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Then-youngest congressman spent 9/11 with the president

Twenty years ago, Adam Putnam became an unlikely behind-the-scenes witness to a commander in chief in the crucible of the nation's greatest calamity since at least Pearl Harbor.
Rep. Adam Putnam, right, R-Bartow, Fla., and Sarasota County Sheriff's Advisor Larry Berberich look at television reports of the terrorist acts upon the World Trade Center while waiting for President Bush, on Sept. 11, 2001 in Sarasota, Fla.
Rep. Adam Putnam, right, and Sarasota County Sheriff's Adviser Larry Berberich look at television reports of the terrorist acts upon the World Trade Center while waiting for President George W. Bush, on Sept. 11, 2001, in Sarasota, Fla.Chris O'Meara / NBC News; AP file

WASHINGTON — Adam Putnam was part of a welcoming committee making small talk with President George W. Bush outside Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, when White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card interrupted.

"You have a phone call waiting," Card told Bush.

"I'll be right there," Bush replied, with little urgency.

"Mr. President, you need to take it right now," Card insisted.

An airplane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

It has been 20 years since Al Qaeda terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, but, as is the case for many Americans, every moment of that brutal day remains etched in memory for Putnam, who became an unlikely behind-the-scenes witness to a president in the crucible of the greatest calamity in America since at least Pearl Harbor.

The youngest member of Congress at the time, the 26-year-old freshman Republican was eight months into the first of what would be five terms in the House. The day before, he had flown with his wife and baby daughter to Washington so he could cast votes to name two post offices.

"I was still so new," he said in an interview. "I still thought it was important to not miss a vote."

After dipping into the House chamber, he had taken a red-eye flight to Tampa, Florida — leaving his family in Washington — so he could participate as Bush promoted education policy at the elementary school.

Now, America was the target of a sophisticated terrorism plot. But Bush wasn't yet aware that the first plane was part of an extensive assault.

The president continued with his schedule, sitting down with a second grade class. Putnam made his way to the school's media center, where he was surrounded by other dignitaries, White House aides, members of the Secret Service and a group of fifth graders. There, they watched a second plane hit the south tower.

Card rushed into the second grade classroom to tell Bush about the second plane and its meaning: "America is under attack."

White House aides wanted Bush to address the nation as quickly as possible. But they believed the media center setup, with 10- and 11-year-olds as his backdrop, was suboptimal. Putnam listened as they tried to persuade Bush's Secret Service detail that he could make remarks from the tarmac before boarding Air Force One. The Secret Service pushed back, Putnam recalled in an interview.

Bush, they said, could either speak at the elementary school or not at all. There wasn't time to set up a media event at the airport and break it down. Bush needed to get in the air.

Matt Kirk, a young legislative affairs aide, pulled Putnam and Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., aside to point out that all three of them would be deemed nonessential and left at the school "if anybody stops to think about it," Putnam said. They scrambled to take seats in the motorcade.

Bush delivered brief remarks from the school, advising Americans that he would be heading back to Washington.

"Terrorism against our nation will not stand," Bush said, before asking for a moment of silence.

Aboard Air Force One, Putnam was thrust back in his seat on takeoff. The plane climbed into the air at the most vertical angle possible, an evasive maneuver.

When the plane leveled off, passengers learned that terrorists had flown a third plane into the Pentagon, prompting a decision to reroute toward Camp David, the presidential retreat in western Maryland. On grainy television screens, the lawmakers could see both towers burning. Air Force One circled over the Gulf Coast — between Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama — Putnam said, noting the television feeds were from local newscasts in those cities.

At one point, Putnam and Miller were brought into Bush's private cabin for an update. He told them there was another plane headed toward Washington and that he would deal with that jet "one way or another."

Putnam said he would later find out that Bush already had given an order to shoot down suspicious commercial airliners and that the president knew a passenger jet had crashed in western Pennsylvania.

"He'd given the order to shoot it down but didn't know it wasn't shot down," Putnam said.

White House officials scratched the plan to head toward Camp David — the plane downed in western Pennsylvania wasn't far by air — and decided to land Air Force One at Barksdale Air Force Base in northwest Louisiana, where Bush disembarked to deliver a second set of remarks to the nation.

Putnam stayed aboard and watched as the plane was refueled and loaded with provisions, as an unsettling realization settled in. It was possible the president would have to run the country remotely for days or weeks.

"It was like watching the doomsday scenario being put into action," Putnam said.

When Bush re-boarded, en route to Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base, the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Command, Putnam and other less-necessary passengers were told to get off his plane. The young congressman called his wife to assure her he was all right, but he couldn't tell her where he was for security reasons.

She knew. She was watching television. Her husband was at Barksdale with Bush.

Putnam flew back to Washington with other officials on a backup version of the president's plane, from which passengers could see smoke still rising from the Pentagon as the plane made its approach to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington's Maryland suburbs.

Later, Putnam's brother would crystallize the import of the backup plane: "Sounds like you were the decoy."

Putnam still remembers Sept. 10, when he could vote on the House floor and be at a gate at National Airport within 20 minutes "no problem" and "be trusted with a fork and a knife on an airplane." And he remembers when armored military vehicles deployed across the nation's capital the following day.

"It was a jarring shift that has changed the country permanently," he said.