Lt. Col. Robert J. Darling On Being Inside the President’s Bunker During the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks
We chat with the retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel about his childhood in Newburgh, his latest book, and the time he found himself in a White House bunker during the September 11 terrorist attacks
With the 14th anniversary of 9/11 this month, we can’t help but think back to where we were on that fateful morning. You may have been at work, or putting the kids on the bus. Some of you were probably even in Manhattan, experiencing that tragic day in a very personal way. Newburgh native Lieutenant Colonel Robert J. Darling will certainly never forget where he was on that Tuesday morning: standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a bunker underneath the White House. “I watched and witnessed our nation’s leaders making the most unbelievable crisis-leadership decisions,” says Darling, a retired Marine helicopter pilot who, that morning, had been responsible for the logistics of President Bush’s trip to Florida. Darling has written a book about that day; on September 11, he’ll tell his remarkable story during a lecture at Mount Saint Mary College.
Darling spoke with us about 9/11, growing up in Newburgh, and what he’s up to now.
Lt. Col. Robert J. Darling, USMC (Ret.)
He answers the phone in a no-nonsense kind of way, making me wonder what the heck I’m doing speaking with a man of his caliber. But when I introduce myself, his tone becomes warm, greeting me with a surprising kindness and enthusiasm — a far cry from the to-the-point military man from moments ago.
Before he was Marine Corps Lt. Col. Robert J. Darling, he was Bob: a Newburgh boy who played kick-the-can and baseball with the other neighborhood kids. “I had an unbelievable time growing up in the Valley. We could cross anybody’s property, anybody’s yard. The world is not like that today for kids,” he says.
Like me, he grew up in Orange County; he’s the third of four boys, all a year apart — “except for the last guy,” he notes. After expressing my sympathy for the poor woman who had to raise four rowdy boys, he lightheartedly points out, “She’s the only girl in the family, but our name will live on forever!”
Darling admits that, growing up, he never set his sights on a military career. In 24 Hours Inside the President’s Bunker: 9-11-01: The White House (iUniverse, $26.95), he reveals how he was always vague with his parents when it came to the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, often evading the inquisition altogether. His passion for ice hockey propelled him toward Iona College in New Rochelle but, after coming to the realization that he couldn’t make a career out of it, he figured he’d settle for a stable life as a stockbroker and focused on economics courses. Now, he laughs when he remembers his early ambitions, and how it all changed the moment he came across some college buddies, with buzz cuts and in tip-top shape, looking more confident than ever.
“I saw them and thought, ‘What happened to these guys, where did they go over the summer?’” After discovering that they attended officer candidate school — how they wanted to be Marine officers after graduation — Darling thought to himself, “Wow, these guys are making a life for themselves. I want to know more about this — I’m game.” Darling explains that his motivation to serve wasn’t inspired by any sort of family legacy (though it should be noted that his father and older brother both served in the Navy, and his two of his uncles were Marines). After meeting with a Marine Corps Selection Officer, it was a no-brainer: “When you’re around fellow Marines who are success-oriented, you can’t help it,” he says. “By sheer momentum they take you with them and you thrive. I couldn’t find an excuse to get out after 20-something years.”
Fast-forward 14 years: It’s Tuesday, September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush is nine months into his first term, with Lt. Col. Darling directing White House airlift operations. This means that Darling and his team are responsible for the logistics of the President’s schedule and transportation. “If he was going to be somewhere, we moved all the helicopters and limousines, the secret service, all their armored cars, all the secured telephone networks — everything — in advance of the President,” says Darling. “So the moment he stepped off Air Force One, there were 700-1,000 people already there, fully rehearsed, equipment in place, all the secret service motorcades ready, all the helicopters operating. We would support the President until he fueled up again, and was back on Air Force One.”
