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Bush Administration Official Recalls Sept. 11

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The former chief of the Federal Housing Administration was among a small circle of officials with President George W. Bush as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded.

Brian D. Montgomery served as Assistant Secretary of Housing, Federal Housing Commissioner, in the George W. Bush administration from June 2005 until January 2009.

He briefly continued to run the agency during President Barack H. Obama’s administration until David H. Stevens was sworn in as the new commissioner in July 2009.

But prior to his job running FHA,
Montgomery held other posts in the Bush administration. At the time of the terrorist attacks, he was deputy assistant to the president and director of advance.

In a telephone interview with Mortgage Daily, Montgomery said he was introduced to Bush working for his father, George H.W. Bush, when he was vice president during the Reagan administration.

But it wasn’t until 1994 when he worked in the junior Bush’s Texas gubernatorial campaign that he really got to know him.

By the time George W. Bush became the 43rd U.S. president in January 2001, Montgomery aspired to be the assistant secretary for community and planning development at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But President Bush instead ask Montgomery to come on as director of presidential advance, where he managed the White House office responsible for the development, organization and implementation of presidential events both domestically and abroad. It was in this role that he came to be with the president on Sept. 11.

He
initially heard about the first plane flying into the World Trade Center just seconds before arriving in the presidential motorcade at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Bush advisor Dan Bartlett leaned forward and told Montgomery, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”

Montgomery explained that after the first plane hit,
he doubted that is was an accident.

“Well I’m not a pilot,
but I know enough about aviation — and we’ve all flown into New York before — that the World Trade Center is not on any flight path,” he said.

After heading into the school, the second plane hit — though they had to find a television just to see the aftermath.

“So what little doubt we had left, soon as the second plane hit, that was gone,” he said.

The relatively young administration was thrust into circumstances that nobody had ever imagined; there was no play book for such a situation.

He noted at that point, despite that the two planes had just crashed, the safest place for them was to be up in the sky aboard Air Force One.

Montgomery continued on with the president to
Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where he was with Bush in the Stratcom bunker.

During the entire day, Bush was adamant about getting back to Washington. And while the Secret Service, Chief of Staff Andy Card and Vice President Dick Cheney were opposed to it — the president returned to Washington that night.

That Friday, on Sept. 14, Montgomery accompanied Bush to ground zero in Lower Manhattan, New York.

It was the smell that first struck him on a helicopter flight from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

“We could barely see the skyline in front of us,” he recalled. “But you could smell it. … The smell of just, you know, burning everything.”

Once they arrived at ground zero, it was an astonishing scene.

“When you see it in person … it’s hard to describe,” he said. “It’s just the look in the eyes of the men and women, they were down there looking for survivors, and they were so glad to see the president.”

They decided that the president would speak to the crowd, so Montgomery and Karl Rove found an emergency sport utility vehicle covered in dirt that a few fireman were standing on top of. The firemen saw the president coming and got off to make room for him.

But one, a retired fireman who came back to help, was a little slower getting off, and Bush just told him to stay where he was. The president then put his arm around that fireman and spoke to the crowd.

“I’m sure this fireman was thinking, ‘holy cow, can’t believe I’m standing here with the president with his arm around me,'” Montgomery speculated.

He said that on the way back in the motorcade, there was dead silence in the car for several minutes as the group felt surreal.

Montgomery explained that rain earlier that morning combined with the drywall that came out of the twin towers to create
a thick, grayish paste that got all over everybody’s shoes.

He said during the weeks that followed, he just couldn’t bring himself to clean his shoes — a sentiment shared by others in the administration who had traveled with the president to New York.

After hearing about the similar feelings among the other officials, he stopped at Bed Bath & Beyond, bought a container, packed and sealed the shoes,
“and haven’t touched them since.”

Montgomery said he still keeps in contact with the former president, noting, “I saw him Thursday night” with former first lady Laura Bush at a reception in Dallas.

An earlier version of this story indicated that Montgomery was asked to run cabinet affairs by Bush and that he was not in the bunker with Bush.

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