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Journalist Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is the author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, and a former editor of POLITICO Magazine.
Nearly every American above a certain age remembers precisely where they were on September 11, 2001. For a small handful of Americans—many of them among the most senior officials in the U.S. government—that day conjures memories of a bunker underneath the White House, built for the Cold War but never used until that Tuesday morning 18 years ago.
What had begun as an odd incident, with the crash of American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., quickly escalated 17 minutes later when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. As the world realized the country was under attack, Vice President Dick Cheney and senior White House aides were rushed to that bunker under the White House, known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC). There, underneath the executive mansion’s north lawn, they tried to figure out how many more hijacked planes were in the air. They knew of at least one: United Flight 93.
This excerpt from the forthcoming book The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (Avid Reader Press) is based on contemporaneous transcripts of 911 calls and cockpit voice recorders from September 11, as well as both archival primary source interviews with key participants—conducted as early as 2002—and supplemental original interviews by the author, as recent as this spring, including the first-ever interview with the Navy officer who ultimately asked Cheney for authority to shoot down hijacked airliners. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.