RENO – About two-thirds of K-12 students in school today do not remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ones that do have only vague recollections.
Terry Abbott, former U.S. Department of Education chief of staff, was with President George W. Bush at a school in Florida the morning of the terror attacks. To ensure students of today understand the magnitude of the events of that dreadful day, Abbott is traveling the country and sharing his personal account of 9/11 with students as well as a wealth of educational materials with educators.
Abbott spoke to Phil Kaiser’s advanced placement government class at McQueen High School Friday morning, where he offered a very personal look at the inner workings of government.
“A couple of months before 9/11, I had to get top secret security clearance,” Abbott said, in order to meet in the basement of the White House to be briefed on the continuity of government plan, or COG.
The COG dictates how the government will operate in times of emergency and establishes a chain of command in the event of a national emergency or if leaders are killed or unable to do their jobs.
“Fast forward to Sept. 11,” Abbott told students. “I was in a motorcade with the president, just a few cars behind” when we found out a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers.
Abbott said at first everyone, including the president, thought perhaps a small plane had veered off course and crashed into one of the towers.
“None of us had any idea it was an attack,” he said.
Bush was scheduled to give a presentation at a school in Sarasota, Fla., that morning. Upon arrival at the school, the president went into a classroom to speak to students, and Abbott went into the library to watch the events unfold on television.
“The first plane hit at 8:45 a.m.,” Abbott said. “The second plane hit at 9:03 … I think the terrorists planned it that way.”
The planes hit several minutes apart because the terrorists knew the world would be tuned in to see the second plane hit, he said.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card entered the classroom with Bush and whispered in his ear to inform him of the attacks.
“Andrew Card walked into the classroom and whispered, ‘Mr. President, a second plane has hit the second tower.’ ”
The president finished his presentation and did not show any signs of a problem while in front of the children. Abbott said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer wrote a note on a piece of paper and held it up at the back of the room. It said, “Don’t say anything yet.”
“We knew the president’s first statement had to be very direct to the terrorists,” Abbott said.
At the conclusion of the classroom presentation, Bush was taken to the library to deliver his first public statement about the attacks.
“The president walked into the library and announced what had happened,” Abbott said. “…Then he looked directly into the camera and said, ‘Terrorism against our nation will not stand.’ ”
Abbott then shared his personal experiences that occurred in the days that followed.
“Everybody was jumpy,” he said. “Everybody was nervous.”
The whole world changed at the moment the first plane hit the World Trade Center, he said.
“We know the folks who carried out this mission (Al Qaeda),” he said. “Those guys continue to come after us,” but the United States has successfully averted any additional attacks of that magnitude on American soil.
The majority of students at McQueen said they recall the events of 9/11, but from the perspective of a child. Students who are in 12th grade now were in second grade when the attacks occurred.
“We had a little TV in our kitchen and I remember eating breakfast and kind of crying but not even really knowing why I was crying,” said Katy Markwell, a senior at McQueen. “I knew a lot of people were dying and I was just kind of confused.”
McQueen senior Douglas Browne said he also recalls seeing the footage on the television.
“I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on,” Browne said.
Students asked Abbott if he believes Bush handled the situation in the best possible manner.
“I think he did exactly what he needed to do,” Abbott said, adding that attacking the United States was the worst mistake Al Qaeda ever made.
The terrorists declared war on America in 1988, Abbott said, but we were not at war with them until 9/11.
“9/11 was their biggest mistake,” he said. “They woke the giant.”