September 11, 2001

Heritage Explains

September 11, 2001

The 20th Anniversary

It has been 20 years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It is hard to describe in a short blurb what that day has meant for Americans—and all that has changed because of it. So this week, we not only acknowledge the calamity, chaos, and confusion—but we also look at the tremendous heroism of first responders, men and woman in uniform, and the incredible charity displayed by everyday Americans.

We also talk with Steve Bucci. He was the military assistant to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on September 11, and recounts being in the Pentagon when the plane hit—including the story of Secretary Rumsfeld pulling wounded people out of the Pentagon. He saw (first hand) the best of Americans in the face of such dark circumstances. Given the incredibly challenging circumstances we are currently facing in Afghanistan, Bucci also calls on policymakers to be bold in addressing the threats we face today.

Tim Doescher: From a hotel room in Orlando, Florida, I'm Tim Doescher, and this is Heritage Explains.

Doescher: It's been 20 years.

>>> The 20th Anniversary of 9/11: DHS Has Its Eye Off the Ball

Audio: We have a breaking news story to tell you about. Apparently, a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center here in New York City. It happened just a few moments ago, apparently. We have very little information available.

Audio: It appears that there is more and more fire and smoke enveloping the very top of the building. And as fire crews are descending on this area, it does not appear that there's any kind of an effort up there yet. Now remember, oh, my God.

Audio: My God.

Audio: That looks like a second plane. [crosstalk 00:01:15]

Audio: I did not see a plane go in. That just exploded.

Audio: We just saw another plane coming in from the side.

Audio: You did, that was out [crosstalk 00:01:24].

Audio: Yes, and that's the second explosion. You could see the plane come in just from the right-hand side of the screen. So this looks like it is some sort of a concerted effort to attack the World Trade Center that is underway in downtown New York.

Audio: Hold on just a moment. We've got an explosion inside.

Audio: The building is exploding right now. You've got people running up the street. Hold on, I'll tell you what's going on.

Audio: Okay. Just put it, put Winston on pause there for just a moment while [crosstalk 00:01:56].

Audio: The whole building just exploded some more. The whole top part.

Audio: Okay.

Audio: [inaudible 00:02:00] is still intact. People are running up the street.

Audio: We're looking at live pictures of the Pentagon, where there is billowing smoke. Jim Miklaszewski just reported that he heard of an explosion. We are hearing again unconfirmed reports that this was the result of a plane crashing in the area as well.

Audio: United Airlines confirms that United flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles is down as well. No details yet. It's confirmed at flight 93 we believe from Newark to San Francisco is down, no details as yet. That's the one that we think went down in the Pittsburgh area. I wish that we could be more specific. The information is as you might expect, pretty chaotic, but there have been at least four airliners that have been hijacked today.

Doescher: 20 years. It's still difficult to listen to and relive this all over again. These were some of the very first news reports as each event happened on September 11th, 2001. Those clips from NBC CNN, ABC, local news stations were all trying to tell the same story. Calamity, confusion, terror, and desperation for information. Our way of life changed forever because of that day. The thing that still amazes me, it all happened in a two-hour window, 20 years ago. Amazing.

Doescher: But in all the confusion, heartache and anger, of course, the stories of incredible bravery, kindness, charity, and patriotism abound. First responders ran toward the twin towers to save others, even though it costs many of them their lives. Of course, Todd Beamer said let's roll. And the brave men and women on flight 93 took things into their own hands, potentially saving many more lives. And of course, we remember this story.

Audio: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, after the attack on the Pentagon went immediately to the gash that you see behind me here when the very first destruction was detected, and helped pull some people out of the rubble. He is now in what is called the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, and he intends to stay there indefinitely.

Doescher:We wanted to take a moment to pause in our own way to remember 9-11. If you can, right where you're at, just maybe close your eyes, bow your head, and pause with us for a moment of silence.

Doescher: Today, we're going to talk with Steve Bucci. He's a visiting fellow here at The Heritage Foundation, but he was also a military assistant to Donald Rumsfeld in the Pentagon when 9-11 happened. On this episode, he relives his incredible experience being in the Pentagon when the plane hit, and watching Secretary Rumsfeld run into the Pentagon to save injured people. He also puts the past 20 years since 9-11 in perspective, and places it in context with what's currently happening today.

Doescher: Well, Dr. Bucci, anyone old enough has just vivid memories as to where they were on 9-11. Many people were wandering the hallways at school and saw a crowd of people around a TV like me. Or people were getting their second cup of coffee at work when they saw and heard what was going on. But that's again, it's 20 years ago. You had a much different story than most people. Why don't you just broadly just tell us about that?

Steve Bucci: Well, I had been stationed in Bosnia Herzegovina the prior year and a half, and then was selected to be the military assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I reported for duty at the Pentagon on July 1st, 2001.

