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Inside the White House on September 11

September 11, 2016, 4:38 PM UTC

Excerpted from The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, by Kate Andersen Brower. Copyright 2015 by Kate Andersen Brower. Brower is the author, most recently, of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies. She covered the Obama White House for Bloomberg News and she has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Vanity Fair.

“I still can’t talk about it. My knees banged together, it sounded like a bass drum.”

—Wendy Elsasser, Florist, 1985–2007, on working in the White House on 9/11

img_1981On a late summer morning, under a cloudless azure blue sky, the White House was buzzing with activity. The Bushes were hosting the annual picnic for members of Congress and their families. One hundred and ninety picnic tables adorned the South Lawn. Executive Chef Walter Scheib was working with Tom Perini, a favorite caterer of the first family’s from Buffalo Gap, Texas, to create a festive, Texas-style cookout for the 1,500 expected guests, complete with chuck wagons and a green chili and hominy casserole.

Warm weather and clear skies were perfect for an afternoon barbeque. Maids were cleaning the Queen’s Bedroom on the second floor, where George H.W. Bush and Barbara had spent the night before. The former president and his wife left at 7:00 a.m. for an early flight. President Bush was in Florida, visiting a Sarasota elementary school.

Even with all the activity swirling around her, Laura Bush seemed alone in the White House. She was getting dressed in silence in the second floor bedroom, rehearsing the statement she was set to make before the Senate Education Committee that morning. She was nervous about her visit to Capitol Hill, where she was set to brief the committee about an early childhood development conference she’d organized earlier that summer.

The first lady and the residence staff – from the maids, butlers, and florists, to the cooks prepping for the annual picnic – were all lost in the events of a typically busy day. But that day was anything but typical. “Had the TV been turned on, I might have heard the first fleeting report of a plane hitting the North Tower,” Bush said.

A few minutes after 9:00 a.m. Laura got into her waiting car at the South Portico to head to the Russell Senate Office Building less than two miles away. The head of her Secret Service detail told her a plane had slammed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Chief Usher Gary Walters was standing beside him and heard the news for the first time. How could a plane fly into the World Trade Center on such a clear day? he wondered aloud.

“Gary, you need to go inside and watch the television,” the agent told him.

The first lady’s motorcade sped up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol on schedule to the hearing. In the meantime Walters went to find the nearest TV and walked into the Secret Service room on the ground floor, located behind the president’s elevator. The room was too crowded with people packed in front of the television so he went to the Usher’s Office, where he ran into some household workers. He gave them quick instructions on the setup for the picnic, still unaware of the extent of the devastation.

When he got to his personal office, which is separate from the Usher’s Office, he found that it was also packed with people huddled around the TV. He walked in just as the second plane flew into the south tower.

“How in the world did they get that on television?” he asked, stunned.

“Because that’s the second plane,” someone responded.

Once Walters understood it was not an isolated accident, he called the Bushes’ social secretary, Catherine Fenton. They decided to cancel the event. He went back to the South Portico where he had just seen Laura Bush off moments before.

As they had after President Kennedy’s assassination, the residence staff delved into their work with a single-minded focus. Walters coordinated with the National Park Service, in charge of the White House grounds, to determine who would be moving the picnic tables and cleaning up the chuck wagons.

“As I walked out of the South Portico I saw the terrible smoke and flames at the Pentagon,” Walters recalled. It suddenly struck him: the White House could be next.

Even as people started to evacuate the White House, Walters knew he would be staying: “As far as I was concerned my responsibility was there at the White House.”

His job was to make the house run at all costs, even if it now felt like he was working at the center of a giant bull’s eye. He couldn’t do it alone. He asked the uniformed division of the Secret Service to allow Executive Chef Walter Scheib, who had already been evacuated, to return. He grabbed a few others, including electrician Bill Cliber, and told them they needed to stay and help clear the picnic tables, even as the Secret Service was screaming for everyone to drop everything and run for their lives. “I got the word that everybody was evacuating, but we had something that we needed to do,” Walters said.

Meanwhile Walters’ daughter, a student at Boston College, anxiously watched the news after someone mistakenly told her that a plane had crashed into the White House, not the Pentagon. Walters and his small crew were too focused on clearing space for the president’s helicopter to call their families.

Cliber’s wife of 51 years, Bea, was at home watching TV with relatives. She didn’t know whether her husband was going to be alright. “It was panicksville. We just sat and waited.” She didn’t hear from him until 8 p.m. that night.

On his way up the driveway and back into harm’s way to help Walters and his crew on the South Lawn, Scheib yelled at the colleagues who were streaming towards him out of the White House to leave the grounds as fast as they could. He shouted at the president’s staff racing out of the West and East Wings and to his colleagues from the residence, warning them that the police were saying there was another plane heading for the White House.

