It has been 20 years since the Al Qaeda terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, and altered the modern political dynamics forever. However, Adam Putnam, the youngest Congress member at the time, found himself in an unlikely position on the day as he witnessed President George W. Bush from the closest proximity negating with the greatest calamity in America since at least Pearl Harbor.

Like every American, the memory of that devastating day is etched in Putnam’s memory, however, his perspective is very different. At the age of 26, the freshman Republican was eight months into the first of what would be five terms in the White House. 

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Putnam was part of a committee welcoming President Bush outside Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, when White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card interrupted.

In a frantic phone call Card explained to Bush that the President had another call waiting for him and he had to attend to it immediately. Soon the news was delivered to the President that an airplane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Just a day before, Putnam had flown with his wife and baby daughter to Washington so that he could cast votes to name two post offices.

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“I was still so new,” he said in an interview, NBC News reported. “I still thought it was important to not miss a vote.”

Soon after, he left for Tampa to participate as Bush promoted education policy at the elementary school.

Although the President had the intelligence that America was the target of a sophisticated terrorism plot, Bush wasn’t yet aware that the first plane was part of an extensive assault.

As a result, Bush went about his usual business, sat down with a second-grade class. Putnam arrived at the school’s media centre, where he was greeted by other dignitaries, White House officials, Secret Service agents, and a class of fifth-graders. They were there when a second aircraft crashed into the South Tower, according to NBC inputs.

Card rushed in to whisper to Bush: “America was under attack.”

White House aides wanted Bush to address the nation as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, Putnam and Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., were called aside by Matt Kirk, a young legislative affairs assistant, who pointed out that all three of them would be judged non-essential and left at the school “if anybody stops to think about it,” Putnam said. They rushed to get into the motorcade’s seats.

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“Terrorism against our nation will not stand,” Bush said, before asking for a moment of silence. While on takeoff, Putnam was thrown back in his seat aboard Air Force One. In an evasive manoeuvre, the plane rose into the air at the highest vertical angle possible.

Putnam and Miller were brought inside Bush’s private cabin for an update at one point. He informed them that a second plane was on its way to Washington and that he would deal with it “one way or another.”

Putnam said that he would subsequently learn that Bush had already issued the order to fire down suspected commercial planes and that the president was aware of a passenger plane accident in western Pennsylvania.

“He’d given the order to shoot it down, but didn’t know it wasn’t shot down,” Putnam said, according to NBC inputs.

While an uncomfortable understanding dawned on Putnam, he stayed on board and observed as the jet was refuelled and stocked with food. It was feasible that the president would have to manage the country for days or weeks from afar.

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

“It was a jarring shift that has changed the country permanently,” he concludes.