10/02/2001 - Updated 03:39 PM ET

Shoot-down order issued on morning of chaos

By Jonathan Weisman, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON With as many as four hijacked airliners believed to be missing, an anguished President Bush authorized U.S. fighter pilots Tuesday morning to shoot down commercial airliners, Vice President Cheney revealed Sunday. Cheney and other administration officials drew a picture of confusion, bordering on pandemonium, that reigned after terrorists plunged their hijacked jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The same misinformation that was plaguing the public Tuesday morning was bedeviling the highest officials in the land.

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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 Washington.

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 way."

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 This Week.

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 said.

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 clear out.

"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