September 2002

Rating: G.

The West Wing belongs to Sorkin, Wells and Schlamme. And a corporation or two.  Thanks to Cassatt for a much-need Beta.  A 9/11 story.


Eighteen Minutes

by Sängerin

When Leo McGarry’s cellphone rang, it was a pleasant, sunny Tuesday morning in Florida. The President was due to speak that morning with a group of school children. It was a warm day in late summer, and in one room of the hotel, CJ, Toby and Donna – who had somehow become involved in the conversation – were discussing whether the President ought to be wearing his jacket when he met the children.

Josh leaned over to Sam. ‘I thought we’d finished with all this when Mandy went,’ he said softly.

‘Never underestimate the news value of the President in his shirtsleeves,’ replied Sam, as Leo turned away to answer his phone.

Fellas,’ he said, a few seconds later, ‘a light plane has just crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.’

‘In New York City?’ asked Sam, knowing at the back of his mind that it was a dumb question.

Leo simply nodded and turned to CJ and Toby. ‘The President has to be told what’s happened before he starts talking to the kids. That means I need you to find out what to tell him.’

CJ had her phone out in an instant.

There was a knock on the door, and Carol stuck her head into the room. ‘CJ, the buses are ready to go.’

CJ looked up at Carol. ‘You deal with it please, Carol? If they start asking questions, just tell them I’ll brief them later.’

Carol looked back with an expression of doubt on her face, but CJ had turned back to her cellphone. Leo nodded at Carol. ‘Just go,’ he said, with a distinct edge to his voice. Before Carol had even shut the door, Leo had moved across the room to join Josh, who was fiddling with the remote control for the TV. ‘Does this thing get CNN?’ he asked Josh. Josh shrugged and pushed a few more buttons. Then a picture of the smoking tower flashed up on the screen, and everyone in the room went silent. Donna sat down heavily on a chair. Josh’s hand went involuntarily to his mouth. Toby and CJ, each busy on their phones, stared at the sight on the screen.

‘That was no light plane,’ mumbled Sam, as Leo’s phone rang again. The noise of the phone broke CJ and Toby out of their statue-like states. Sam’s eyes were fixed on the screen, trying to calculate which floors had been hit. In consideration of the three on their cellphones, Josh left the mute button on.

‘Uh-huh,’ said Leo into his phone. ‘Yup, uh-huh…right.’ He snapped the phone shut and turned to Toby and CJ. ‘Well? What do I tell him?’

Toby was pale. ‘It wasn’t a light plane,’ he said, softly. ‘It was a DC-10 out of Kennedy.’

Toby didn’t managed to finish the sentence before Leo had his phone out again. ‘I need to talk to Nancy McNally,’ he barked into it. ‘Get the National Security team together.’ He snapped his phone closed and looked back at Toby.

‘The FAA are grounding all planes,’ Toby continued. ‘The Trade Center is being evacuated, hospitals are on standby.’

Leo turned to Josh. ‘I’m going to need to talk to Ron Butterfield,’ he said. ‘The President…’

The door opened and Butterfield walked into the room. ‘Leo. The President has to get in the air. Colonel Gantry is preparing for take-off – we have to go now.’ Unequivocal at any time, the urgency in Butterfield's voice was unmistakable. "Now" meant five minutes ago.

‘Okay,’ said Leo, his voice rising on the second syllable. ‘Okay.’ For a moment he looked toward Josh and raised his eyebrows. Josh shook his head imperceptibly. Only CJ noticed the movement, and she suddenly remembered a night in Josh’s office and the sound of the Schubert Ave Maria.

‘I’ll see you all later,’ said Leo, picking up his jacket and a folder. Toby nodded, and so did CJ. Leo clasped Sam’s shoulder as he passed him. As Ron left the room, and Leo reached the door, Josh turned.

‘Godspeed, Leo.’

‘Amen.’

The door closed behind him. There was a moment’s stillness in the room.

From her seat by the television, Donna murmured under her breath. ‘This isn't happening. Please,’ she begged.

Later would come the moment when Donna cried in Josh’s arms, and Josh held her, tears pouring down his own cheeks. In the days to come, there would be shouting matches in the oval office, and the threat of a rift between the President and Admiral Fitzwallace.

Toby spent hours in his office, late at night, holding his head in his hands. Having stopped the frenetic activity of the day, he was unable to start again, unable to move. CJ had an exercise bike brought into her office and worked out in every spare minute, rather than stop and find herself incapable of functioning. Sam moved like a ghost through the offices, jumping each time the phone rang. One day he wasn’t at work - he’d gone to New York for the memorial service held by the Bar Association; he farewelled, as best he could, his classmates, his colleagues and his friends. Ainsley never stopped working. She slept, when she could, on a sofa in the counsel’s office, and for weeks simply wrapped herself in the work Oliver Babish gave her, most of it on jus bello and the concept of 'just war'.

The bags under everyone’s eyes grew, and the sight of a colleague in tears was unremarkable. Stanley Keyworth and the American Trauma Victims Association would have been called in, but everyone needed them. New York needed him, the Pentagon needed him. The whole country seemed to need trauma counselling, including the counsellors. All that could be done was to get up and keep going.

All this would happen later. For now, they stared at the television screens, they called people, and they gathered the information they needed. Slowly, the enormity of what was happening became apparent.

‘I know people there,’ said Sam softly.

‘What?’ asked Toby.

‘I know people who work there. Law firms, brokers. People I know. People from college.’ Sam stared, unmoving, at the screen. His arms hung limp by his sides, his shoulders sagged.

Josh put an arm around his friend, but couldn’t speak. Toby’s phone rang again.

‘I know people,’ Sam said again.

‘Okay,’ said Josh. ‘CJ, the press are going to need a briefing and they’re going to need it soon. Toby, people are going to be hard to find, and if the rest of the country are using their cellphones half as much as we are, the network is going to collapse. So start tracking people down to hard lines if you can. Sam,’ he moved back to stand beside his friend. ‘Sam, we need you here.’

‘Yeah,’ said Sam. ‘Yeah - okay.’ He tore his eyes from the television screen.

‘I’ll be keeping in touch with the National Security people - I need you to be my link with State. Okay?’

Sam ran a hand through his hair, breathing deeply. ‘Okay.’ He turned away from the television and pulled out his phone.

Josh’s phone rang; Leo was phoning from the motorcade with more instructions. In the background he could hear the President begging Charlie to get in touch with Abbey and the kids, all at once. Charlie’s generally implacable manner was clearly disturbed - above Leo’s voice and the President’s, Josh could hear the shake in Charlie’s words.

‘Oh, my God,’ said Donna, her voice strained and disbelieving. She was only one still facing the TV screen; everyone else was turned away, so that the sight of the smoking tower didn’t distract them from their phone calls.

Josh was the first to turn, hearing the panic in Donna’s voice. A ball of flame erupted from the second tower. Josh swore violently, catching Sam’s attention.

‘It was another plane,’ said Donna in a small voice. ‘I saw it.’

Toby, CJ and Leo turned towards Donna and the television. CJ’s face drained of colour - Toby’s lips moved in prayer; Josh joined in quietly.

The door flew open and Carol rushed into the room, tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘What’s happening?’ she asked. ‘Who’s doing this? What’s going on?’

‘Something unimaginable,’ replied CJ. ‘Carol, I need you to calm down.’

‘I’m sorry,’ gulped Carol. ‘Sorry.’

Donna turned to look at Carol, who was wiping her eyes and breathing in gasps. Donna closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then another. And then she stood up and took Josh’s phone. ‘What do you need me to do?’ she asked.