By Kevin Diaz
WASHINGTON – After the planes hit, after the pandemonium in the downtown streets, it was the stunned silence that they remember.
Andy Brehm, a West Wing intern and the Minnesotan who was closest to action in the White House on 9/11, headed home on the re-opened subway that afternoon. Everyone seemed to be processing a new sense of vulnerability.
“It was absolutely silent,” he recalls.
Then there was Sarah McKenzie, a Star Tribune intern who was on assignment at the White House when the attacks occurred in New York and then the Pentagon. Suddenly a huge plume of inky black smoke marred a brilliant blue sky.
“It wasn’t that long before there was nobody,” McKenzie, remembers of the capital city. “It was a ghost town.”
But first, giving way to the eerie silence, was a day of mass confusion and bedlam.
When Brehm got to work at 7:30 a.m., September 11 was shaping up to be a slow day.
Brehm, then a 21-year-old college student from Wayzata, was in his first week on the job. His duties largely consisted of answering phones and opening and closing the briefing room door for Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary.
On this warm late-summer day in 2001, the president was in Florida, and Fleischer was out of the office as well. A skeleton staff was making preparations for an upcoming congressional barbeque.
Inside the White House, someone in Brehm’s office had the television tuned to the Today Show, which was suddenly showing images of a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York.
It looked like a major airline accident.
“Then, just like everybody else, we saw the second plane hit,” recalled Brehm, now an attorney at Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis. “There was some confusion as to what that was, whether it was an explosion. It wasn’t immediately obvious to us that there had been a terrorist attack.”
Amid the commotion, Brehm noticed a group of secret service agents hustling Vice President Dick Cheney along a hallway and down a flight a stairs.
“At that point, I knew something serious was happening,” he said.
An agent Brehm had been friendly with came along and tapped him on the shoulder. “Andy,” he said, “if I tell you to run, I really want you to run.”
Brehm thought it a joke in bad taste. But it wasn’t a joke.
Meanwhile, reporters had questions. Brehm had Campbell Brown on the line. Brown, then at NBC, was inquiring about the smoke now visible over the roof of the Old Executive Office Building next door.
“I had no idea,” Brehm recalled. “I told her I’d get back to her.”
He never got that chance.
Agents started spiriting staffers downstairs into the basement, where Brehm got the news that a third plane had hit the Pentagon. And then there was a fourth plane, apparently over Pennsylvania, a short flight from Washington. Headed where?
“Everybody out!” the agents yelled. “You need to run!”
“You’re so used to the calm demeanor of these secret service agents,” Brehm said. “As soon as they started yelling, and telling us to run as fast as we possibly could. You could see that they were very nervous, and there was a possibility of a real threat.”
McKenzie was outside at the White House northwest gate. She was meeting Lauren and Bill Schneider, a Stillwater couple in town to be honored by Congress for their efforts as adoptive parents.
She looked over at the White House lawn, where agents were yelling at everybody to get as far away from the building as possible. Then she saw the White House chef come sprinting out.
“I thought it was a kitchen fire,” said McKenzie, now the editor of the Journals in Minneapolis.
There, with no benefit of television, it was difficult to make out exactly what was happening. Cell phones were largely jammed. “It was just pandemonium,” McKenzie said. “People were running, and there were emergency vehicles everywhere.”
Rumors were abundant in the street: There was talk of a plane headed for the Mall. It could hit any second… People thought a bomb went off near the State Department a few blocks away, near the Schneiders’ hotel.
Through word of mouth, the picture of a terror attack eventually started to take form in McKenzie’s mind. “We didn’t know the details,” she said, “but we got the idea.”
Bill Schneider, an orthopedic surgeon, noticed the smoke coming up from the Pentagon, but was puzzled that he hadn’t heard the explosion that caused it. “It got spookier and spookier,” he said.
Evacuated office workers mingled with tourists in LaFayette Square, the park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
McKenzie headed over and, by chance, found Brehm. The nature of the threat was still unfolding. As a precaution, Brehm and other White House staffers had been told to remove their ID badges, lest they become potential sniper targets. McKenzie immediately went to work interviewing him for the Star Tribune’s 9/11 coverage.
“At first I wasn’t scared because you feel like you’re invincible in the White House,” Brehm told her. “But then you realize what a target it is.”
A quiet walk by the river
The Schneiders, who had been taking a White House tour with their infant daughters Nikolett and Hannah, only realized later what a close call they’d had. United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania, was likely headed their way.
When they got back to Minnesota, they attended the funeral of Tom Burnett, a Minnesotan credited with leading the passenger revolt that stopped the plane short of Washington. Lauren Schneider still breaks up recalling how the church went silent after a singing of “How Great Thou Art” — until Hanna started clapping, a gesture her mother took as a tribute to Burnett, whom she credits with having saved her family from almost certain destruction.
As the Washington crowds started to thin out, the downtown traffic gridlock cleared.
So too did the skies, with commercial airline traffic grounded across the nation.
The Schneiders walked down to the Potomac river. What they remember is the silence.
“There was nobody around,” Bill Schneider said.
Suddenly the capital was a very quiet place, except for the occasion jet fighter streaking overhead.
Said Schneider: “It was eerily quiet.”
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.