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Escape From the White House 

Jim Brandt speaks about his experiences in Washington D.C. on Sept. 11

'It's been tough getting back to work," Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council in Baton Rouge, said last Thursday -- 10 days after terrorist attacks on Washington D.C. and New York City.

Brandt was in Washington Sept. 11 for a meeting of the National Taxpayers Conference and was at the White House just minutes before a hijacked jetliner crashed into the Pentagon. Some federal officials suspect that the White House was the intended target of at least two jetliners seized that day by suicidal terrorists.

Shortly after 9:30 a.m. EST, Brandt and some 30 members of the convention completed a tour of the White House. They then walked over to the nearby Executive Office Building (EOB) for a 10 a.m. appointment with Mitch Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the president's chief economist, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. En route to the EOB, the group passed the White House press area. Someone yelled out that a plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City. The group proceeded on. Once inside, the 30 conventioneers were ushered into a security reception area. Uniformed White House security officers checked their identifications.

It was 9:40 a.m. "Suddenly," Brandt says, "Secret Service agents came up and told us to 'Leave and leave quickly. Run down G Street as fast as you can. Get as far away as you can get. ... We have reason to believe a plane is heading for the White House.'"

The group fled the nation's most famous residence and scattered on G Street. Dozens of other people spilled out of nearby government buildings, including the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Moments later, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, two miles away, killing more than 200 people. Brandt said he did not see or hear the deadly explosion. "But a member of our group took a picture of the plane before it hit the building," he says. The FBI now has the photograph.

That night, recalls Brandt, Washington was "like a ghost town," with military humvees stationed outside downtown hotels. Black-uniformed men armed with machine guns ringed the White House and nearby buildings. Armed military police stood at major intersections.

Brandt was scheduled to fly home Sept. 12, but his plans changed with the nationwide shutdown of airports. He finally returned to Baton Rouge three days later. "I took a Greyhound bus for the first time since college," says the 53-year-old Brandt. "It was a real bonding experience."

Brandt expresses gratitude to the passengers who reportedly mutinied on a fourth hijacked plane that crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania. "Had it not been for them, who knows what would have happened," he says. The group of conventioneers is sending a collective letter of thanks to the families of the men who were involved in thwarting the hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93.

Brandt was scheduled to return to Washington last week for another convention. The Committee of 100, an organization of top Louisiana business leaders that seeks to promote economic development, was supposed to meet at the nation's capitol, under the leadership of BellSouth CEO Herschel Abbott of New Orleans. That meeting has been postponed for at least six weeks. Two keynote speakers originally scheduled to address the convention -- Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- may not be available, however.

Jim Brandt says he is now trying to focus PAR on the state's fiscal woes. "We have a tough month -- and possibly years -- ahead. We're looking at a national recession and possible worldwide recession. The economic slide has got to be Louisiana's focus."

But Brandt admits he himself is still having difficulty re-focusing on state tax and budget issues after fleeing the terrorist attack on Washington D.C. "It's been traumatic for the nation," he says. "And I got caught up in it."

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