Doescher: Wow.

Bucci: And it was pretty busy, because the Secretary was trying to transform the Pentagon, and he didn't have a full staff yet, it was still early in the Bush administration. So we were working initially seven days a week, and we finally got down to six days, and we had just gone down, we had had our first full weekend off towards the end of August. And then the events of 9-11 occurred.

Bucci:  I had come into work at 5:00 in the morning, which is when I got there to do all my preparatory stuff for the Secretary. I had my wife with me on that day, because she was coming in, she's a registered nurse practitioner, and she was going to volunteer to be a Red Cross nurse at the clinic that took care of the Secretary and all the other big people in the building. So she was with me, first time she'd ever been in the Pentagon.

Bucci: I turned her over to the doctor for her interview period, and then went off, continued doing my job. We had a congressional breakfast that morning, a bunch of representatives that come through the Pentagon to have a meal with the Secretary and chat about issues. And while they were all in the dining room eating, on the TV out in our lobby, like most big organizational front office lobbies there's a TV on.

Doescher: Right.

Bucci: And we saw the first plane, and all of us thought, oh my gosh, what a tragedy. What could it have been? Did the pilot have a heart attack? What happened? And then we saw the replay, except then we realized it wasn't a replay. It was the second plane hitting the second tower.

Doescher: Wow.

Bucci: And now we looked at each other and went, oh crap, this is not a accident. This is an attack. I was almost immediately sent by the three-star Admiral, who was the Senior Military Assistant to Secretary Rumsfeld, into a secure area with several senior people, senior to me anyway, to try and start the process of figuring out what the heck was going on. Who did this? What do we need to do? All those questions that you hope the Pentagon would immediately jump [crosstalk 00:09:40]

Doescher: I was just going to say, is this something where it was like, oh my gosh, we've been getting briefings on this and wow, it came to pass kind of a thing? Or was it just kind of a mad dash?

Bucci: No, it was a mad dash.

Doescher: Yeah. Okay.

Bucci: This was not something anybody had anticipated. I mean, we found out later the intel community and the FBI had little snippets, but nobody had put it all together.

Doescher: Yeah. Well, sorry for interrupting that story because I know that you're going to continue with it, but I just wanted to get that context, because Pentagon's a pretty informed place. Pretty high level.

Bucci: Yeah. We try and have the best intel we can get, but sometimes the bad guys are sneaky enough to do it. And to tell you the truth, from the standpoint of a special operator, because I was an Army Green Beret, their operation was pretty darn good. I mean, not good in the moral sense, but good in the professional sense, and that what they pulled off was impressive in their ability to bring a lot of damage and destruction to our country. So you could understand why the terrorists around the world really thought a lot of Al-Qaeda after they did this.

Doescher: So you're scrambling around you're gathering intel, you're getting on the same page. The second building was hit. You were removed. So pick up from there.

Bucci: So we're inside this room, several rings, the Pentagon is a series of concentric rings. And also just remember the Pentagon is the largest non high rise office building in the world. Its five sides are each way more than a football field long.

Doescher: It's massive.

Bucci: There's four floors above ground, and at least two to three below ground. They always talk about there's more, but I never found those other ones down further. And so it's a pretty darn big building. So we're in there and we're talking, and suddenly we feel this [inaudible 00:11:51] and the whole building shudders. It felt like it shifted. And we all looked at one another, like what the heck was that? So I was the junior guy in the room. I jump up, run out to find out what had happened. And I got there back to the office, and I asked the NCO's who worked there, "What was that noise or whatever that was?" And they said, "Oh, sir, a plane just hit our building." And at that point, I obviously should have run back into that little room and informed those guys of that. But the thought struck me, I looked around and I said, "Where's the boss?"

Doescher: Oh, my gosh.

Bucci: And they said, he's out at the crash site. He went out there with a couple of security guys because he wanted to see what was going on. And I'm going, what? You don't let the boss go to the dangerous place. You're supposed to get them away from the dangerous place. So I grabbed the senior NCO and we ran out to try and find Secretary Rumsfeld.

Doescher: Okay, so let me just stop you there. I'm just so interested in hearing about Secretary Rumsfeld's role in this. So the plane hits, I think the southwest side of the Pentagon, is that correct?

Bucci: Correct.

Doescher: Southwest side. What part of the Pentagon were you in? I'm actually on Google maps right now, looking at it. And I just want to get a visual here.

Bucci: We were on the river side. That's where all the... it's got the nicest view. So that's where all the highest ranking folks' offices were. But we were almost directly across from the crash as you can get on a five-sided building.

Doescher: Right. So even on that side, that far away, you still felt it?

Bucci: Oh yeah, the building... The Pentagon looks like it's made out of marble, or it's really made out of concrete and girders. It was built in 1940 to be a hospital. So it's got lots of big, giant hallways and ramps to go up and down. They used to drive Jeeps inside the building to get around, then they figured out that wasn't that healthy, internal combustion engines. Now they use golf carts.

