Just before 9 a.m. EDT, President George W. Bush’s limousine arrives at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida.
As the staff car immediately behind the president’s limo stops, White House Photo Director Eric Draper jumps out and is moving fast. Nothing unusual about that.
“My job was catching up with the president,” Draper said. “I did a lot of running and jumping out of moving vans.”
Bush is at the school to promote education. He is going to read to students from a book called “The Pet Goat.” Just another day in the life of an American president, likely a more pleasant day than most.
But that’s about to change. Because the day is Sept. 11, 2001, 20 years ago today.
As fresh as ever
“Every year it comes up and every year it comes back just as fresh as ever,” said Draper, 57, now a freelance corporate and editorial photographer based in Rio Rancho. “It doesn’t seem like 20 years at all. Until you talk to young people who were babies then, or who had not even been born. Then it seems like 20 years.”
Where were you on 9/11? Everyone remembers. But not as vividly as Draper does. As the president’s personal photographer, he was with Bush nearly every minute of the day terrorists crashed hijacked airliners into the Twin Towers in New York City and into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C.
He was with Bush in a Sarasota classroom when the president learned a terrorist attack was underway, and, many hours later, he photographed Bush as the president got on the elevator to his White House residence at the end of one of the most tragic days in U.S. history.
“To have that much access,” said Draper, still somewhat awed by the role he found himself in on 9/11. “I was with the most powerful person on the planet that day.”
‘Lucky for me’
Draper, a native of Los Angeles, worked as a photographer for The Seattle Times, the Pasadena Star-News and, from, 1990-1993, The Albuquerque Tribune. He covered the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the conflict in Kosovo.
It was while photographing the 2000 presidential campaign for the Associated Press that he became acquainted with Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
“(Bush) really did enjoy the journalists who traveled with him along the way,” Draper said. “Lucky for me that AP had the budget for me to be with him for 18 months. I spent more time with him than a lot of journalists.
Somebody said, ‘You might think about being his photographer.’ I thought ‘Why would I do that?’ I was pretty happy with what I was doing.”
But vote recounts in Florida delayed the declaration of Bush’s victory over Al Gore in the presidential race and gave Draper time to think about the White House photographer’s job. He got the opportunity to apply for the position when he and his wife were invited to a Christmas party at the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas.
“At the end of the party I went up to (Bush) to thank him for inviting us,” Draper said. “I was shaking his hand, and I borrowed his ‘I want to be your president’ line from his campaign. I looked him in the eye, and said ‘I want to be your personal photographer.’”
Not many weeks later, he was photographing Bush’s inauguration.
As the presidential entourage arrived at Booker Elementary School, it got news that just minutes before a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
“I remember (presidential adviser) Karl Rove telling (Bush) about the plane,” Draper said. “The president said ‘What a horrible accident. I wonder if something happened to the pilot.’ Or something like that. At the time we were all thinking it was a small plane.”
Inside a classroom filled with students, teachers and the media, the president had started reading to the children when White House Chief of Staff Andy Card came up to him and whispered in his ear.
“I thought that was unusual,” Draper said. “But I was moving around the room trying to get in position and trying to keep out of the way of the press and I didn’t get that shot. I hate that.”
Card was whispering that another plane had hit the second tower at the World Trade Center.
“You could tell something was wrong, something serious,” Draper said. “You can hear the buzz around the room because journalists were getting pages from their bureaus. The president is holding back. He spent seven minutes reading to the kids, just trying to get out of the classroom without looking panicked.”
It was not until he followed the president and his staff into another schoolroom equipped with a TV and phones that Draper realized what was happening.
“Oh, this is a major disaster, not an accident,” he remembers thinking. “This is going to be a huge day. I have to focus on my job.”
Draper said there were “tons of staff” in the room, all trying to gather information.
“The president asked to get the FBI director and the governor of New York on the line,” he said. “He never stopped to stare at the TV like everyone else. He concentrated on making a statement.”
