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CONDIThe Life of a Steel Magnolia
By MARY BETH BROWN
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Mary Beth Brown
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTransforming America
Faith is what gives me comfort, and humility, and hope ... even through the darkest hours. Like many people-here and abroad-I have turned to God and prayer more and more this past year and a half.... Terror and tragedy have made us more aware of our vulnerability and our own mortality. We are living through a time of testing and consequence-and praying that our wisdom and will are equal to the work before us." -Condoleezza Rice
"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." -Psalm 46:1 KJV
September 11, 2001
The sun rises into a beautiful day in America. The morning promises the kind of day that you wistfully dream about during the cold, bare months of winter: crystal-clear blue skies; the leaf-covered trees beginning to turn vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow; and the warmth of the late summer sun.
5:00 a.m. Washington, DC
As the rest of the city sleeps, a woman wakes up at her usual workday time. Attractive and physically fit at age forty-six, she is ready to start her morning work-out. As she stretches and climbs out of bed, she knows nothing of the horrors this beautiful day is to bring.
5:00 a.m. Portland, Maine
Five hundred miles away, two men of Middle Eastern descent arrive at a small airport with luggage in hand. They have planned and prepared for this day for months. Mentally and physically, they arrive ready for the most important day of their lives. They've shaved their bodies and prepared them as if for burial. But as they well know, if they succeed, no bodies will ever be found. Readied as warriors prepared for battle, they step up to the ticket counter. They appear calm and relaxed as they execute the first step in their murderous plot. They must not fail today. They must not fail Allah.
Passing by a security camera, Mohammad Atta's grim image is caught as he commences his attack against America.
6:00 a.m. Washington, DC
Feeling energized from her morning work-out, the woman eats a bowl of cereal, jumps into the shower, and dresses for the day. A television faces the treadmill in the den of her Watergate apartment, where she exercises for about forty-five minutes most mornings. She usually listens to music or watches the news while running. On the shelves of a bookcase are a variety of books, on topics such as Brahms, Frederick Douglass, and the Republic of Azerbaijan. The dining room has inviting, warm, red walls-good for entertainment and conversation. In the white living room stands a Steinway grand piano, a gift from her parents when she was fifteen years old.
Soon Secret Service agents will escort her to a chauffeured vehicle and off to work. Only eight months have passed since she became national security advisor, a job that is both challenging and rewarding. Today, she is looking forward to arriving at her office in the West Wing of the White House.
6:00 a.m. Portland, Maine
Back in Maine, Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari board a flight from Portland to Boston's Logan International Airport. They have prepared to meet their compatriots in Boston.
7:00 a.m. White House, Washington, DC
As she enters the White House she cannot help but reflect on the beauty of the day. Her office sits just around the corner from the president. National security advisor for the president is a dream job for her, considering all the years she has spent studying other countries' governments, politics, people, and cultures.
7:40 a.m. Boston, Massachusetts
Three other hijackers join Atta and Omari boarding American Airlines Flight 11 for a 7:45 departure to Los Angeles from Logan International Airport. This flight is to be the culmination of their festering hatred for the infidel United States. Convinced that their actions will merit the eternal favor of Allah, these men brace themselves for martyrdom.
Also boarding the plane are seventy-eight other passengers with carry-on luggage, purses, and reading materials in hand. Some travelers are returning home to California, like Berry Berenson, widow of actor Anthony Perkins. A seventy-one-year-old grandmother of ten, Thelma Cuccinello, plans to see her sister living there, and Jeffrey Coombs, husband and father of three children, is on a business trip to Los Angeles for Compaq Computer.
7:48 a.m. Newark, New Jersey
United Airlines Flight 93, with four more hijackers on the passenger list, is also boarding for its early-morning trip across the country to San Francisco. Businessman Todd Beamer, along with other passengers, finds his assigned seat and readies himself for the flight. Beamer, husband and father of two little boys, with a soon-to-be-born little girl, has no idea that today he will become a hero for his country.
7:50 a.m. Dulles Airport, Virginia
Five more hijackers are boarding American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles International Airport, bound for Los Angeles. The hijackers carefully chose these airplanes with nearly identical cockpits, scheduled departures between 7:45 and 8:14 a.m., and departure cities. Because all of the planes are scheduled to fly west from the East coast, they are filled with large quantities of fuel, thus they have the potential for the greatest explosive force.
More innocent travelers board along with the terrorists including lawyer and author Barbara Olson, wife of Bush Department of Justice official Ted Olson.
8:00 a.m. Boston, Massachusetts
In the United Airlines terminal at Logan Airport, Flight 175 is pushing back from the gate carrying five more Islamic terrorists for its scheduled trip to Los Angeles, California.
Business men and women, families with children, and other passengers have no idea what is in store for them this morning.
At this point in time, "the 19 men were aboard four transcontinental flights," wrote the 9/11 Commission Report. "They were planning to hijack these planes and turn them into large guided missiles, loaded with up to 11,400 gallons of jet fuel. By 8:00 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, they had defeated all the security layers that America's civil aviation security system then had in place to prevent a hijacking."
