x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Remembering a day of terror from inside the White House

I don't remember people acting in anger. I think they were acting instinctively to try to make contact with relevant colleagues throughout the government that they needed to be in contact with or were being given direction to be in contact with. People wanted to do something to feel valuable and useful.

On September 11, 2001, Anita McBride was a senior administrative official in the White House. Later, after serving in the US State Department under Colin Powell, Ms McBride became chief of staff for First Lady Laura Bush during her husband's second term.

It was a very rare perfect day in Washington. I was with colleagues at the White House mess, the restaurant that senior staff can use in the West Wing of the White House. We were having breakfast when another colleague came in to say that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Of course, neither of us thought it was anything other than some small airplane that had an accident, and how horrible.

But then Secret Service came to say we had to evacuate people. Without really understanding what was happening, just knowing that obviously there is some connection to this plane that hit the World Trade Center, staff started being evacuated from the West Wing. It felt like it took less than five minutes. Then the agents came back and said: "Get everybody out. Get out of the building. Run!"

None of us really knew what we were doing or where we were going. Then I saw Secret Service agents open up a small closet in the hallway of the West Wing that I never knew existed in all my years working at the White House - and I had worked there three different times in three different administrations over a 20-year period. It contained weapons. As the agents armed themselves and yelled for everybody to get out, we evacuated people north to Lafayette Park across from the White House.

My husband's office was just two blocks away. He had been the personal aide to the former president Bush, when he was head of the White House military office. So I knew he would know what to do even more than I, and his immediate instinct was to bring everybody there.

The DaimlerChrysler offices that day became a White House annex. The Secret Service came and locked down the building so only people with a White House pass would have access.

It was shocking watching the images on the television. It was quiet at times. It was sombre at times.

I don't remember people acting in anger. I think they were acting instinctively to try to make contact with relevant colleagues throughout the government that they needed to be in contact with or were being given direction to be in contact with. People wanted to do something to feel valuable and useful.

I had two young children at home. My daughter was one. My son was four. My father was living with us. He was an immigrant to this country from Italy. I remember getting home and seeing him watch these images on TV over and over, and him saying to me, in his broken accent, "You know, I never thought I would see anything like this happen to this country."

It is a moment I have replayed over and over in my mind. Immigrants come here for a better life. They have left poverty or conflict. They didn't come here, particularly my father's generation, thinking that anything like that was ever going to happen here.

That day changed the way all of us live, and we're never going to go back to Pre-9/11. We never will.

* As told to Omar Karmi