Draper said the motorcade ride from the elementary school to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is a blur in his memory.
“I think it was very fast,” he said. “What I remember most is that when we got to Air Force One, the engines were already running. They usually are not. The Pentagon had been hit by the time we arrived on the airplane. Everything was focused on the president’s safety. It was a very steep takeoff. The engines were louder than I had ever heard them. We were flying higher than usual for safety purposes, so communications were fading in and out.”
Some of the information they did get on Air Force One proved to be false. There was a car bomb at the State Department. There was a fast-moving object heading toward the president’s ranch.
But some was accurate. United Airlines Flight 93 was airborne and heading toward Washington.
“The president had to make the tough call to shoot down Flight 93,” Draper said. “But the brave people aboard made it crash.”
It is believed that hijackers intended to slam Flight 93 into the White House or the U.S. Capitol building, but a revolt by passengers forced the plane down in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard.
In the first hours after the attacks, Washington was not considered safe for the president.
“The president wanted to go back to Washington right away, but everyone is telling him you are not going back to Washington,” Draper said. “The president is arguing with Andy Card, and there are just the three of us in the room. I kept looking at Andy. He was my gauge. I just kept going.”
Draper photographed that argument as well as many other powerful moments on Air Force One, perhaps none more telling than the picture of the president standing behind his desk watching television coverage of the collapsing Trade Center towers.
“There was nothing he could do except watch,” Draper said.
Like a war zone
Air Force One flew first to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana, and then to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska. At 4:36 EDT, Air Force One, with the president, his staff and Draper aboard, departed Offutt for Washington.
As the plane nears Washington, Draper said the F-16s escorting it were so close it looked as if one was about to touch (Air Force One’s) wing.
“And out the other window, you could still see smoke rising from the Pentagon,” he said. “It was like we were flying into a war zone.”
That night at the White House, Draper photographed the president’s “our very freedom came under attack” address to the nation from the Oval Office and then followed Bush to the elevator that would take him up to his residence.
It was the end of a very dark day. But there were tough times to come.
Fatigue and shock
Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, was a national day of prayer. President Bush spoke at a memorial service at the Washington (D.C.) National Cathedral. After that, he left for New York City. Draper, of course, went with him.
“There was smoke and mounds of debris and hundreds and hundreds of firefighters on the ground,” Draper said. “The immediate mood was fatigue and shock because no survivors were being found. President Bush was superhuman. He waded through the firefighters. A lot of them were coming up to him and hugging him, shaking hands. Some firefighters were crying.”
Bush climbed up on rubble and somebody gave him a bullhorn. The president started speaking to the firefighters and other rescue workers, but, despite the bullhorn, someone shouted that he could not hear Bush.
“I can hear you,” the president responded. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
“That’s when the firefighters started chanting USA, USA,” Draper said. “That was a very organic moment. That was a really powerful moment.”
Perhaps even more moving, however, was Bush’s meeting at the Jacob Javits Convention Center with 300 family members of people killed or missing in the attack on the Twin Towers.
“He was scheduled to say just a few words, but he wanted to greet them all, so we stayed there an extra two hours,” Draper said. “That was one of the saddest moments I ever had to photograph.”
All the trials, emotions and weariness of that day and the several before it are caught up in the photo Draper took of Bush as he flies out of New York, his face pinched in his hand, the bright lights and the sinister smoke of the city framed in the window next to him.
Historic and intense
Draper was the White House photo director for all eight years of Bush’s two terms as president. None of those days was normal in a way most people would consider normal. But 9/11 is unmatched for its sheer drama, raw feelings and the impact it had on the country and its president.
“That day was the most historic and intense,” Draper said. “President Bush was focused and determined. He was trying to rally people and show leadership during that crisis. But he was also frustrated because he wanted to be back in Washington. And because he was realizing the potential loss of life and feeling powerless.”