With the hurricane aside and the power on, I finally settled down to watch the National Geographic Channel’s exclusive interview with George W. Bush on the TiVo. This program actually aired last weekend. I am just catching up on it now.
In it, George Bush reflects on his memories of the first moments following the 9-11 attacks — in particular, the trauma of finding out what had happened while reading “The Pet Goat” to a group of schoolchildren; his anxiousness to get back to Washington despite the obvious dangers; his struggle to put together a speech in the wake of the attacks that struck the right note between empathy and fury.
He spoke about wanting, above all, to remain calm, lest his handlers panic in the face of virtually no information about what kind of attack America was under, how pervasive it was, who was behind it and how long it might last.
According to his interviewer, journalist and documentarian Peter Schnall, Bush sat down for four hours over the course of two days and, during their sessions, did not bring notes or take breaks. He also didn’t receive his questions in advance. Schnall said it took several months to persuade Bush to agree to the interview, aired in time to mark the tenth anniversary of September 11th.
I am sure many people had different reasons for wanting to listen to what Bush had to say. My reason was United flight 93.
At the time of September 11th, I worked on the Global Desk for Dow Jones Newswires. We had a front-row seat to the attacks and could hardly process what was happening before our eyes. To get through the event, the headline writers literally turned away from the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the World Trade Center towers and toward the desk, narrating the unfolding events as they watched them on the TV. To witness it through the windows was unbearable.
Our desk was a 24-hour news desk and I volunteered to pull the graveyard shift that week. This meant manning the desk solo and editing breaking news from reporters around the world while cherry-picking stories from third-party news sources in the U.S., Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. I was 25. The Global Desk was always covered in blaring TVs turned to every major news channel and multiple newsfeeds spitting reams of paper. At first it was impossible to keep track of it all, but after awhile you could hear and follow everything and didn’t even have to try.
Back then we received live, raw feeds from the Associated Press. Often these feeds would contain early, printed drafts of news stories and reporters’ conversations with their editors as the stories were refined and edited. On September 11th and its immediate aftermath, the feeds gave us instant insight into the events on the ground.
One feed contained live transcripts of the calls made to emergency rescue workers by people trapped inside the World Trade Center towers. They will haunt me forever. Another feed, which I also will never forget, came from Stoneycreek Township in Pennsylvania. This was where United flight 93 had crashed.
The early reports described the fuselage from the plane as having fallen across several miles — a wider debris field than is typical of a straight-on plane crash. In fact, several reports noted parts of the plane had been found as far as 8 miles away from the crash site. While few pieces of the plane were more than two feet in length, an entire engine was found a mile away. One explanation for this was that an explosion took place after the jetliner hit the ground, flinging parts far and wide. On the other hand, it is also true that a plane shot while in the air has greater ground dispersion than one that remains intact until impact.
Those who arrived at the site right after the crash said there was very little of the plane left, as it had been reduced to “charcoal.” The local mayor said that at the time of the crash, he had been informed F-16 fighter jets were “very, very close.”
Within 12 to 24 hours of those early reports, the Associated Press abruptly stopped circulating details of the far-flung debris, and I never saw them spoken of again in the established media except as the stuff of conspiracy theory.
Consider the fact that while some people close to the crash site that day claimed to have heard a missile, it seems that no one actually saw a missile — let alone an F-16 jet shooting a missile into a plane.
And many people got a good look at the plane that morning. None of whom said it looked like it had been shot.
Notably, many of the witnesses claimed to have been surprised by the speed of the plane. It was not a plane looking to make a soft landing. To the contrary, it was flying at top speed, sideways, out of control. This could be consistent with the notion of a cockpit battle between hijackers and passengers. The flight-data recorder transcript released afterward hints at evidence of a struggle.
I was hoping the interview with George Bush would at last clear things up.
Bush did allow himself to touch on the topic. He said that after boarding Air Force One following the attacks on New York, he made the difficult decision to shoot down any planes or other aircraft that were “unresponsive” to communication. (Other journalists have claimed this decision was, in truth, made by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, but at the very least it seems it wasn’t contested by the president.)
Bush went on to say that after hearing of the fate of flight 93, he fretted that the jetliner’s crash stemmed directly from his order, that it had been shot down.
Then he tells National Geographic that it took him “awhile” to get all the information about flight 93. He does not elaborate. He simply adds that he was heartened to hear of “the heroics of the passengers on that airline.”
The big question here: if the flight was not shot down, then why doesn’t Bush just say so?
As always, what is not said hangs for much longer in the air than what is.