Recording history: What it was like to photograph President George W. Bush during 9/11

Writer: Derrick Shaw
Published: Updated:
Eric Draper recounts what it was like to be White House photographer during the events of 9/11. (CREDIT: WINK News)

For many, 9/11 is etched in our minds forever.

For former White House photographer Eric Draper, it was much more than a snapshot in time.

Draper was present the moment when former President George W. Bush learned a second plane flew into the World Trade Center in New York.

“It was the defining moment of his presidency, definitely,” Draper said of George W. Bush. “That day, the days that followed, the echoes of 9/11.”

Draper didn’t capture the whisper with his lens because he entered the classroom at Sarasota’s Emma Booker Elementary after the president.

“It was cramped, you know, full of kids with press,” Draper said. “And I’m walking around, and I see it happen out of the corner of my eye before I’m set in position because I’m trying to get out of the way of the press typically. And I realized that something had just happened.”

The deadliest attack on U.S. soil in history had just occurred. Two commercial airliners flew intentionally into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center.

“I knew we wanted to finish up reading to the kids, not to run out into panic. And you can see that how he took his time,” Draper said. “The entire time I’m thinking of just, you know, I was in kind of autopilot, you know, pure adrenaline, trying to not over process what was happening, because I knew that every picture would be important, you know, every, every emotion, every expression.”

Draper also documented the first presidential stop at Ground Zero.

“Seeing the mountains and mountains of rubble still burning, seeing firsthand feeling the heat in the fire that was still smoldering, was very, very dramatic, very overwhelming,” Draper said.

Draper recalls the emotions from the first responders and how President Bush greeted them and thanked them for their work.

“They really wanted to interact with him,” Draper said. “He can kind of feel the moment building to that famous bullhorn moment when the president stood on top of the rubble with a retired firefighter.”

Bush uttered the famous line: “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

And firefighters began to chant USA, USA, Draper said.

“You know, there were times when I didn’t know what was historic, but you can really feel that that moment was a story,” Draper said. “The hair on my neck stood up.”

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