“Everyone who worked for me in the East Wing – they were mainly young women who expected a very glamorous job at the White House – were told to kick off their high heels and run,” she says. “Can you imagine what it would be like to all of a sudden have a job where you were told to run?”

Walters was scared as he and the others cleared 190 picnic tables weighing hundreds of pounds each from the South Lawn. “My knees banged together. It sounded like a bass drum.”

They tried hard to block out reports that another plane was coming at any moment. “We’ve got a job, we’ve got to do it,” Cliber said.

Even then, when the world felt like it was turned upside down, the residence staff focused on keeping their beloved house running and not spilling any secrets. As some reporters noticed them feverishly working to clear the South Grounds they asked whether the president was coming back to Washington right away. “Haven’t heard a word,” Cliber told them.

Laura Bush’s car was driving up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill when she learned that a second plane had hit the other World Trade Center tower. The tragic accident was beginning to look like something far more sinister. “The car fell silent; we sat in mute disbelief,” she wrote in her memoir. “One plane might be a strange accident; two planes were clearly an attack.”

“Get out of the house! Get out of the house!”

When maid Betty Finney, 78, started working at the White House, she had no housekeeping experience except for taking care of the home she shared with her husband and their two daughters. She was working at a steakhouse in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when her husband died suddenly. She needed a job – fast. As with most White House positions, hers came through a connection. Her daughter knew Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick, who brought her on board. Eight years after she was hired in 1993 she found herself fearing for her life.

Finney was cleaning the second floor Queen’s Bedroom, where the president’s parents had spent the night on September 10. When they left for the airport the Bushes forgot to turn off the TV. Finney and a couple of other terrified maids gathered around it, watching as the second tower was hit.

“I ran down the hall to the Yellow Oval Room and looked out the window, and you cannot see the Pentagon from there but I saw smoke,” she says. “I went back to the Queen’s Bedroom and then I had to run upstairs for something.”

Before she made it to the third floor she heard one of the Secret Service agents on the third floor yelling “Get out of the house! Get out of the house!” She never made it upstairs; instead she ran downstairs. “I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know they had started the evacuation. We got out and everybody was on the streets. It was really scary and everybody just went a different direction, wherever they could get out.”

On Capitol Hill Laura Bush got out of the car to meet with Senator Edward Kennedy, chair of the Education Committee, both knowing that there would be no briefing that day. He escorted her to his office.

Oddly, even as an old television in the corner of his office was blaring the devastating news out of New York, Kennedy wouldn’t look at the screen. Instead, he gave the first lady a tour of the family memorabilia in his office, including a framed note he still got a kick out of that his brother Jack had sent their mother when he was a child. It said, “Teddy is getting fat.”

“All the while, I kept glancing over at the glowing television screen. My skin was starting to crawl, I wanted to leave, to find out what was going on, to process what I was seeing, but I felt trapped in an endless cycle of pleasantries,” Bush said. Later, she wondered if Kennedy had simply seen too much death in his lifetime and couldn’t face another tragedy, especially one on such a massive scale.

After they made a brief statement to the press telling them there would be no briefing and expressing concern about the attacks, Bush walked toward the stairs to go back to her car and the White House. The lead Secret Service agent stopped her and her staff abruptly and told them to run to the basement. Stunned and deeply worried about her husband’s safety, she waited with her friend Senator Judd Gregg, the ranking Republican on the Education Committee, in his private interior office in the lower level of the Capitol. There, they huddled together and called their children to make sure they were alright. Reports were coming in from everywhere, some less reliable than others, including that Camp David had been hit and that a plane had flown into the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Moments after the second plane hit the South Tower, Christine Limerick ran to the linen room on the third floor and told her staff to drop everything and leave. Immediately.

She heard American Airlines Flight 77 crash into the Pentagon.“It sounded like an explosion,” she recalled.

When she returned to her office, she realized she couldn’t account for maid Mary Arnold. She tried to go back upstairs into the residence to search for her but the Secret Service wouldn’t let her. She was told she had two minutes to get out of the White House and that a plane was on its way.

“Nobody questions them when it’s on lockdown,” she said. Arnold somehow got out of the White House and had enough money on her to get home.

Limerick remembers being haunted by the look in the eyes of the Secret Service who would not be allowed to leave, no matter what. “The look on the faces of the Secret Service agents who were told that they had to stay!” she said. “I will never forget that because we had at least the opportunity to flee.”

Workers say the Secret Service told everyone to head north because they thought the plane would come from the south – a less obstructed flight path to the White House. Cooks, butlers, carpenters and maids fanned out, running for their lives. Some members of the Pastry Shop walked across Memorial Bridge together and gathered at the nearest apartment.

