In the "fog of war," mistakes can cost lives, decisions are never easy, and even crop dusting planes can seem like a national security threat.
That was part of the takeaway of a speech given by Lt. Col. Robert Darling, author of "24 Hours Inside the President's Bunker, 9/11/01: The White House."
The author of a book detailing behind-the-scenes details of 9/11 crisis management was the keynote speaker at the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce's 2018 annual banquet. Darling is also the president and CEO of consulting firm Quantitative Analytics, LLC, and risk management training company Turning Point Crisis Management – USA.
Darling flew attack helicopters as part of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and in Somalia supporting Operation Restore Hope during the first Gulf War. In 1998, he was selected to become a presidential pilot with Marine Helicopter Squadron One, and in 2000 he was handpicked to work for the White House Military Office, Airlift Operations Department.
In that role, he ended up supporting the vice president, national security advisor, and the National Command Authority from within the President’s Emergency Operations Center in the White House on 9/11.
Darling recounted in great detail the progression of hours in what became a day of profoundly crucial decision making for the president and other high-ranking officials. It was a day on which all White House personnel were ordered to evacuate for the second time in U.S. history.
He called the White House “the most secure piece of real estate in the world,” adding that women staffers were kicking off their heels and sprinting from the premises as our country prepared for the very real possibility that an airliner would collide with the building that houses the Oval Office.
As the towers of the World Trade Center toppled in New York, killing thousands of people in an unprecedented attack, U.S. security networks struggled to distinguish between friend, foe and crop dusting plane.
Commercial airliners were hijacked and used to target some of the government’s most important buildings. In the heat of the moment, Darling said, even helicopters bringing medical relief to the scene of the Pentagon, where a hijacked airliner had made impact, were viewed as potential threats.
The speech was tinged with somber moments and humorous asides. Darling noted that 10 minutes after Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the skies to be cleared of aircraft, he authorized Pentagon officials to shoot any noncompliant aircraft out of the sky with a guided missile destroyer off the coast of New York tracking 60 targets.
Though the moment had dire implications, it required strong decision-making, and an absolutist mentality.
“It was truly Cheney in charge,” Darling said. “He was like the evil emperor at that time, lightning coming out of his fingertips.”
On Sept. 23, Darling and a handful of others were taken to ground zero to see the remnants of the Twin Towers. He said first responders still engaged in rescue missions at the scene described it as “13 stories of carnage.”
Darling said the experience instilled a change in him that manifested as an interest in crisis leadership, response and preparation.
“I want you to know that as your community continues to grow, your heroes over there in the fire department, the police department and the military members that are here, they need to be a part, as they are tonight, in this chamber of commerce.”
He said the community as a whole has to make an effort to prepare ahead of time for national emergencies that require pre-planned, coordinated responses to ensure a sense of “communitywide” composure.
“The only way we’re going to get around that is through practice,” Darling said, imploring attendees to partner with first responders in developing disaster recovery and business continuity plans. “In this community, if something happens, you all have to turn to each other for information, and the only way you’re going to get it is if you have some type of recurrent exercise where you’re all involved and you know your network and you know who to go to to get information.”
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