8:45 a.m. New York City, World Trade Center, North Tower
The workday is just beginning for the thousands of men and women working in this famous building. Cantor Fitzgerald Securities, Windows on the World Restaurant, and thousands of other businesses and law offices are located here.
Flight attendant Amy Sweeney, talking on a phone with the airline's office, says, "Oh my God, we are way too low!" The first plane, filled with ninety-two people, crashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, traveling at 378 miles an hour. All onboard, along with an unknown number of people in the tower, are killed instantly.
8:45 a.m. Washington, DC
Condoleezza Rice stands at her desk in the White House waiting to go down to her senior staff meeting. As national security advisor she is one of the first to know. Her executive assistant comes in and hands her a note saying that a plane has hit the World Trade Center. Condi's first thought is, What a strange accident! She begins watching live television coverage of the battered tower emitting black smoke where a jet has just entered it.
"Mr. President," she says, calling the president in Florida, "a plane hit the World Trade Center." Like Condi, the president's first response is, What a weird accident.
"I thought it was a pilot error," said President Bush, recalling that moment. "I thought that some foolish soul had gotten lost-and made a terrible mistake."
As Condi learns more about the situation, President Bush proceeds to his previously scheduled event at a school, sits down, and begins listening to the children read to him.
First reports are that a twin-engine plane had hit the building. Not long after, though, Condi learns that it is a commercial airliner that has struck the building. She walks down to her senior staff meeting and continues to ask for reports on the situation. As she reads three different reports on what has happened, she receives a note from her executive assistant. The note simply states that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center. Her immediate thought is, My God, this is a terrorist attack.
The national security advisor springs into action. When recounting that fateful day to Oprah Winfrey, she said, "I went into the Situation Room and began trying to gather the National Security Council principals for a meeting. But Colin Powell was in Latin America. I remember thinking, 'Is he in danger?'" She tried in vain to reach Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. America was under attack, and Condi had her work cut out for her.
9:30 a.m. Washington, DC
As two more hijacked jets are soaring toward Washington, DC, those on the ground watch President Bush telling the nation on television that the country has suffered an "apparent terrorist attack."
A Secret Service agent runs into Vice President Dick Cheney's office at the White House, saying, "Sir, we have to leave immediately." He grabs him, putting a hand on his belt, another on his shoulder, propelling him out of the office. "I'm not sure how they do it," Cheney later recalled, "but they sort of levitate you down the hallway. You move very fast."
Also being evacuated from her office in the West Wing is National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Later, she remembered hearing "a false report that [a] car bomb had gone off at the State Department." Before she knew it, someone came up to her and yelled, "Get to the bunker! The vice president is already there." As she is leaving her office, Condi calls President Bush.
"It was brief because I was being pushed to get off the phone and get out of the West Wing. They were hurrying me off the phone with the president and he just said, 'I'm coming back,' and we said, 'Mr. President, that may not be wise,'" said Condi, referring to the advice she and the vice president gave Mr. Bush that morning.
Rice, Cheney, and other senior staff are swiftly escorted by Secret Service agents to the bunker deep below the White House called the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC). Cheney and Condi are already talking about mobilizing an antiterrorism task force. Together they collect and discuss information while keeping in contact with the president as the day unfolds. In short, the PEOC is fulfilling its purpose of being a command center where top officials work during times of extreme danger. Explaining later in an interview with Oprah,
Condi said, "The bunker is protected by advanced security systems and stocked with emergency supplies and communication devices." Condi continued, "I remember stopping briefly to call my family, my aunt and uncle in Alabama, and saying, 'I'm fine,'" as she arrived in the bunker. "'You have to tell everybody that I'm fine.' But then settling into trying to deal with the enormity of that moment, and in the first few hours, I think the thing that was on everybody's mind was how many more planes are coming." Condi began "calling other governments to make sure they knew that the United States government was up and running."
While all this is going on, the Capitol and the Supreme Court are also being evacuated. The Secret Service implements the emergency plan to ensure the presidential line of succession for the first time ever. The fifteen officials in line to become president if the others are killed are quickly gathered by Secret Service agents and brought to a secure location. Naturally, the vice president is the first to succeed the president, then Speaker of the House. Next are members of the president's cabinet in the order each position was created, starting with secretary of state. The agents want to move Vice President Cheney, but when he hears that the president and fourteen others are safe, he decides to stay in the bunker, even though agents fear he is in danger even there. "It's important to emphasize it's not personal," said Cheney talking about his duty as Vice President. "You don't think of it in personal terms. You've got a professional job to do."
Tension levels remain high in the PEOC room as planes filled with frightened passengers fly like deadly missiles toward the nation's capital. In a CBS television interview, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta remembers hearing the FAA counting down the hijacked planes heading toward Washington, DC. "Someone came in and said, 'Mr. Vice President, there's a plane fifty miles out,' then he came in and said, 'It's now ten miles out; we don't know where it is exactly, but it's coming in low and fast.'"
