Following the 9/11 attacks, three key Secret Service agents — assigned to protect then-President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush — sprung into action.
On the 20th anniversary of the attacks on Saturday, Nick Trotta, Tony Zotto and Eddie Marinzel shared their firsthand accounts with Weekend TODAY co-anchor and NBC News chief White House correspondent Peter Alexander.
At the time, Trotta was the assistant special agent in charge of the president's detail, Zotto was a special agent in charge of the vice president's detail, and Marinzel was the primary supervisor for the Secret Service on Air Force One.
When Marinzel first heard the news of the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he had one prevailing thought in his head: "We need to move the president."
Marinzel told TODAY, "We figured that if we got on Air Force One and went up, up into the sky, that we would be able to hide in the sky. The President was saying, 'We're at war and I need to be running this war from the Oval Office. I'm the commander in chief and that's where I need to be.'
But what the former president wanted wasn't what Marinzel considered was the safest option. "I thought, 'No, we can't do that, you know, we can't take him into an unsettled area.'"
Marinzel coordinated a plan with Andrew Card, who was President Bush's chief of staff at the time. "I was again telling Secretary Card that we needed to go west, not go east. He was telling me that the president isn't going to like that. So, as we got up, Andy said, 'I want you to come with me when I go into the president's office, but you have to tell him that he's not going back to the White House now.'
"And so I told him, 'We can't risk taking you there.' And he said, 'That's where I want to go.' I said, 'Our job is to protect you. If they get you, game over,'" Marinzel recounted.
On that Tuesday in September 2001, Trotta recalled that then-first lady Bush was not just concerned about her family's wellbeing but also concerned about the staff around her and their loved ones.
"We had made a decision and communicated that we're going to move the first lady right here (to Secret Service headquarters)," Trotta remembered. "When I got here, the first lady had just arrived."
He recalled the first lady asking, "'Where are the girls? What's going on? Barbara and Jenna (Bush's twin daughters). And then she was asking, when can she speak to the president? She was very calm and she was inquiring how our families were. It gets emotional because, you know, we've got a job to do and when workers would come in, she would ask these agents and these administrative staff, 'Is your family OK?'"
Zotto first heard the new of the 9/11 attacks over a radio.
"Inbound plane to the White House. Get him down, get him down," he heard the message come in.
"I just started running," Zotto recalled. "I ran into the office. He was gone. The V.P. was down below and knowing that he had heart problems before, I wanted to make sure that them running him down the stairs didn't knock his ticker out."
When Zotto caught up to Cheney at a secret bunker in the White House, he said he "didn't look flushed or anything. He looked calm, cool."
Zotto remembers when the situation took a serious turn and the vice president ordered the takedown of one of the hijacked planes. "The military officer came in and he said, 'Mr. Vice President, there's a plane coming down the Potomac area, direction from Pennsylvania. It's a hijacked plane, we need your authorization to take it down.' And the V.P. said, 'Is it a confirmed hijack?' And the officer said, 'Yes, sir. The FBI has confirmed it.' He said, 'Take it down.' That was it."
In the end, the U.S. military didn't end up having to strike down any commercial planes that day but the decision still left an impact.
"It was surreal, you know, it's just something that you don't forget," Zotto said.