Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld thought a bomb had exploded at the Pentagon, even
though the military defense command had been warned 12 minutes
before impact that an errant airliner was headed toward
Cheney was told that six planes had been
commandeered, that a helicopter had plunged into the Pentagon,
that a car bomb had blown up the State Department, and that a
plane had crashed in Ohio. None of that was true.
And even though a World Trade Center
tower was on fire, the Pentagon was placed only on "Alpha"
alert status, just one level up from normal and two levels
down from the "Charlie" threat level the building is now
under, Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said.
Amid all that confusion, Bush was forced
to make what Cheney called "the toughest decision" of the day:
whether American pilots should be authorized to shoot down an
airliner filled with American citizens.
Fighter jets had taken off from Otis Air
National Guard Base in Cape Cod, Mass., and Langley Air Force
Base in Virginia, bolting toward New York and Washington.
But, Cheney said on NBC's Meet the
Press, "It doesn't do any good to put (up) a combat air
patrol if you don't give them instructions to act."
"The president made the decision on my
recommendation as well," Cheney said. "If the plane would not
divert, if they wouldn't pay any attention to instructions to
move away from the city, as a last resort our pilots were
authorized to take them out."
Said Bush: "I gave our military the
orders necessary to protect Americans. Of course, that was
difficult. Never did I dream we would be under attack this
The confrontations never happened. The
two F-16s that deployed to intercept American Airlines Flight
77 did not get off the ground until just 2 minutes before the
plane crashed into the Pentagon. They were about 130 miles
from their target. The District of Columbia National Guard
maintained fighter planes at Andrews Air Force Base, only
about 15 miles from the Pentagon, but those planes were not on
alert and not deployed.
When Flight 77 hit, the defense secretary
thought it was a bomb.
"I had no idea," Rumsfeld said on ABC's
The jets hurtling down from New England
also were unable to intercept the airliner.
It is not clear whether the fighters
would have fired, said Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, a Pentagon
spokesman. The jetliners were flying over populated areas of
New York and northern Virginia. If they crashed short of their
targets, the casualties still could have been horrific.
"What a Hobson's choice," Quigley
As the tragedy was unfolding, Mark
Kettenhofen was pleading with his wife, Suzette, to get out of
the Pentagon, but Suzette, who maintains the Navy's Web site,
was reluctant to leave. Though the trade center was burning,
Pentagon employees had received no warnings to take cover or
"I felt like, 'Hey, they know these guys
are doing this. We'll be protected,' " she recalled.
Finally, her husband persuaded her to get
out of the building. She picked up the phone and hit the speed
dial to tell him she was leaving. Then she looked at the
window and saw the wing and engine of an airliner smashing
through the building, maybe 20 feet away.
Kettenhofen's life might have been saved
by 2-inch-thick, blast-resistant windows and steel
reinforcements that had just been installed in the renovated
part of the Pentagon.
Kettenhofen, of Elkridge, Md., chokes up
at the memory and is amazed she survived unscathed.
"I believe in angels," she said.
Contributing: Andrea Stone