On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was working in the West Wing of the White House as one of three assistants outside of Vice President Dick Cheneys office. I had been in the job for eight months, since the start of the new administration.
Like most mornings the TV news was on in the office. At about 9 a.m., the news broke: a plane hit the World Trade Center. We called the vice president and told him to turn on his television. When the second plane hit, he came out and said he saw it happen on the news. After that, everything changed.
There was a flurry of activity in the otherwise quiet halls of the West Wing. As senior staff flowed in and out of the vice presidents office, my stress level began to rise. But I took solace that if he was safe in his office just steps away, surely we were, too.
Anytime the vice president was in his office, a Secret Service agent was positioned just outside. As the news flashed devastating images, suddenly his lead agent stormed in and whisked him out, down the hall to a safe location. I was overcome with panic. What I feared all morning became obvious were not safe here.
As we headed out, we were directed to the Mess, a room where staff ate, just a few steps down from the first floor. At this point, the plane that hit the Pentagon was heading toward Washington, its destination unclear. Crammed in with dozens of colleagues, I looked around the silent room and wondered if wed make it out. I glanced down at my red Nokia cellphone to call my parents and tell them I loved them but there was no signal. We waited in silence for what felt like hours. Then we received word that the Pentagon was hit. The Secret Service gave us clear directions: Leave the grounds. Remove your badges. Separate, and run.
When I arrived home in Georgetown that evening, I went straight to my room and cried. Like everyone, I was overwhelmed with grief. So many went to work that morning, just like I did. But many did not make it home. That could have been me. It was too much to take in.
Am I ready to die? Am I right with God? In that moment, these seemed the only questions that mattered.
On Sept. 12, my roommates and I headed to work. Washington was covered with a layer of fog that added to the eeriness of a city that was shut down. Yellow tape formed a perimeter around the White House. Inside, there was tension mixed with steely resolve. Secret Service agents who smiled occasionally before 9/11 brandished bigger guns and sterner looks than before. They made me feel safe while serving as a stark reminder that we were a target.
Over the coming days, my feelings vacillated between an overwhelming urge to go home Im not in the military and I didnt sign up for this and a growing resolve to stay put they arent going to intimidate me out of the job I love.
On a few occasions, the White House was evacuated due to security threats. One time I remember vividly. There was a discussion about whether the vice president should leave the grounds because of new intelligence. All my fear rushed back. If its not safe for him, surely its not safe for us. My eyes welled up with tears, and I turned to my computer hoping nobody would notice. After all, I was young, far from home and fighting a survival instinct that demanded less precarious surroundings.
The vice president, standing in his office doorway, turned to his assistant Debbie and, loud enough for everyone to hear, asked her to order him lunch. In his characteristically subtle way, the vice president told his staff that he was staying put, and I couldnt help but feel relieved.
One afternoon, family members of passengers aboard Flight 93 visited the White House. After their time with the president, staffers lined up to greet them. We shook hands and told them we were praying for them. We all felt their brave husbands, sons and fathers quite possibly saved our lives when they overtook the hijackers and brought down a plane that seemed to be heading to Washington and possibly the White House. It could have been my parents and siblings in a group like that, mourning. I felt humbled, grateful and grief for their losses.
Feeling like you might die changes you, in a good way.
Having a sense of your own mortality must be healthy. What really matters? Who am I living to please? Am I right with God? These questions permeated my thinking on and off for years, and still do. None of us knows what each day will hold, but we do know that we are not guaranteed another day. I believe that one way to honor the victims and heroes of 9/11 is to live each day like we know that to be true.
Ashley Snee Giovannettone served as a special assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney. She went on to serve as assistant White House press secretary and White House spokeswoman, before coming home to California to work for then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. She now works as a consultant with Meridian Pacific in Sacramento.