Thursday, September 11, 2014

{Guest Post} September 11, 2001: Experience of a White House Intern

My very good friend, Christine Powers Leatherberry {see a few pics from her beautiful wedding here}, was an intern at the White House on 9/11/2001. This is her incredibly well-written, powerful story...

Life has been divided into two parts:  before 9/11 and after 9/11.  Everyone knows where they were that day.  I remember minute-by-minute what I was doing that day because I was closer than I wanted to be.  This is one story . . . this is my story.

It was the most beautiful day I had ever seen in Washington. Not a single cloud spotted the sky and a perfect 72 degrees brushed my skin. I had been interning at the White House exactly two weeks on that particular morning, the morning of September 11, 2001.

I arrived a quarter till 8:00. The East Wing was scurrying around frantically making sure everything was in order for Mrs. Bush’s speech in front of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She was sharing information with the committee on early childhood cognitive development, a fancy way of saying “making sure children are ready for kindergarten.”

A little after 8:15, Mrs. Bush left for the Capitol in the motorcade with a few women from the staff. Finally, I got a chance to get some coffee and settle in for my tasks.

Around 8:50 I saw several military aides in the office across from my desk gathering around a television. Televisions, usually turned to the morning news shows, CNN and MSNBC, are always playing in the East Wing and the West Wing, but they are typically background noise. Something was up. I overheard someone say something about an accident in New York City.
I left my desk to see the “accident” for myself. Shortly after, I went to tell my boss in the office next to me that a small commuter plane had accidentally slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. She told me I could turn the television on in the Director of Projects’ office. We watched Peter Jennings for a few minutes and tried to figure out what was going on.

I began to feel guilty about not working, so I went back to my desk. Nevertheless, once I got to my desk, I tried to get on a news website. No such luck. I thought that was strange because the Internet connection usually worked so well. A couple minutes later, my boss came into my office.

“Christine, you have to come see this. Another plane hit the other tower of the World Trade Center,” she said.

I followed her into the director’s office again. I heard the anchor murmur the word “terrorism” and I brushed it off, remembering Timothy McVeigh. It was obvious, however, that this was not an accident.

Again, I felt guilty about avoiding my work, so I went back to my desk.

An older lady who had worked in the White House under previous administrations passed by my desk. I will never forget what she said to me.

“You think it would be a good idea if we got out of the White House,” she remarked as she organized some files. I was not sure if it was a question or a statement.

“Yeah, I think so, too,” I said. I did not really mean it though.

Why would we need to leave the White House? Everything was happening in New York, not Washington. She was definitely being paranoid . . . I tried to keep a straight face. I really thought things were all right.

The next thing I remember is the moment I was walking from my boss’s office to my area; I must have been glancing at the breaking news again. As I walked up the hallway, six armed Secret Service agents charged down the main hall of the East Wing. It was not the guns that scared me; it was their expressions.

“Get the hell out! Why the hell are you not already out? Run . . . run . . . run!” More profanities, screaming and chaos followed.

No alarms went off.

No telephones rang.

No warning flashes lit up on our computers.

No red phones lit up.

The usually friendly, often flirtatious, Secret Servicemen were ashen with fear.

The East Wing reacted in slow motion because New York was the center of attention, not the White House.

Was this just a safety precaution?

“Go to the bomb shelter or run! Run . . . run . . . run . . . get out! Leave your damn stuff! Just run!”

I was so close to my desk, that I grabbed my bag and cell phone, despite their orders to leave everything. Just three days before our first scheduled evacuation drill, no one had the slightest idea where the bomb shelter was.

So we ran . . . ten blocks at least--in nylons, suits and high heels.

Still not realizing the gravity of the situation, I turned to my boss, as we were running north, and said to her, “Have you ever done one of these?”

I thought it was just a procedure they followed when something that resembles terrorism occurs somewhere in the states.

“No, we haven’t,” she said casually as we ran.

I tried to rationalize everything. It “couldn’t be that bad.” One way or the other, for the first time the White House was more exciting than NBC’s The West WingWhen the fifteen or so White House employees and I reached the park by the Farragut North Metro stop, I entered what can only be described as a plot of a sick action movie that I would never pay money to see.

I heard people on the streets say that the Pentagon had been hit by a plane. Eight planes were unaccounted for. Ambulances and police cars were going the wrong way on one-way streets. Women were crying in the streets. Other women with strollers ran to get out of the city. Taxi cabs were disappearing fast. Traffic jams were piling up—the streets looked like parking lots. Herds of people ran from any area remotely near an “important” building. Hundreds of people in my sight were trying to get their cell phones to work to call their loved ones.

We heard an explosion and a few fighter jets, F16s, above. They did not even faze me—it was as if I expected it to happen. It was part of the climax.

People on the street said that the White House was hit. And then I saw the smoke rising above it . . . over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, gray smoke engulfed the sky. (Later I learned that White House snipers had set off the smoke to hide the White House from rogue planes.)

Quite simply, for the next two hours I did not know if I was going to live or die.

The only thing I could get my cell phone to do was retrieve my first message—my frantic mother. At that point, all the people I knew around me disappeared. I was all alone. I felt like I was in a movie with a plot so twisted, so surreal that the critics would have slammed it for its implausibility.

Cell phone dead, I went to a cafĂ© by the park and begged to borrow their telephone. I used a calling card to call my mother—she was crying and so frazzled that she could not even talk to me. She gave the phone to my father, who had left work to be with my mother. He told me the towers had fallen. That is when I finally stopped telling myself “things are not that bad.” I stopped rationalizing and I became sick to my stomach.

“Dad, what do I do?”

“Christine, I want you out of Washington. Get money for a cab or you can walk. Just walk west.” I could tell he was trying to keep his composure in front of my mother.

