News20 Years Later: Texans Remember 9/11

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Chief photographer to George W. Bush reflects on 9/11

Posted at 5:25 PM, Sep 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 00:46:46-04

WACO, Texas — Take photos for a living, especially of the commander in chief, and it’s no exaggeration to say the job is a front-row seat to history.

Eric Draper was former President George W. Bush’s chief photographer during all eight years of his White House tenure.

Draper recently talked with 25 News about 9/11, and the hours and days that followed the first plane striking the World Trade Center.

"He [Bush] got very serious," Draper said. "You can tell he was respectful of the children he was reading to, but you can tell something is very wrong."

The photographer is talking about those now-infamous moments caught on camera after Bush first learned the country was under attack, while reading to Florida classroom.

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10:20AM President George W. Bush reacts after being informed that he can not return to Washington aboard Air Force One after departing Sarasota, Florida, on Sept. 11, 2001. Also pictured from left are Military Aide Lt. Col. Tom Gould, Chief of Staff Andy Card, Secret Service Agent Eddie Marenzel and Situation Room Director Deborah Loewer. White House Photo by Eric Draper

Draper documented the entire day frame-by-frame, never leaving the president’s side.

"I really focused on the president's reaction to what was happening," Draper said. "I made a picture of him walking by that TV with the burning towers […] he picked up a notepad and started writing his first thoughts to make his first statement."

Those now-famous photos of Bush and his staff at the school, and then onboard Air Force One, were snapped by Draper.

"I remember arriving at the airplane: the engines were on [in] Air Force One, and typically they aren't on until the president is on board," said Draper.

Then White House Chief of Staff Andy Card greeted Draper and the president’s entourage, asking everyone to remove their cell phone batteries.

“We just didn’t know,” said Draper. “Once onboard, I remember the president, he turned and looked at me, and it felt like he was looking almost through me. I was so close and it was very intense."

A former Associated Press photographer, Draper was no stranger to chaotic or intense moments. The president’s emotional visit to Ground Zero only a few days after the attack, though, was unlike anything else.

"You can feel the emotion," Draper said. "You can still feel the heat from the rubble as we toured the disaster zone. The firefighters were so angry, hugging and crying, and they really wanted him to do something. That's when he stood on the rubble with the bullhorn."

“The rest of the world will hear us," President Bush shouted, to wild cheers from the first-responders.

Over his eight years, Draper captured nearly one million images from across the globe. But he says the president seemed most at home in Central Texas at his Crawford ranch.

"Mountain biking, cutting cedar, he'd recruit staff like me to help him," Draper said. "It was a great way to burn off steam."

Amazingly, only one month before 9/11, Draper snapped his favorite picture of Bush, one that would become synonymous with the 43rd president.

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With Barney on his lap, President George W. Bush takes Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez and his wife, Kitty, on a driving tour of Prairie Chapel Ranch Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2001, in Crawford, Texas. Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

“He’s driving his pickup … It's an amazing picture, ironically, and he's at the ranch, his favorite place," Draper said. "But just that moment a month before 9/11, I see a moment of innocence, just before the world changed."

Draper has published a photographic portrait about his years at the White House, fittingly called “Front Row Seat,” that can be found here. He is now a sought-after photographer based in New Mexico.