Response to crash: sadness, tension

White House breathes easier after evidence points to an accident

November 13, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Bush stepped out of the Oval Office and into the Rose Garden yesterday afternoon and said the phone calls he had made in the morning were "heartbreaking."

For the second time in 63 days, Bush had to telephone the mayor of New York City and the governor of New York. Again, his message was one of sympathy for a shocking loss of life, this time after an American Airlines jetliner crashed into a working class section of Queens with 260 passengers and crew members on board.

"The New York people have suffered mightily," said Bush, referring to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. "They're suffering again."

Yet there was also a sense of relief at the White House. It was an uncomfortable feeling. Hundreds of people were possibly dead, but like Americans across the country, Bush's aides were breathing easier as the hours passed and no evidence of terrorism was emerging.

"That's a sign of these times," said one senior administration official, "255 [the death estimate early in the day] have lost their lives, their families are suffering, and who would have thought the reaction would be, `Whew'? After Sept. 11, everybody has to presume the worst."

Publicly, the White House was not discussing last night whether the crash was an act of terrorism. The president declined to answer a question on that point in the Rose Garden, and his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said "we're not ruling anything in or out."

But Bush, who cleared his schedule in the morning so he could be briefed on developments in New York, was by afternoon preparing for his summit with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, which begins today.

Bush postponed an interview with Russian journalists in the morning, but felt comfortable enough to go ahead with it after his statement in the Rose Garden.

There was no such feeling of relief in the morning. Bush was meeting with his national security team in the Situation Room in the basement, discussing the war on terrorism, when the jetliner bound for the Dominican Republic crashed.

According to Fleischer's recounting, Navy Capt. Deborah Loewer, who is in charge of a 24-hour command center at the White House that monitors events around the world, rushed into the room with a note and began discussing it with deputy national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.

"What's going on?" asked Bush.

Hadley replied that an airliner had gone down in New York. Bush quickly wrapped up the meeting and hurried upstairs to the Oval Office, where he received updates from his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., and from the homeland security director, Tom Ridge.

Meanwhile, in the Situation Room, senior officials took part in a video conference call with the director of the FBI, the attorney general and the secretary of transportation, among others.

According to Fleischer, such officials would not have been mustered for the crash of a commercial jetliner before Sept. 11.

Within an hour of learning of the crash, White House officials began to feel more confident that it was an accident. Fleischer came out to brief reporters about noon.

Asked why there was no public appearance by Ridge, who in recent weeks has announced many of the breaking developments, the administration official stressed that "there were no facts known to support anything but an accident."

Ridge would have appeared, the official said, "if it were a matter of homeland security."

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