Doescher: Yeah. Not great for a hospital.

Bucci: No. So we had to literally go around the building to get out to the crash site. And there was Secretary Rumsfeld, hauling people on stretchers out of the hole. Now he's almost 75 years old at this point.

Doescher: Wait, so let me ask you this. Where was Rumsfeld when the plane hit?

Bucci: He was in his office, right there on the river side of the building, overlooking the Potomac. And so he literally went out of the building and ran around the building with these poor guys wearing body armor following him. He's a pretty fit guy, or was, he's passed away now. We just had his funeral a couple of days ago. But his first instinct was to go, as a friend of mine said, "Well, sir, where did you expect him to go? He's a warrior. He went to the sound of the guns." And there he is. I mean, this was not a photo op or anything else. It was just him doing what he knew was right.

Doescher: If it were a photo op we would have had much better video and photos of it. I mean, we can see, I remember seeing some grainy bits of it, of him involved there, but I wanted to ask you, I mean, this was a pretty intense moment. We knew with the towers, obviously your experience at the Pentagon. Did you go up to him and say, "Get your butt inside?" Did you try and get him away from there? What was your interaction there, or what was your role there?

Bucci: Well, we found him, and no, I'd never would tell him, "Get your butt inside." We did say, "Sir, we got to get you inside. We've got to get you in communication with the President and the rest of the authority in the government. We've got to come up with this. I know you want to stay here, you care about these people, but we've got folks there doing it. We need you to now do your Secretary stuff." And he understood that. I mean, this is his second turn as Secretary of Defense. He got that without any problem. And reluctantly he moved inside. He was the kind of leader that cared about his subordinates and wanted to be involved in that very needful moment for those people. But once we reminded him of that bigger picture, he jumped right back and we got inside.

Bucci: During the day, there were several people on the staff that tried to convince the Secretary that we needed to abandon the Pentagon because it was on fire, there could be another plane, all those things were ongoing. And the Secretary unequivocally said not, "No," but, "Heck no." He said, "The American people expect the defense of the United States to emanate from this building. And unless you've been telling me that there's a plane on the way and that more of my people are going to die if we stay here, then I'm not leaving." And by the end of the day, we realized he was spot on. The optics of him saying, "These guys thought they were going to knock us out. The Pentagon is still open for business, it's still doing its job of coming up with the defense of this nation," was completely on point. Exactly what we needed to do.

Doescher: Dr. Bucci, I'm curious here, when you think back on 9-11, let's say you're taking a little stroll along one of the lakes in Michigan, and you just think back 9-11. What is the thing that you pivot to the most? What is the thing that you gravitate toward the most in your mind when you think back on 9-11?

Bucci: One, on a personal level, I think back that, thank God my wife didn't get hurt in the thing. And by the way, she ended up taking care of wounded people the whole day. I didn't see her again until 4:30 in the afternoon because the cell phones didn't work, because everything was down because of volume issues. And it was incredible to think that we were both there, both playing supporting roles in the response.

Bucci: From a professional standpoint, I thought it was interesting that here's a special forces guy, Green Beret. My image of me going to war was in my full military kit, my camouflage uniform, all my toys and stuff that you take when you go do that sort of thing. Instead, I went to war in my polyester dress pants and my patent leather parade shoes. And that's, you realize life doesn't always go the way you plan, and does not always take the obvious route. That sometimes you get put in positions that catch you by surprise, and you have to be ready to pivot and do your job, even in very, very unconventional circumstances. And that's what, not just me, but everybody there ended up doing.

Bucci: The one other memory, and this is from my wife, actually, she was outside doing her thing as a nurse. And then at a certain point, still in the morning, they got the word went out of all the people out there, take cover, take cover, there's another plane coming. Everybody's scattered, jumping in the ditches, the culverts of the sides of the roads. Nobody knew what was going to happen. And then they heard it, and they looked up and it wasn't another airliner. It was two American fighter planes. And she said as soon as she saw them and realized who they were, she knew they were safe. She knew nobody was going to do anything harmful to that building or to them anymore.

Doescher: Well, I mean, it's funny you should say that, because we talk about, once it happens, we start rebuilding, we start the cleanup. And part of that, and I remember this, was an effort by the government, by the US, to unite around our men and women in uniform and trust that our safety and our security was the number one priority of the federal government. So just talk kind of a little bit about the rebuilding, the cleanup, after this all happens.

