My 9/11 experience from the White House

16 years ago today, the world as we knew it changed.

For me, as for most Americans, the images of September 11, 2001 remain seared in my memory. As a young man serving in the White House for President George W. Bush, I vividly recall the emotions of that day – first shock as I watched the two planes fly into the World Trade Center, then outrage when it became clear it was a terrorist attack, and, ultimately, profound grief for the victims and those who lost loved ones on that day.

There was no alarm; just people frantically telling us to get out fearing another plane would crash into the White House at any moment. As I got into my truck, I could see the smoke billowing from the Pentagon and jets scrambling above. Driving away, I watched people streaming out of buildings, gathering on sidewalks, and desperately trying to call their families to no avail. It was an eerie and surreal moment I’ll never forget.

For those who lost loved ones, the grief and heartache remain to this day. Not since Pearl Harbor have Americans experienced and collectively witnessed such death and destruction on our homeland. This was a defining moment for our country; one that would, like other major challenges throughout our history, try our spirits and test our resolve.

When we heard the voicemail recordings from passengers on United Flight 93, we were reminded once again that Americans are a special breed of people. Laying down their lives, the passengers on that flight refused to be paralyzed by fear and took matters into their own hands. “Let’s Roll!” became a rallying cry for our country to help lift up the families and friends of those lost, the brave first-responders who rushed headlong into danger, and all affected on that terrible day.

In the days that followed, Americans once again proved our resilience. In countless acts of selflessness, people from all walks of life pulled together to restore a great American city and comfort a broken and grieving nation. We heard a strong and compassionate Commander in Chief, who embodied America’s resolve as he stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center and declared, “I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you, and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon!” Perhaps more than anything, we witnessed a oneness in our country too often divided by our differences.

On that day, we were not defined by race or gender, urban or rural, Republican or Democrat, Main Street or Wall Street; we were Americans. As Americans, we don’t always agree on what is best for our country, but 9/11 is a reminder that the ties that hold our democracy together are stronger than any force that seeks to divide us.  

In the wake of the Hurricane Harvey disaster, and now Hurricane Irma, we see again the very best of the American spirit where neighbors are sacrificing for neighbors without regard to ideology or color.  The blessing of such trying times is this – we discover what we’re really made of, and we’re reminded, once again, what really matters.  That may be a common human experience, but no other people collectively reflect it like Americans.