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Retired Marine officer describes life in White House bunker on 9/11

Retired Marine Lt. Colonel Robert J. Darling kept an Orwigsburg audience enthralled as he presented a powerful, minute-by-minute recounting of 9-11 from his post inside the White House bunker beside Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

With a mix of humor, patriotism and military precision, Darling recounted his 24 hours embedded with the country’s decision makers. Darling was a witness to history and shared his spellbinding tale of terror with those whose military careers trained them to serve our country in times like this.

Darling was the keynote speaker Nov. 5 at the first Veterans Day breakfast hosted by the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Riverview Bank. The event at the Orwigsburg Veterans Memorial was attended by more than 80 veterans who served in numerous wars, conflicts and branches of the military.

After a short video featuring local veterans and the history of the Orwigsburg Veterans Memorial Community Hall, Darling took the stage to share his experiences from that fateful day. He is the author of “24 Hours Inside the President’s Bunker, 9/11/01: The White House.”

Darling spent 20 years in active-duty service, flying Cobra attack helicopters in Desert Shield and Desert Storm during the first Gulf War. He was selected to fly as a presidential pilot in 1998 with Marine Helicopter Squadron One, and in 2000 he was selected to work in the White House Military Office, Airlift Operations Department. His duties included coordinating the transportation and removal of equipment and personnel required by the president as he traveled the world.

On Sept. 11, Darling had coordinated the movement of all the president’s equipment to Sarasota, Fla., for a scheduled appearance there. He was preparing to bring it all back to Andrews Air Force Base when everything changed.

America’s story

“This is our story, this is America’s story, Darling told the audience. “We have to understand it, learn it and never forget so people like you can come together and be grateful we’re a free nation because of what we were told to do to protect ourselves. One of the lessons I want you to take away from today’s presentation is that ordinary people are willing to do extraordinary things to protect our freedom.”

The president and the secretary of defense are the only two people who can give offensive lethal instructions to the military, Darling said. That day, he was in contact with both.

While monitoring the president’s trip in Sarasota from the Eisenhower Executive Office building adjacent to the West Wing, Darling watched as American Airlines Flight 11 careened into one of New York’s World Trade Center towers on a crystal-clear day. While the world watched, a second plane careened into the other tower.

President George W. Bush received the news while speaking to schoolchildren in Sarasota. It was up to Darling to get the president out of Sarasota and airborne.

“In times of national emergency, we always want our president airborne,” Darling said. “We never want our president to be stuck in a bunker, invisible to the American people. We need to know the presidency exists and the government continues to function.”

Darling began coordinating the logistics to move the president to safety when he received notice that the Pentagon had been attacked. Not only was there an attack on New York but an attack on the northeast quadrant of the United States.

All personnel in the White House were commanded to secure their classified information and go to the alternate site. The last time the White House was evacuated was 1814 when British forces were burning down Washington.

Darling did not want to leave. He needed to complete the necessary logistics to get Bush out of Florida but was forced to evacuate and take cover in the underground bunker complex. Darling recounted watching women tossing their high heels running in stocking feet across the White House lawn, through the open gates and to safety.

Darling described the bunker as a bank vault on steroids. Hardened against nuclear attack, it was built in the 1960s as a safe place to take the first family in times of national emergency. As of 9/11, most personnel in the White House didn’t even know it existed.

In the bunker, Darling was ordered to start answering the frantic phone calls coming from military divisions across the country. As Cheney, Rice and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta stood by his side, Darling received a call informing him that another aircraft had been hijacked near Pittsburgh.

Cheney ordered two fighter jets to take to the air and stand by to shoot down the aircraft. As the world now knows, it was not necessary to shoot down the hijacked plane — the heroic passengers of United Flight 93 took on the hijackers, and in one of the bravest actions imaginable, brought down the airliner in a field in Somerset County, killing all aboard but saving thousands of other lives.

Together with many of the high-ranking personnel at the White House, Darling watched the towers fall. There was no way they could believe the 110-story landmark was on the ground.

“What people were seeing and hearing on television was not something they could mentally comprehend,” Darling said.

Cheney ordered the skies over the United States cleared of more than 2,000 planes. It was the first time in history that this had happened. Darling recounted how there were numerous close calls that day, including almost shooting down a crop duster, and chaotic reaction around the White House when a car backfired. Nerves were frayed, confusion reigned, but the president and his commanders took control and led the country through that dark day and the many days and months to follow.

Darling concluded by thanking the veterans in attendance.

“Our country is free because of you and remains free today because of great patriots like you,” Darling said. “This community will exist in the hardest of times because of what you are all willing to do for each other and for the nation.”

Chamber President Robert S. Carl Jr. thanked Darling for his presentation and those who served the country. Carl is a member of the Orwigsburg Memorial Task Force, which has raised more than $2 million to renovate the building. The work still continues with a recent grant in the amount of $750,000.

State Sen. David Argall, along with Reps. Jerry Knowles, Tim Twardzik and Joe Kerwin attended the event.

Veterans salute the flag at a veterans breakfast Nov. 5 at the Orwigsburg Veterans Community Memorial Hall. (Janis McGowan)

Local veterans at a Nov. 5 breakfast in their honor in Orwigsburg. (Janis McGowan)
State Rep. Jerry Knowles takes part in a veterans breakfast Nov. 5 in Orwigsburg. (Janis McGowan)
State Sen. David Argall takes part in a Nov. 5 veterans breakfast in Orwigsburg. (Janis McGowan)

Source: Berkshire mont

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