CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Terry Abbott was the chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige back in 2001. The pair flew to Florida with President George W. Bush and others on Sept. 10, 2001.
"This was while we were working to get his education policy No Child Left Behind passed through the Congress,” Abbott told KHOU's Jason Miles.
The next day, on Sept. 11, Abbott prepared for a news conference in a school library while President Bush sat in a nearby classroom full of children.
Abbott spoke to WCNC Charlotte's Bill McGinty about what the mood was like when President Bush received the news of the terrorist attacks.
"When we first got there, it was festive," Abbott recalled. "Everybody was excited about having the president there, the kids were ready to show them their reading abilities. Everyone was gathered in the library in a big group, all anxious to see him and hear from him, and the kids were anxious to interact with him there."
Abbott said the entourage was aware of the first plane crash before entering the school building, but officials initially thought it was just some awful accident.
That's when President Bush got a whisper no president ever wants to hear, that his nation was under attack.
A look of deep concern crossed the president's face.
"Secret service knew that the first thing that they had to do was get him out of there quickly ... because they thought, as we all thought at that time, that the school might be targeted, that they might be next because his itinerary was published well ahead of time," Abbott said.
Abbott remembered running Secretary Paige out of the school since he's in the line of succession for the presidency in the event of a disaster and, in his words, "we didn't know if the entire government was being attacked."
"So I told the local sheriff's deputy 'We've gotta get this man to safety and outta here,'" Abbott recounted. "Then, we got word the next morning that there was a C-130 back down in Sarasota that we could get on and fly back to Quantico, Virginia, to get back to Washington."
And that's exactly what they did. The next morning they got on that plane to fly back to Quantico.
"We were the only plane in the sky," Abbott said. "All the other aircraft had been grounded, and I remember telling Secretary Paige 'I hope that the military knows that we're up here and that we're supposed to be up here,' because I had visions of a missile coming out of the ground, blowing us outta the sky."
The small plane landed safely, which Abbott said felt surreal.
It's been two decades since 9/11, which Abbott said "it's hard to believe it's been that long," but the passage of time hasn't fogged his memory of the day at all.
KHOU's Jason Miles contributed to this report.