This particular morning, Darling is overseeing President Bush’s trip to Sarasota, Florida when the attacks begin. After the Pentagon is hit, Darling realizes a new challenge: There is no way the President can return into an impact zone. “He needed all the logistics done on his behalf, and because we couldn’t work from the White House, we were evacuated to the President’s emergency operations center — which is a bunker underneath the White House — to do logistics.”
The White House’s military bunker is no ordinary fortification. It’s not the kind you would see in some sort of doomsday film, with cold, gray walls lined with canned goods. In fact, it’s the total opposite. Naturally, Darling won’t reveal much, as the location and other aspects of the Bunker are classified, but he does applaud the developers for making it comfortable — and for disguising its true purpose. “You don’t get the sense that you’re in a steel can when you’re in there; it’s very modern-looking.”
The Bunker is abuzz with people. “When we got down there, the phones were ringing off the hook,” says Darling. “Just imagine a bunch of White House military members all scrambling around, answering phones.” Darling joins in on the chaos. The first call he answers is the direct line from the White House Situation Room regarding United Flight 93, which was 16 miles south of Pittsburgh, in bound to Washington, DC. “I turned to pass the phone to the military aid, and there was Vice President Cheney and Dr. Rice. At this point, my new role was to be the conduit between the White House, the Situation Room, and the Pentagon.”
I ask him if he was scared. Did you panic? Did you wonder if your family was safe, your friends and coworkers alive? “The military taught me to compartmentalize and focus,” he reminds me. “Right after the second tower had fallen, Dr. Rice came over to me and asked if she could use my phone to call her family in Alabama. The minute she did that, I reached out to my wife and said ‘Hey, I’m in the safest place imaginable right now. The world has changed forever, but I’ll be home when I’m home.’ ”
And with the bunker filled with the constant shrieking of telephones, the scramble of important people in freshly pressed suits and uniforms intently taking notes and giving orders, one moment stands out the most for Darling, even after 14 years. “After we thought we shot down Flight 93, everyone was dead silent. Vice President Cheney immediately turned around, walked over to me and said, ‘For the congressional investigation, state your full name.’ The first thing this man wanted to do was make sure he had accountability for his actions. He wanted to get history right.”
According to Darling, Vice President Cheney assumed a major responsibility that day. “We were willing to take lives out of the sky with 40 innocent civilians on board, in order to save more Americans on the ground,” he says. “I just thought that was so profound, so amazing that not only were we willing to do it, but we were willing to be accountable for it in order to save lives.”
After retiring in 2007, Darling met with the National Security Council, armed with pages of notes and a PowerPoint brief, outlining his idea for a book. “I wanted to tell America about the weight of command, what really happened that day at the highest level of our government, and the decisions they made on behalf of us all. The main thing that Americans should take out of this book and 9/11 is that, despite the size of our government and the might of our military, America was saved that day by Americans.”
Today, the Valley native lives with his wife of 23 years, Angela, and their two sons in Stafford, Virginia. His parents have since relocated from Newburgh to sunny Florida, with two of his brothers settling in Georgia and Virginia, respectively. But not all his Valley roots are lost: His oldest brother still resides in Orange County. “We all are close. We all are healthy. I live a nice life.”
Darling adds, “There are some days I think Americans are starting to forget about 9/11, and then I stop for a second and realize that we really are not. People remember the day it all changed... it’s something we are all still living with today.”
For the first time since that fateful day in 2001, Darling will return to Newburgh to discuss his experience in the White House bunker. The event, titled “Never Forget,” will be held at 4 p.m. on September 11, 2015, in the Aquinas Hall Theater at Mount Saint Mary College as part of its Samuel D. Affron Memorial Lecture Series. Visit www.msmc.edu/About_MSMC/never_forget.be for more information.
Lt. Col. Robert J. Darling retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in September 2007 after more than 20 years of service. He has delivered numerous presentations, including a guest lecture on counterterrorism at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He is currently the president and CEO of Quantitative Analytics LLC, an aviation operations, logistics, and consulting firm located in Stafford, Virginia that often works with the intelligence community and the Department of Defense.