Plane Heads for Nation's Capitol and Symbols of America
Now, almost an hour after Condi and senior staff assembled in the PEOC, air traffic controllers note a plane on the radar screen heading quickly back east toward Washington. It is American Flight 77 with sixty-four passengers and crew on board. It took off late at 8:20 a.m. from Washington-Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. Outside the city the plane abruptly turns 270 degrees and points like an arrow toward its target: the Pentagon. Flight 77 is fully loaded for a trip across the country with jet fuel, a mixture of kerosene and gasoline. The aircraft is now flying directly toward the no-fly zone over the Washington Monument, the Capitol, and the White House. An air-traffic controller desperately tries to contact the unresponsive plane, to no avail: the cockpit is silent, and the transponder has been turned off as was done with the three other hijacked airplanes. At 9:24 a.m. NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) sends an alarm to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. According to the 9/11 Report, "NORAD is a bi-national command established in 1958 between the United States and Canada. Its mission was, and is, to defend the airspace of North America and protect the continent." A few minutes later two F-16 fighter jets take off to intercept American Flight 77.
Flight 77 swoops over Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia as it draws near the Pentagon, the military headquarters of the United States.
9:38 a.m. Arlington, Virginia
On the ground near the Pentagon, firefighter Alan Wallace is working on the Pentagon fire station ramp when he hears the screaming of engines from Flight 77. He looks up and sees the Boeing 757 flying two hundred yards away and twenty-five feet off the ground. "Runnnnn!" Wallace shouts to a fellow firefighter. "[Wallace] made it about thirty feet, heard a terrible roar, felt the heat, and dove underneath a van, skinning his stomach as he slid across the blacktop, sailing across it as though he were riding a luge," wrote the Washington Post.
"We remember where we were that day," wrote Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the Wall Street Journal as he described what it was like being inside the Pentagon when the airplane flew into it traveling 530 miles an hour. The jet was flying "full power, no flaps," according to an Alexandria police officer, as it hit the nation's top military building. "At 9:38 a.m., the entire Pentagon shook," said Rumsfeld. "I went outside and saw the horrific face of war in the 21st century. Those present could feel the heat of the flames and smell the burning jet fuel-all that remained of American Airlines flight 77."
"Destruction surrounded us: smoldering rubble, twisted steel, victims in agony," remembered Rumsfeld. He immediately began helping the injured onto stretchers for about fifteen minutes, according to the New York Times. Knowing that much would be required of him after this assault on our nation, he then heads back to his office to get back to work.
American Airlines flight 77's crash into the Pentagon marked the first time since the War of 1812 that Washington had been attacked. Now America's military headquarters was a fiery furnace with smoke pouring out of a 150-foot gaping hole. Five stories collapsed.
Meanwhile, Condi is notified by Russian president Vladimir Putin not to worry about Bush raising the Defense Readiness Condition up a level. Normally, this move would have been matched by the Russians, but in a show of support, Putin orders his troops to stand down instead.
As the last hijacked plane zooms toward Washington, an order to evacuate the entire White House is issued. People are literally running for their lives just as others had earlier that morning in New York City as they evacuated the World Trade Center towers.
A surreal feeling encompasses Washington, which now looks like a scene from a movie. Bumper-to-bumper traffic streams out of the city, but none is going in as people frantically evacuate the place where many of America's hallowed symbols stand. U.S. fighter jets begin patrolling the skies above the nation's capital as the residents and the workforce flee for safety. Meanwhile, Condi keeps working in the bomb-proof bunker below the White House.
9:40 a.m. Washington, DC
Two minutes after the plane hits the Pentagon, the FAA suspends all flight operations at U.S. airports. Secretary Mineta supervises the grounding of the thousands of planes that are still up in the air above our vast nation (and that could potentially be used as lethal missiles).
This is the first time in U.S. history that air traffic has been halted nationwide. The seriousness of the situation is finally impacting the public.
Condi compiles information on the number of airplanes that have flown from U.S. airports that morning and their destinations. She finds at least twenty-two airplanes that are unaccounted for. Talking about it later she said, "We could imagine planes coming down all over the place. We know now that the plane that went down in Pennsylvania was probably headed either for the White House or the Capitol Building."
9:57 a.m. Sarasota, Florida
Air Force One takes off like a rocket with the president on board. It speeds down the runway with dust clouds whirling. It lifts off and goes almost straight up for nearly ten minutes, trying to get high in the sky as quickly as possible to avoid being attacked by a terrorist-piloted plane.
While the president is leaving Florida, almost an hour after the World Trade Center Tower Two is hit, the tower begins to waver and then unbelievably implodes like a building that has been purposefully set with dynamite for destruction.
Condi remembers watching the 110-story tower collapse on a TV newscast: "Someone said to me, 'Look at that.' I remember that, 'Look at that,' and I looked up and I saw and I just remember a cloud of dust and smoke and the horror of that moment." She also recalls another emotion she felt at that moment, "that we've lost a lot of Americans and that eventually we would get these people. I felt the anger. Of course I felt the anger."
Excerpted from CONDI by MARY BETH BROWN Copyright © 2007 by Mary Beth Brown. Excerpted by permission.
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