Finney and a half-dozen of her colleagues went to one of the florist’s houses on Capitol Hill, where they huddled around the television in disbelief. They ran out so fast that hardly anyone had time to collect their purses, so they were all without wallets. That night they walked miles to their cars back at the White House and drove home, many still in shock.

Some staffers didn’t make it out in time to evacuate at all. Some of the butlers on the second and third floors who were working on setting up the bars for the picnic – peeling lemons and making lemon wedges – didn’t get the word that something was going on until nearly an hour after the house was evacuated. A few engineers were stuck in the basement for hours, oblivious to the panic upstairs and the danger they were in.

Amid the chaos, one butler ran down to his locker in the basement to change his clothes because he was going to ride home on his motorcycle and the gate slammed behind him, trapping him. He couldn’t get out until a Secret Service officer recognized him and finally opened the gate.


Mass Hysteria

A little after 10:00 a.m., a few minutes after the World Trade Center’s South Tower collapsed and about twenty minutes before the North Tower would collapse, the first lady was collected from Senator Gregg’s office by Secret Service agents and an Emergency Response Team dressed in black wielding guns. They shouted “GET BACK!” to Capitol Hill staffers as they raced the startled first lady to a waiting car. At about the same time, Flight 93 was brought down in a Pennsylvania field by a group of brave passengers. If they hadn’t acted, that plane would likely have headed straight for the Capitol or the White House.

There was a lot of discussion about where to take the first lady during those confusing hours. The Secret Service eventually decided to move her to Secret Service headquarters a few blocks away from the White House. There she would sit in a windowless basement conference room for hours watching the replay of the twin towers falling over and over.

Phone traffic was so heavy that day as petrified family members tried to make sure their loved ones were alright that phone lines jammed. Even the president was having trouble reaching his wife from Air Force One after he took off from Florida. A little before noon, after three unsuccessful attempts, the Bushes were finally able to connect. She told him she’d reached their daughters and that they were safe.

Meanwhile, dozens of residence workers dressed in their uniforms gathered in Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Sous Chef John Moeller described the aftermath of the Pentagon attack: “I could see huge plumes of smoke swirling in the sky – it was a beautiful day – it was as black as black can be. They were just swirling, swirling, swirling into the sky. I’ve never seen an explosion that big in my life.” Finally, a group of workers decided to walk to the nearby Capitol Hilton in search of bathrooms, land lines, and a television.

Nearby Connecticut Avenue, a busy commercial district, was utter chaos. Some people had even gotten out of their cars and went running down the street, worried that they would be caught in an attack. “Mass hysteria had taken over,” Executive Chef Walter Scheib recalls. “I remember walking by a BMW 700 series sitting in the middle of Connecticut Avenue with the doors open and the engine running and nobody in it.”

Laura Bush didn’t see any of it. After hours of sitting in the windowless conference room she was finally brought to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center underneath the White House. The command center was built for President Roosevelt during World War II and is only reachable through a series of unfinished underground hallways with pipes hanging down from the ceiling. There she would wait to be reunited with her husband.

Florist Robert Scanlan was putting finishing touches on the picnic table arrangements in the small Flower Shop underneath the North Portico when a friend called and told him to turn on the TV. When he saw that the World Trade Center had been hit he ran outside and told his boss, Chief Florist Nancy Clarke. She came in with the other florists and watched the horrific images of United Airlines Flight 175 slamming into the South Tower on TV.

As they watched the scene, horrified, it suddenly sunk in that they were standing in the bowels of the country’s most vulnerable target. “Just get out of the gates, the East gates! Just go!” the Secret Service officers yelled as they ran down the hall.

Scanlan only had about ten minutes to get out before he would also be trapped inside. He wound up at nearby Freedom Plaza several blocks from the White House.

As they walked he heard the piercing noise of American Airlines Flight 77 slamming into the Pentagon. “We decided that we couldn’t stay there,” he said. “We were like lost souls.” He and a coworker walked together to their homes on Capitol Hill.

After helping clear the picnic tables Scheib and a group of residence staff worked in the kitchen from 2 p.m. until 9 p.m. serving food that had been prepared for the barbeque to the Secret Service, National Guard, DC police, and White House staff who had to stay behind. Leftovers were sent to the relief effort at the Pentagon. “Four of them served over 500 meals to the staff that were in and around the White House,” Walters said.

Scheib said when people thanked him for the food he’d reply, “Just keep whatever the hell’s on the outside on the outside, will you?”

Once the lawn was cleared Cliber and a handful of others finally tried to leave the White House only to be locked in by security doors. The Secret Service told them they’d have to go down to the bomb shelter, a corridor running west to east under the White House, because there was a plane directly overhead. They were shuffled down to the old bomb shelter and stayed there until around 8 p.m. that night. Some of the bomb shelter doors didn’t even shut, Cliber said. The plane overhead turned out to be U.S. military aircraft.

