SPRINGFIELD — When then Capt. Deborah Loewer first informed President George W. Bush and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card that an airplane had struck one of the towers of New York’s World Trade Center, she could offer no details.
Because of that, the then director of the White House Situation Room added something she’d learned from her lengthy Naval career: “The first report is typically wrong.”
Still, something — maybe the tone of Senior Duty Officer Rob Hargis’ voice over the phone from Washington — made Loewer ask that a television be brought to the “hold room” next to where President Bush would be reading to children at Emma E. Booker Elementary School.
“We never had a television,” said Loewer, a graduate of Shawnee High School and Wright State University.
It was just one more thing to carry.
So at 9:02 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 — a minute after she had tuned in CNN — Loewer found herself watching what millions of other Americans watched: A second plane crashing into the other tower.
Moments later, another lesson learned in the Navy (“never let your boss be surprised”) led Loewer to ask Card to do the unthinkable: interrupt the president.
Now a senior research fellow at a Washington not-for-profit, Loewer calls the 26 months she spent at the White House among the most exciting of a 32-year ground-breaking career in the Navy, in which she rose to the rank of Rear Admiral.
Along with Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynn, Laura Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others, Loewer is featured in the recent Smithsonian Channel/BBC documentary “9/11: Day That Changed the World.”
In a recent interview in the kitchen of her mother’s home south of Springfield, Loewer likened that day spent in the small bubble of 15 White House staffers around the president to a haunting 20-hour adrenaline rush. which she said periods of frenzied activity alternated with moments of eerie quiet.
Watching the replays of that second collision with the president was one of the latter.
“I don’t know that anybody said anything,” Loewer said. “We were just focused on the burning Twin Towers. It was the president, me and Andy Card standing there for a brief moment..”
Perhaps her most memorable moment of the day came nearly two hours later.
By 10:52 a.m., quiet had given way to frenzy and the White House party had made the 100 mph trip back to Air Force 1 at the Sarasota, Fla., airport.
Checking with her “sit room” staff from the Communications Deck on Air Force 1, Loewer learned two other bits of information: that American Airlines Flight 77 had crashed into the Pentagon and that United Flight 93 had been hijacked and was likely headed for Washington.
With centers of economic and military power already having been attacked, an assault on a symbol of American political power — the White House or the Capitol — seemed likely.
Loewer took a flight of steps down to the president’s desk in Air Force 1, finding him flanked by Card and Ari Fleischer, his press secretary, and wrapping up a telephone conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney.
She remembers hearing the front door of the airplane close and feeling the plane start to taxi. But having been in her position since May, she knew the Air Force 1 routines well enough to feel certain she had time to brief the president before takeoff.
It was not, however, a routine day.
“When the engines started to scream,” she explained, “I said, ‘Oh, my God!’ ”
With the nation under attack, worries earlier about suspicious people near the hotel, and an unidentified group at the end of the runway where they’d customarily take off, the pilot decided to take evasive maneuvers.
“The plane never really taxied,” Loewer recalled.
Instead, the pilot took one quick turn and then started hurtling down the runway, “and, there I was, standing next to the president.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I knew I could not get back to my seat.”
And with all the seats in that part of the cabin taken, there was no place else to sit and strap in.
In the Smithsonian/BBC production of the documentary “9/11: Day That Changed the World,” Loewer says:
“I had panic on my face. And I looked at the president, and he looked at me.”
With her foot wedged against his desk, and her backside against a bulkhead, “he reached his arm out, as you would to a 4-year-old, and he literally put his arm in front of me ... was my seatbelt and kept me from going airborne.”
Loewer said after the moment, “I’m still a normal White House staffer and he’s the President of the United States,” she said.
“But our relationship was really solidified when he was my seatbelt that day,” she said.
As the White House contingent flew to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., then stopped at a bunker in Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., before finally returning to Washington, Loewer found her day anchored by one other bit of advice she picked up early in her Navy career.
Hearing that there was a threat against Angel — the code word for Air Force 1 — Loewer endured a few moments when she thought she was going to die.
At that point, “we didn’t know where we were going,” she said, and she was thinking to herself that “lots of people have died already” in the attacks.
“This is so bizarre, so unthinkable,” she said to herself, “I just might not make it home.”
After enduring “a very sad feeling that lasted only for a few seconds,” Loewer recalled the advice she received in 1981 from one of her early bosses and mentors, a senior intelligence officer in the Navy.
“Ask yourself if you’ve done everything you can possibly do, and if the answer is yes, then just press on.”
“I was so afraid,” Loewer said.
But when she checked and decided she had done everything she could do, she pressed on, just as so many others would on that memorable day.
Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0368.
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