Jodey C. Arrington’s car was parked outside the entrance to the Executive Office Building on Sept. 11, 2001. He usually didn’t leave it there.
“I was literally right outside, for some reason, that day,” he said.
During the chaos of the morning, 29-year-old Arrington packed as many people as he could into his Chevy Tahoe and drove straight to his apartment near the National Cathedral. If he had been on the Ellipse, where most people parked, he would have been stuck in the White House complex.
There were too many people and too many cars.
“You had the sense that we were under siege and you didn’t know who was next,” said the Texas Republican, now a first-term congressman. “The Pentagon, meanwhile, had been hit, and you could see the smoke billowing up from the Pentagon from the White House.”
Arrington was a special assistant to the president and associate director for presidential personnel.
“One thought I had was surely we are in one of the most secure places in the world. You know, it was pretty …” he trailed off. “People were screaming and saying, ‘Get out.’ I remember women with their shoes off, running. If there was security, it sure didn’t feel like it.”
His day began like any other typical one. He was working as essentially a headhunter for the president, interviewing people for various agency posts, and he was with a candidate that morning.
“It was a gentleman, I remember, from Pennsylvania, and it was just he and I in the office. I was just doing my typical sort of vetting of him for a particular position, and then a colleague of mine came in and said, ‘A plane hit one of the World Trade towers.’ We turned on the TV in the room,” he said.
Once the second plane hit, another colleague came into the room. “We’ve got to get out. There’s a third plane and it’s coming for the White House,” Arrington recalled him saying.
He drove his stuffed car to his garage apartment, but everyone couldn’t fit inside.
“I had the key to the house of my landlord, and I went into their house and turned on the TV. We all gathered in the living room. I don’t even think I gave them a heads-up that I was coming into their house,” he said. “I don’t even remember how everybody got back to where they needed to go. We were just all glued to the TV.”
One of the people with him was the interviewee from Pennsylvania.
Did he get the job? Arrington said he’s never been asked that, but he’s asked himself.
“I don’t think he did, or I think I would have remembered,” he said.
Days later, all White House staff got a call to line the corridor between the East and West wings. President George W. Bush was meeting with the families of victims of the United Airlines flight that went down in Pennsylvania.
The family members and Bush came out of the meeting, all crying, Arrington said.
“We just started clapping. We didn’t know what else to do. We just wanted to show them that we were there for them, and like the president, we wouldn’t forget what happened,” he said. “We were hugging. We were high-fiving. We were clapping.”
Just last month, 17 years later, Arrington met with Bush in Dallas.
“I thank God, for our country’s sake, that he was in the Oval Office and he was the president during that time,” he said. “It was a very sobering time to serve in the White House. I’m grateful to have been there to do our little part to support our president.”
At the time, he was meeting with the president on a weekly basis.
“We were there for that defining moment and beyond. We saw the evolution of the president’s agenda become almost singularly focused on the war on terror, as he would declare,” Arrington said. “I think the president set the tone and the example in his resolve to not let this intimate or deflate our spirit or break our will.”
Watch: Bike the Gnarly Route to the Capitol With D.C. Journalist