Bucci: Yeah. It was amazing. It developed very quickly the process. I mean, you always think the government moves slowly. In this case, it was almost instantaneous we started to build. And they had people volunteering to come in and help, craftsmen and builders, to the point where they were able to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to rebuild that section of the Pentagon that had been destroyed. Interestingly, that continued into the new year. And they were working so hard and so well that the management made a decision, the supervisors, that they would give everybody Christmas Day off, they would take a rest. They announced it to the workforce, and the workers all got together and then went back to the supervisors and said, "No, we are not taking that day off. We said we were going to work every day until we finished this job. That's what we told those people who had attacked us, and we are not going to take a day off until it's done." And they did. They got it done way ahead of schedule. They never took a day off until the job was a hundred percent completed.

Bucci: And it was a testament to the American worker, the American people, and this was a pretty diverse group. I mean, there were... you think of construction projects in Washington, DC, there's a lot of people with green cards working on those jobs. There's a lot of people of every color, background, everything you could think of. That's what was there. And they all stood as one in solidarity with the military, with the first responders, and they wanted to send a message to those that attacked us, that you thought we were down, we're not.

Doescher: Let me ask you this. This is an incredible story. I mean, I kind of want to get together and do a campfire and just continue to ask you questions. I mean, it would just be incredible to hear these stories. It's amazing the life that you have lived. And I wanted to with all of that experience, and with what's happening right now in Afghanistan as we speak, I want to just ask you some intentionally broad questions. As we've asked these questions many times through many different situations throughout the last 20 years since we've been in Afghanistan, and we went to Afghanistan because of 9-11. And now just give me the top of mind when you hear these questions. The first one, are we safer now than 20 years ago?

Bucci: Yes we are. And the reason for that is not that the threats are any less. The threats are actually probably bigger than they were then, but we have a much better structure of identifying those threats, responding to them, deterring them than we ever have before. And as evidence that for 20 years, no one has done that kind of terrorism event in our country again.

Doescher: Does America have the will to act swiftly as we did after 9-11 still?

Bucci: That's a tougher question. I think we would if an incident came up, if there was another successful attack, I think we could respond probably more quickly than before, but the will part on the part of the American people, that's tougher. We've reached a point of greater separation between political sides than we had even then, but I like to think America could still pull together when faced with that kind of threat. And I think we would, and we'd be able to defend this nation effectively.

Doescher: What do we need for better security?

Bucci: Political will at this point. I think we have the wherewithal. Our military is still, under the last administration was building back up some of the things that had been allowed to lay fallow by the administration before that one. And they were starting to make the corrections. Now we're kind of back at this tendency to want to cut things when you need to fix them, not cut them. So I think a little more will to prepare and to act. And I have not seen, unfortunately, a lot of evidence of that in this particular administration in either area.

Doescher: ​​​​​​​And now, personally, I'm curious. When a week and a half ago, when you saw basically the Taliban take over Afghanistan, what was your... I want to know your initial knee jerk reaction to that, given all of your involvement in this, in planning and 9-11, all that stuff. I want to know your initial reaction.

Bucci: It was great concern for the Afghan people. And don't get me wrong, the threats are much wider than just inside Afghanistan. There's a chance of regional destabilization. There's obviously a chance of increased terrorism around the world that Taliban can support. But the biggest grief in my spirit was the thought of the young people, particularly young women, who for the last 20 years have been free to go to school, to get jobs, to improve their lot, to play the kind of role in society they're capable of playing. And that now they're going to be forced back into... I mean, they've used Sharia in Afghanistan, this whole time, but not the version of Sharia that the Taliban espoused, and that's going to go back into place. And there's going to be retribution against people that helped us, and it's going to be horrific.

Doescher: ​​​​​​​Well Dr. Bucci, I just, as a point of personal privilege, I guess we'd call it host privilege here, I just wanted to tell you, and thank you for all that you've meant to me throughout our time knowing each other, working at The Heritage Foundation. You have been a voice of reason, you've been an ear to listen, and that has been so meaningful to me, especially given the many irons you have in the fire going at all times. So again, thank you so much for being open and sharing with us today. Thank you for being such an incredible part of The Heritage Foundation. And we look forward to keeping in touch with you, Dr. Bucci.

Bucci: It was my pleasure to chat about this today, Tim, and I agree it's been a wonderful pleasure being colleagues. I hope we can continue for a long time, and I'm ready to do share. Not because I did anything terribly spectacular, I was just in these interesting places in interesting times. This nation is worth fighting for. It always has been, and it always will be. And we need to remember that, and be willing, not to follow mindlessly, but to understand the reason and then to be willing to stand up for what's right.

Doescher: ​​​​​​​Dr. Bucci, again, thank you so much.

Bucci: It's my pleasure.

Doescher: ​​​​​​​Thank you so much for listening to this special episode of Heritage Explains. Drop us an email at [email protected] if you want to communicate with us, if you have some thoughts on the show, we'd love to hear them. Also, you can leave us a comment wherever you listen. We'll respond to you that way as well. Michelle's up next week. We'll see you then.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Michelle Cordero and Tim Doescher, with editing by John Popp.