Ground Zero Remembrance: 10 Years Later

The morning of September 14, 2001, began with a solemn remembrance at the Washington National Cathedral, followed by President George W. Bush’s much anticipated visit to Ground Zero.

That afternoon, as we helicoptered from McGuire Air Force Base where Air Force One had just landed, our sense of smell was put to the test as soon the New York skyline came into view.  The smell was emanating from burning plastic, rubber, wood, and who knows what else.  Just three days removed from the largest terrorist attack on American soil, the smoke and smolder would continue for days.

Our military helicopter circled over Ground Zero for a few minutes so that we could see the horror wrought by the collapse of the Twin Towers.  We landed at the Wall Street Heliport on the East River and headed toward the motorcade.  As is the case whenever Marine One lands, the local fire department had provided a truck and crew just in case of an accident.  However, there was something quite unique about these firefighters.  They were covered in soot and grime and all appeared exhausted.  Our motorcade driver told us they had just come from Ground Zero, where they had been working for days looking for survivors.

Within minutes we arrived at 7 World Trade Center , which had collapsed hours after the North and South Towers.  The local Secret Service office was in the building and the armored limousines and other equipment stored in the basement were now buried under mounds of rubble.

It had rained that morning and the rainwater had mixed with the remnants of tons of drywall to form a chalky paste which by now was on everyone’s shoes.  After a few minutes at the site with Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki, and other New York luminaries in tow, we headed to Ground Zero.

Of all the visual scenes that day the one I recall most was the look in the eyes of the firefighters, policemen, construction workers, and other first responders who by now numbered in the hundreds.  They were angry, as was to be expected.  We all were. But this look went beyond anger. 

Once we got to Ground Zero, there wasn’t much of a plan except that President Bush wanted to greet as many workers as possible.  With the Secret Service as close to the President as I had ever seen (except for Tuesday, September 11), we moved around within the assembled throng.

There was dirt, debris and chalky paste everywhere.  Pieces of the fallen towers were strewn about as were crushed vehicles.  I recall a flattened fire department vehicle that appeared to be an SUV.  It too was covered in grime and you could barely make out its red paint.

Within minutes, White House chief of staff Andrew Card told Karl Rove and me to go find a place from which the President could speak.  We headed back toward the flattened car which now had several firefighters standing atop it.  It seemed sturdy enough, so I made my way back to President Bush.  Within seconds Mr. Card handed President Bush a megaphone and with that the flying wedge of agents and staff pivoted toward the flattened vehicle.

The firefighters saw us heading in their direction and started jumping off the vehicle, except for one man who appeared older than his colleagues.  We told him to stay put.  President Bush stepped onto the makeshift platform and despite a frenetic start to his comments (people could not hear him), soon uttered the phrase that has since been repeated countless times. “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”  A wave of euphoria overcame most of us and I still tear up thinking about that moment.

Standing at the edge of the site where the lives of close to 3,000 men, women, and children were violently ended you cannot help being overcome by the emotion of the moment.  And yes, there was still that “look” in the eyes of all assembled at the site.

We got back in the motorcade and no one said a word.  After few minutes of silence, someone verbalized what we were all thinking: did that really just happen?  It had just soaked in that we had witnessed a moment in history akin to those you read about in textbooks. 

Later we arrived at the Convention Center and visited with many of the rescue workers who had made their way to New York from Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Chicago, and dozens of other cities.

President Bush has the magic touch that can make someone feel instantly at ease.  I saw that in him hundreds of times in the many years I worked for him.  He made each person feel special and, for that brief moment in time, conveyed to them they were the only person in the world who had the attention of the President of the United States.   That trait was put to the ultimate test when we entered a small cordoned-off room within the cavernous exhibit hall.  Inside were dozens of family members of fireman and policemen who were missing and presumed dead.

We could hear the cries and occasional nervous laughter as each person told President Bush of their loved ones.  One woman gave President Bush the police badge of her fallen son.  He vowed to carry it with him throughout his presidency.  President Bush stayed with these people for close to two hours, talking with them and trying to comfort them.

As we made our way back to the landing zone, we passed through a crowd of well-wishers who numbered in the thousands.  They were standing curbside five deep for blocks holding candles and applauding as the President’s limo rolled quietly through lower Manhattan. 

When we arrived back at McGuire AFB, two small executive jets (one of them soon to be Air Force One) were parked on the tarmac adjacent to the presidential 747.  President Bush was headed to Camp David for “War Cabinet” meetings and the smaller nearby airport could not accommodate the 747.

Once at the small Frederick, MD airport we watched President Bush board Marine One for the flight to Camp David.  We were all exhausted and soon to be home with our loved ones.  He was beginning a long weekend meeting with his senior military advisors.  Rest for him would have to wait.

That night, I returned home exhausted from what had been the most demanding week of my lifetime.  I had spent September 11 traveling with the President, had visited the Pentagon crash site the next day, and had helped plan the National Cathedral event as well our visit to Ground Zero. 

I took off my black dress shoes, which were still caked in mud and chalky paste.  Despite my best efforts over the next few days, I just could not bring myself to clean them.  One evening I wrapped the dirty shoes and placed them in a plastic container where they remain untouched to this day.

I experienced a range of emotions that entire week and for days to follow, but one stood out – my amazement and gratitude that we have men and women whose life-calling is to be a fireman, a police officer, a first responder, or a member of the armed services.  As we saw on September 11th, and as we have witnessed since that day, their sacrifices are profound, and their impact is great.  This Sunday, September 11, 2011, please honor their memory and especially the victims of that tragic day 10 years ago.

Brian Montgomery was Director of Presidential Advance and was traveling with President Bush throughout the day on September 11, 2001.  He later served as Secretary to the Cabinet and Federal Housing Commissioner.  He is currently a partner in a real estate advisory firm in Washington, DC.

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