“Dad—you want me to walk to Arlington? Toward the Pentagon?”

“I don’t know, Christine. I don’t know. I just want you out of the city.”

He did not know what to tell me to do. For the first time ever my father could not get me out of a bad situation. I was on my own. I told them I loved them and said goodbye.

I have never been so determined in my life. No tears, no panicking, no shaking, just an aching stomach.

The people moving like cattle were walking faster than traffic--so I opted to brave my heels for two hours of walking rather than by cab or metro. The jam-packed streets, motionless cars and the thousands of people walking up the sidewalks made me think of the movie Independence Day. Everyone was leaving the city, but instead of aliens, we were running from terrorists.

I walked for a couple miles and was eventually far enough away from the tall buildings that I could see the Pentagon’s smoke perfectly. It engulfed the cloudless sky. I took note again of what a picture-perfect day it was supposed to be as I watched the gray monster grow larger, practically reaching the heavens.

Police blowing whistles frantically as I approached the river interrupted those thoughts. Streets were blocked off all over the city. A couple of bridges were as well.

Every person I encountered on my journey west that day was so kind, so helpful. When I learned the Roosevelt Bridge was shut down, a stranger told me to cross the Key Bridge in Georgetown. 

When I reached Georgetown, a woman frantically smoking a cigarette told me to tuck my White House badge into my dress shirt. “You don’t know who is out there. The crazies are looking for the government employees,” she said matter-of-factly as she puffed at the cigarette. I tucked in the badge.

People were crowded into bars in Georgetown to watch the news, a group of twenty or so was crowded around a single car listening to a radio broadcast.

The whole time I was walking, it was hard to comprehend how I was going to be safer walking towards the smoke rather than away from it. Eventually I reached the end of my journey from the White House to my hotel in Arlington, Virginia.

My feet were bleeding when I finally got to my suite.

The ten other interns from the UT System that were also in the Archer Fellowship Program were all accounted for in the next half hour.

I spent the next hour returning my forty voicemail messages I missed on my journey home. People called me who I had not talked to in years. People called who I thought did not even know my number. People called on behalf of other people to make sure I was all right. Some people called twice.

My fellow interns and I spent the next 12 hours flipping back and forth between Peter Jennings, CNN and MSNBC. Ironically, we were actually able to get a pizza delivered.

Another ironic fact the interns and I talked about was that Dean Edward Dorn, former dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas and a former director at the Department of Defense, spoke to our class the night before about the military needing to be prepared at all times because we never know when we will need them. He also talked about the escalating threat of terrorism.

I was so physically exhausted that I fell right asleep that night. When I woke up the next morning and realized it was not an asinine action movie or nightmare, I felt sick to my stomach again. The only way I can describe it is that it felt worse than having your heart broken. My world had been crushed and turned inside out.

My mom called for days pleading with me to come home or switch internships.

Dr. John Daly, our political communications professor at The University of Texas eased my anxiety. “You’d be crazy to leave now, Christine. Crazy. This is a historic time. Plus--the White House is now the safest place in Washington,” he said.

I decided to stay.

I went back to the White House on Thursday, but was given a week off while they were deciding if they were even going to keep volunteers and interns for the rest of the year and, if so, where they would put them.

For two months, amongst anthrax anxiety and fear of riding the metro, I was in a building close to the White House where the transition to the White House took place. We affectionately called it the “Far West Wing.” We had nerve-wracking evacuation drills and false alarms weekly. I became used to the sound of fighter jets and the long security lines no longer bothered me.

In November, I began working in the East Wing again. I will never forget how my body tensed up when I sat in that chair again and when I walked in that hall again . . . exactly where those Secret Service agents had come in screaming. No other part of the White House frightened me except the desk and that hallway.

I am so glad that they decided to let me work in the wing again before I headed back to Texas. First, I saw firsthand all the new warning devices, emergency phones and alarms in the wing. Second, and most importantly, working there again for a few weeks eased my fear and tension. Each day it became easier, until I was no longer scared of that chair and hallway.

However, I refused to wear the suit again I was wearing that day. It took me six months to even think about wearing the shirt I was wearing.

Before I went back to Austin, I made it a point to see the Pentagon’s damage up close. When I flew back to Texas, not paying attention to the fact that my layover on the flight home was in Newark, New Jersey, I had trouble figuring out what city we were flying over. Eventually when I spotted the Statue of Liberty, I realized I was looking at New York City.

Now I enjoy those 72 degree days again. Several years later I got the courage up to wear the suit again. I practice law in Dallas now and each time my office building has a fire drill, I must admit, my heart still skips a beat.

Christine is on the far left


Thank you, thank you, thank you Christine Powers Leatherberry for allowing me to share your story.

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?


  1. Christine - thank you for sharing your story with us. You are a remarkable young lady and I am sure this is an experience that will stay in your heart forever.

  2. Thanks for sharing- I can't even imagine being in the middle of it all. I remember I had just started my freshman year of college and was on a bus on my way to campus and they had the radio playing, which is where I first heard of the first plane.

  3. WOW! Thanks for sharing this with all of us.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad she decided to stay... Not sure I could do the same!

  5. Wow! What a story, I got chills. Thanks for sharing. You were so brave.

    God bless,
    XO, Claire

  6. Enthralling.. amazing story. Thank you for telling it.

    ~ Kiley

  7. I think this the first time I've read a personal account from DC rather than NYC. Thank you for sharing.

  8. This is incredible. Of course you know I work in NYC and I have a whole different persepctive of being here on that day 13 years ago, but I don't think I have ever heard someone's experience of being in Washington DC. That gave me chills, and like everytime I hear about the tragedy I think back to where I was. Thank your sweet friend for sharing her story with us.

  9. Wow - this is absolutely incredible. I can't even imagine... Thank you for sharing your story, Christine!