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April 28, 2017

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Laura Bush, in Las Vegas, recounts how her role as first lady changed after 9/11

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

In this photo taken Sept. 24, 2016, former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush are seen in Washington.

As one of her focal points during her time as first lady, Laura Bush focused on literacy and children.

She was pushing that initiative a few days before the fateful events of Sept. 11, 2001, transpired.

On Sept. 8, 2001, Bush was at the first National Book Fair in Washington, D.C, which featured dozens of award-winning authors, illustrators and storytellers from across the country.

“Thirty-thousand people turned out, wandering tent to tent on the open mall, listening to authors of their favorite books,” Bush said, during her keynote speech at the NAMA OneShow at the Venetian. “Looking back, that was probably the last weekend that people could participate in a gathering like that, without every now and then nervously glancing over their shoulders.”

Three days later as she was preparing to tackle another one of her priorities as first lady, early childhood education, the attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania played out on national television, changing the national landscape forever.

“As I was getting into the car (to head to the Capitol), a Secret Service agent said a plane has just hit the World Trade Center,” she said. “We couldn’t imagine the events that would transpire in the coming hour.”

Bush said she tried to go about her day as planned and met up with Sen. Ted Kennedy, ahead of her Capitol Hill visit, as the initial report of a plane crashing into a World Trade Center tower evolved into a terrorist attack, as made apparent by the second plane crashing into the second trade center tower.

“I remember sitting in that office, watching the towers fall on television and trying to process what I was seeing,” Bush said. “As Sen. Kennedy, who’s absorbed so many shocks in his own life, kept a steady stream of small talk. I think he was trying to reassure me somehow, but there was no reassuring.”

Later that night, she was escorted to a secure location, deep below the White House, which she recalled it “looked like it had been furnished sometime during the Truman years,” where she was first reunited with her husband, George W. Bush.

As the Bushes went to bed that night in the White House, they were awoken by frantic Secret Service agents telling them they needed to get back down to the bunker.

“In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sounds of footsteps and rapid breathing in the hallway, with a Secret Service agent running into the bedroom yelling, Mr. President, you’ve got to go downstairs, another plane, he said, was heading toward the White House,” she recalled.

It ended up being a false alarm as the plane ended up being one of their own, displaying the tense nature the nation would live under for some time.

Bush said that her focus as first lady shifted after 9/11 to causes that were tied to the terrorist attacks.

“As first lady I was no longer just speaking out about literacy, I was giving a radio address denouncing the brutal treatment of women and children by the Taliban,” she said. “I was no longer just organizing book festivals; I was visiting with a class of courageous women police officers in Afghanistan.”

A few months after the incident in a much-heralded event, President Bush was set to throw out the first pitch of Game 2 of the 2001 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

With uncertainty after the terrorist attacks the month prior, Laura was nervous ahead of her husband stepping out in front a crowd of 57,000, seemingly vulnerable.

At any other time, this would be the most lighthearted of presidential duties, but now it stood out as a major event.

“George was talking to Derek Jeter, ‘Are you going to throw from the mound,’ Jeter asked, ‘What do you think?’ George said. 'Be a man, throw from the mound,’ Jeter said,” Bush recalled. “As Jeter walked away to the field he said, ‘Don’t bounce it, they’ll boo ya,’" she said.

The lighthearted talk with Jeter took some of the edge off the situation for the president, but Laura still worried.

“Now he was just worried about not bouncing the pitch, but I’m still worried about something,” she said. “He then walks out to the mound, the only person in the infield, the president of the United States standing all alone in a crowd at a time when our country is at its most fearful and vulnerable. An attack from any direction could come at any moment.”

As it turned out, both Laura and George's worries were for nothing, as the ceremonial pitch went off without incident and the president didn’t bounce his pitch.

“He threw a strike,” she said. “Well, that’s at least what he told me.”