Lt. Col. Robert Darling shared his front-row view of history Sunday during the America’s Credit Union Conference in New York City, detailing the harrowing hours in the “president’s bunker” directly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Darling, a decorated Marine Corps helicopter pilot who commanded the presidential fleet, watched the events unfold alongside President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and other high-ranking government officials—and learned some important leadership lessons along the way.
He took conference attendees through the chaotic aftermath of the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, offering chilling details about the day’s events:
- After the north and south towers of the World Trade Center fell, for instance, the president’s leadership team estimated that 40,000 people likely had been killed.
- Several friendly aircraft narrowly survived the day unscathed after nearly being shot down by the U.S. Air Force—including a medevac helicopter en route to aid victims at the Pentagon.
- At one point, “Angel” was believed to be a prime target. That was the code name for President Bush.
- Bush decided to move the country’s nuclear weapons from “DEFCON Four” to “DEFCON Two” status—apparently prompting a call from a concerned Russian President Putin. The nation hadn't stood at DEFCON Two status since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
- A false alarm about an imminent attack on the White House caused the Secret Service to sweep the president and first lady away—in their pajamas.
Darling says in times of duress, leaders must:
- Take bold action. Cheney had no constitutional authority to issue military orders. But he stepped forward to fill a leadership void created by communication issues for Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, scrambling fighter jets to pursue a hijacked airplane and protect the President and other perceived targets. “He got us back on our feet, got us leaning forward again,” Darling said.
- Be decisive. Darling criticized Rumsfeld for actively aiding in relief efforts at the Pentagon after that building was struck by a plane, leaving the military in limbo as it awaited his orders.
- Be human. Darling saw Cheney shoulder the weight of a difficult decision that put American lives in the balance.
- Surrender control. High-ranking officials must retain ultimate responsibility, but the difference-makers are the people in the field—such as the first responders on Sept. 11.
“If such a crisis ever comes to the U.S. again, it will be the regular people who respond,” Darling said. “We need to give people the tools and training they need to succeed. We can’t lead from our comfort zones; we must adapt to the conditions at hand.”