When they learned of the death toll – 125 military personnel killed at the Pentagon; 59 passengers and crew killed on board American Airlines Flight 77; 40 passengers and crew dead on the United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania – all anyone who works at America’s most famous house could think was: That could have been us. Including the deaths at the World Trade Center, almost 3,000 people died that day.

That evening the first lady finally got to see the president in the conference room next door to the PEOC where Vice President Dick Cheney and other top officials had gathered since that morning.

The Secret Service recommended that the Bushes sleep on an old bed in the basement, but they refused. “I’ve got to get some sleep, in our own bed,” the president said. To the Bushes, the White House was home. They were even more fiercely attached to it now that it had narrowly missed total destruction.

Never the Same

The Secret Service wanted to close the White House to tours. Early on the morning of September 12, Chief Usher Gary Walters approached the president as he walked to the Oval Office and lobbied for the public tours to remain open. “Mr. President, last night you said everybody should go about their normal activities. One normal activity that will be watched very closely is that the White House is open for tours.”

The president paused and replied, “You’re right.”

In the wake of the attacks, however, the decision was made to close them. . The September 11th attacks weren’t the only cause for concern; letters containing anthrax spores had been sent to news media offices and to two Democratic senators starting just a week later. Walters said some members of the residence staff were put on preventative drugs in case they were exposed to anthrax.

Bill Cliber would never be the same after 9/11. He knew how it felt to be scared as he walked into work every day; after all, his White House career had started shortly before Kennedy’s assassination. But this was different.

“It shook me. I had my time in,” he said, referring to the years of service that government workers need in order to qualify to get a significant portion of their pay in retirement. Still, he wouldn’t leave because he had promised himself that he would work at the White House for forty years, so he kept on going.

After September 11 the mood changed at the White House for everyone. The Curators’ Office deposed members of the staff, asking them to talk about what they went through that day for their records. The glamour of working at the White House was overtaken by fear. Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier said he and his staff were completely unaware why they were evacuated so urgently because he didn’t have a TV in his kitchen. Afterwards he demanded one be installed. After 9/11 everybody carried a hundred dollar bill and their White House pass in case they needed to leave quickly.

Curator Betty Monkman was furious about the lack of an evacuation plan. “This young woman who worked in the Usher’s Office came running through our office saying, ‘Get Out, Get Out, Get Out!’ and then the White House police said ‘go south’ and then some people said ‘go north.’ It was so chaotic.”

Monkman had decided to go to the bomb shelter that morning, but when she got halfway down she thought, “Oh my god if they bombed us we’d be buried under the rubble.” So she headed back upstairs and went to Lafayette Square, where ambulances and fire trucks blazed past her on their way to the Pentagon.

Scheib said the household workers are not the priority in a crisis and shouldn’t expect the Secret Service to be especially worried about them. “We are domestic staff, we are not the thrust of anything,” he said. “If you’re going to be there you have to understand there’s a target on the back of every person who works at the White House.”

Scheib was sad to see the enormity of the attacks weigh on the president. He seemed as if he “literally had the weight of the world on his shoulders.” Always aware of how food affects moods, Scheib went from creating more contemporary cuisine to preparing pure comfort food for the president and the countless world leaders who came to show their sympathy and to strategize in the weeks following the terrorist attacks. Dishes included Black Angus beef filet with warm bean salad and rosemary and garlic-scented chicken breast with herb polenta. One main course with a side dish replaced the usual two main courses which were usually served at working lunches in the Old Family Dining Room. “I went back to my mother’s table,” he said.

Counselors from Bethesda Naval Hospital come in to talk to the workers about the trauma they had experienced. Cliber spoke with a counselor, but no one had any time-tested advice for the staff: “Nobody had ever been through that.”

Florist Wendy Elsasser, who retired in 2007, said she still can’t talk about that day without crying. For months Mesnier had panic attacks taking his morning shower. His wife and son begged him not to go back to work, and he listened when Gary Walters gathered the staff about a week after 9/11 and said they should leave if they couldn’t stand the pressure

But just like Bill Cliber, Mesnier couldn’t bring himself to go. “You have to understand, I believe this job was made for me,” he said. “It’s where I belong.”

First Lady Laura Bush was comforted that no one quit out of fear. She told me that watching the residence staff go back to work made her feel better about living in the White House. “We knew we were going to be there and we were confident that we would be safe, but on the other hand they could have chosen another job or just said, ‘You know this is just too much stress now. I’d rather go on,’” she said. “They didn’t, none of them did.”