Amid his anguish, Bush vows retaliation
By SARA FRITZ and STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times,
WASHINGTON -- President Bush mourned the deaths of thousands of Americans Tuesday night and vowed retaliation for the terrorist attacks.
"America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so again this time," Bush said.
Not until nearly 7 p.m. -- a full 10 hours after the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center -- did Bush reach Washington after making intermediate stops designed to keep him out of harm's way. It was then he finally sat down at his desk in the Oval Office to write a statement he read on nationwide television, promising to find and punish those responsible for the devastation.
The president predicted the death toll would reach into the "thousands," but insisted the tragedy would not undermine the U.S. way of life.
He pledged to retaliate against the terrorists as well as the countries where they live.
"We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these attacks and those who harbor them," he said.
Before returning to the White House, Bush was flown aboard Air Force One from Sarasota, where he was visiting an elementary school, to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and then to Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska. When his plane finally arrived in Washington, it was accompanied by three Air Force jet fighters.
While in flight, Bush ordered all of the federal government's emergency and military personnel on highest alert, known as "Threatcon Delta." Bush also kept in constant touch with Vice President Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other officials who were monitoring the day's developments in a specially designed, underground White House chamber known as the Situation Room.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., second in line to the presidency after Cheney, was escorted to an undisclosed location about 75 miles outside of town, along with other top members of Congress and first lady Laura Bush. When they re-emerged, congressional leaders closed ranks behind Bush.
"Senators and House members, Democrats and Republicans will stand shoulder to shoulder to fight this evil that was perpetrated on this nation," Hastert said. He appeared on the steps of the Capitol with about 150 other members, who joined him in singing God Bless America.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., added: "Congress will convene tomorrow, and we will speak with one voice to condemn these attacks."
All nonessential federal employees -- including most of those working at the White House -- were sent home early in the day. Telephones went unanswered in most departments. National security, law enforcement and disaster agencies remained open, but with reduced staffs.
Bush was not the only high-ranking official out of town when the crisis hit. Secretary of State Colin Powell was returning from Peru, where he was undertaking a diplomatic mission, and director Joe Allbaugh of the Federal Emergency Management Agency returned from a business meeting in Colorado.
To dispel the impression that the government was in hiding, White House adviser Karen Hughes came out of the White House at midafternoon to assure the public that the government was doing everything possible to rescue survivors of the attacks and identify the terrorists responsible.
"Your government continues to function," she declared.
Hughes said that most American banks remained open, even though the stock markets were closed, and that Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta had decided to ground all air traffic until at least noon today. Hughes also said that FEMA had deployed 12 urban search and rescue teams, eight to New York and four to the Pentagon.
Later, Mineta, Allbaugh, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson had a news conference at the White House. Among other things, they said all available FBI personnel are investigating the attacks, medical and mortuary teams have been deployed, the 6,000-person public health corps is activated, and new security measures are being imposed at U.S. airports.
Bush's day started in Sarasota, where he was scheduled to read to second-graders in Kay Daniel's school room. He smiled gamely for the students, even though he had just learned of the initial plane crash at the World Trade Center.
A few minutes later, Bush's chief of staff whispered in his ear -- apparently to tell him that a second plane careened into the Trade Center -- and the president's face went dark.
While Bush was contacting Cheney, the governor of New York and the director of the FBI, Sarasota County Superintendent Wilma Hamilton spoke to the crowd in the media center.
"The president is busy doing the business that presidents do right now," Hamilton said. "As soon as it's possible for him to be with us, he will."
The room was eerily silent for a few minutes. The children barely shuffled. Only a couple of cell phones beeped. Then the president strode to the microphones and addressed the tragedy for the first time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America," Bush said. "I unfortunately have to be going back to Washington after my remarks. Today we've had a national tragedy."
He asked the children to participate in a moment of silence for the dead.
"I think the students will be excited they got to see the president," said guidance counselor Lee Greene Martello. "To a majority of our students, the world is Sarasota. So things that happen in New York or Washington don't affect them as much. But I think they could sense from his demeanor that something was wrong."
- Times staff writer Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times wire desk
From the AP