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Bush Returns to Washington After Unplanned Detour - 2001-09-11

President Bush is back in Washington following terrorist attacks on targets in New York and Washington. Mr. Bush spent the intervening hours at air force bases in Louisiana and Nebraska.

Mr. Bush was reading to a group of school children in Sarasota, Florida when an aide whispered in his ear. He looked grim, read for a few minutes more so as not to alarm the young students, and then rose to leave. His prepared speech on education was scrapped. Instead he spoke for just over a minute about the terrorist attack in New York." "Today we have had a national tragedy," President Bush said. "Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country."

He said he was heading back to Washington. But a short time later, yet another hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon - the symbol of American military power.

Mr. Bush's jumbo jet was diverted to an air force base near Shreveport, Louisiana - just a brief flight from Sarasota. He spent about 90 minutes on the ground before going before television cameras once again.

"Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended," the president said.

By this time, the White House and other major federal buildings were being evacuated. Fire trucks pulled in around the executive mansion, and members of the presidential security detail took positions along the perimeter. They seldom carry visible weapons, but on this occasion many held small automatic rifles.

There were no signs of any incidents in or around the White House grounds. Nor was there any word from presidential aides on when Mr. Bush might return.

Finally, almost seven hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, came an announcement from a top aide to the President, Karen Hughes.

"Air Force One has now landed at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha Nebraska and the President is now in a secure location," she said.

White House aides seemed sensitive to a possible perception problem from the President's constant secret movements from one air force base to another. They appeared concerned the American people would think the President was not at the helm at a time of crisis. An administration spokesman went to lengths to tell the small pool of reporters traveling with Mr. Bush that he was in charge of the situation and wanted very much to return to Washington as soon as possible.

They stressed that the President conferred via telephone with Vice President Dick Cheney and his National Security Advisors. Mr. Cheney led the command team during his absence, and remained throughout the day at a secure area in the White House complex.