective gear, in case there is a chemical or biological attack, but when someone arrives with gas masks for them, they find there are too few to go around. (Clarke 2004, pp. 8-9; Bohn 8/29/2011) While most people in the White House evacuate, beginning at around 9:45 a.m. (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001), those in the Situation Room stay where they are (see (Shortly After 9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and about a dozen others remain at work there, keeping information flowing to key government officials. (Gardham 9/10/2010; Bohn 8/29/2011) Beverley Roundtree, Clarke’s secretary, calls and tells Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, a member of Clarke’s counterterrorist staff, that she and the rest of Clarke’s staff in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, will also be staying where they are instead of evacuating. Gordon-Hagerty, realizing she will not be able to persuade Roundtree to leave, says to the secretary, “Okay, okay,” and adds, “then bring over the chem-bio gear.” Responding to Gordon-Hagerty’s request, Roundtree subsequently comes to the Situation Room with gas masks, which she distributes to the people there. (Clarke 2004, pp. 8-9) However, Clarke and his colleagues face an “anxious moment” when they realize there are too few gas masks for the people in the Situation Room. “[S]ome questioned the apparent lottery, while others wondered what they didn’t know,” McClatchy Newspapers will later report. (Bohn 8/29/2011)
John Bridgeland, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and two other government officials head to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, DC, where they discuss the government’s domestic response to the day’s terrorist attacks with FEMA officials. In the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) below the White House, Bridgeland has been talking about the federal government’s domestic response to the attacks with Josh Bolten, the deputy White House chief of staff, and the two men have identified several questions that need to be answered. They want to know, in particular, how FEMA is responding. Bolten instructs Bridgeland to go to the White House Situation Room, grab Gary Edson, the deputy national security adviser, and then go with him to visit FEMA. Bridgeland and Edson are joined by Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the director for combating terrorism on the National Security Council, and the three of them then head to FEMA headquarters.
FEMA Is a 'Blur of Activity' - Joseph Allbaugh, the director of FEMA, is currently away from Washington, having been at a conference in Big Sky, Montana (see September 8-11, 2001). But when they arrive at the headquarters, Bridgeland, Edson, and Gordon-Hagerty find the FEMA response to the attacks is already under way and Allbaugh’s staff is “a blur of activity.” Their dozens of questions are answered in detail by FEMA officials, led by Liz DiGregorio, the agency’s chief of staff.
FEMA Officials Describe Their Response to the Attacks - The FEMA officials, according to Bridgeland, say: “They had activated emergency operations to the highest level and had dispatched urban search and rescue teams, disaster medical teams, and disaster mortuary teams to New York and the Pentagon. They had deployed mobile emergency communications systems and were creating staging areas on the ground to manage the emergency response. They were also thinking ahead to what they should do to meet recovery needs—such as providing grants to first responders, public assistance grants, temporary housing, crisis counseling, help with funeral expenses, disaster unemployment assistance, and more.” The FEMA officials talk about using the US Army Corps of Engineers to help New York City remove debris, and they are considering ways of increasing the capacity of hospitals in New York. When the three White House officials leave FEMA headquarters, Bridgeland takes with him the “Emergency Declaration for the Release of Federal Aid to New York and Washington” for President Bush to sign. When they arrive back at the White House, Bridgeland gives this document to the staff secretary, who controls “all of the paper flow into the president.” (Bridgeland 2012, pp. 6-8)
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