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(After 9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001: Small Number of Staffers Clear Up the White House Grounds, Even after the Building Is Evacuated

Gary Walters.Gary Walters. [Source: C-SPAN]Gary Walters, the chief White House usher, and a few of his colleagues take the time to clear up the White House grounds ready for when President Bush returns, and even continue with the task after the White House is evacuated. Earlier this morning, many White House staffers were busy preparing for the annual Congressional picnic, which was scheduled to take place this evening (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). About 170 to 180 picnic tables have been set up on the South Lawn for the event. After he learns that a second plane has crashed into the World Trade Center (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001), Walters decides to start moving the picnic tables off the lawn so Bush’s helicopter will be able to land on the grounds when the president returns to the White House. [National Journal, 8/31/2002; Values in World Thought, 4/4/2006; Peter Schnall, 7/12/2016]
Usher Arranges to Clear the Lawn - He coordinates with the National Park Service, which is in charge of the White House grounds, to determine who will be clearing away the picnic tables. [Brower, 2015, pp. 257] He then sets about moving the tables. “I got the staff together and started sending them out to the south grounds—anybody I could think of—because I knew that we had to try to move as quickly as possible,” he will later recall. [National Journal, 8/31/2002] However, at about 9:45 a.m., the White House is evacuated after the Secret Service learns of a possible threat against it (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Associated Press, 2001 pdf file; CNN, 9/12/2001]
Staffers Continue Clearing the Grounds, despite the Danger - Around this time, Walters sees the smoke coming from the Pentagon, which was attacked at 9:37 a.m. (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001), and realizes the White House could be hit next. And yet he decides that he needs to stay where he is in order to clear up the grounds. “As far as I was concerned, my responsibility was there at the White House,” he will comment. [Brower, 2015, pp. 258] “I knew we had to get those tables out,” he will state, adding, “I even felt more urgency, since obviously this was a coordinated attack now.” [National Journal, 8/31/2002] While the Secret Service is ordering people to run for their lives, Walters grabs a few of his colleagues and tells them they need to stay and help clear away the picnic tables. “I got the word that everybody was evacuating, but we had something that we needed to do,” he will comment. [Brower, 2015, pp. 258] After hearing that another suspicious plane is approaching, however, Walters and his colleagues go to the southeast knoll, a rise in the White House lawn, and just stand there, watching the sky and waiting.
Lawn Is Cleared by Early Afternoon - By around 11:00 a.m., they are becoming impatient. Walters therefore says, “Guys, let’s go move some picnic tables.” The men then start carrying the picnic tables off the lawn. A police officer joins them and eventually about a dozen people are helping them to move the tables. By around 1:00 p.m. all of the tables have been removed from the lawn. At about 3:45 p.m., Walters is called by someone from the military, who asks him to clear the South Lawn so the president’s helicopter will be able to land there. Walters laughs and says this has already been done. [National Journal, 8/31/2002] The president’s helicopter, with Bush on board, will land on the South Lawn at around 6:55 p.m. (see (6:54 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [CNN, 9/12/2001; Rove, 2010, pp. 263]
Usher Will Later Justify His Actions - Walters will, in 2016, explain why he made the effort to clear up the White House grounds, despite the danger to himself and his colleagues. “One of the things that I turned to in my own mind on 9/11 was the role that the White House plays in disasters, wars,” he will say, adding, “People have a tendency to turn to the White House.” He will continue: “And I knew that the president wasn’t gonna be satisfied talking from a bunker somewhere or away from the White House. And that’s why we put the effort that we did into cleaning up the south grounds, so that [his] helicopter could land there. That was what the American people were used to seeing—the presidential helicopter coming in—and the president was going to address the nation from the Oval Office.” [Peter Schnall, 7/12/2016]

Entity Tags: National Park Service, Gary Walters

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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