In order to obtain clearance for the White House position, the Navy dug back through 10 years of Jordan’s life during an extensive background check that took about a year. Photo 
courtesy of Sean Jordan
In order to obtain clearance for the White House position, the Navy dug back through 10 years of Jordan’s life during an extensive background check that took about a year. Photo courtesy of Sean Jordan

Like most Americans, Monroe resident Sean Jordan remembers exactly where he was on Sept. 11, 2001. Unlike most Americans, Jordan wasn’t getting ready for work, having his first cup of coffee or fighting traffic during his morning commute.

Jordan was inside a Florida classroom with President George W. Bush, for an educational advocacy event to promote No Child Left Behind. A Navy photographer, Jordan had been assigned to the White House earlier that year as the “eyes of history,” tasked with creating a permanent, visual record of everything the president did. They were still in the motorcade when they learned that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center, something that was initially assumed to be an accident. Once the second airplane hit, it became clear that America was under attack. 

They were deftly loaded onto Air Force One as the Secret Service sought to protect America’s most important asset: the President of the United States. 

At the time, Jordan was in this 14th year of service with the Navy, having enlisted as a photographer in 1987 at the age of 21. Originally from Concord, New Hampshire, Jordan came from a military family, so the idea of serving his country while achieving his goal of becoming a professional photographer appealed to him.

He signed up for a five-year enlistment and headed off to the Naval Training Center in Orlando, spending two months in boot camp. From there he proceeded to the U.S. Naval School of Photography, about six hours away in Pensacola, Florida. 

“That’s the birth place of Naval aviation, so that’s where all the pilots go to school,” Jordan said. “The Blue Angels are there, so I’d be in school and I could see the Blue Angels practicing all the time.” 

He graduated at the top of his class, which enabled him to choose his first set of orders. He was sent to Alameda, California, where he lived on the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Carl Vinson. After Alameda, he served a brief stint in Bremerton before being stationed at a recruiting office in Boston. While in Boston, he became reacquainted with Sandra, the woman who would eventually become his wife. 

“I knew her when I was a teenager,” Jordan said. “She was the cute girl that lived across the street.”

The two were married in 1995. When Jordan’s next set of orders came in, they learned they would be moving to Pascagoula, Mississippi, where they lived for about 18 months before moving to Texas.  

In the Navy, orders typically rotate back and forth between sea duty and shore duty. The Navy is a multifaceted military branch that includes aviation, surface ships and submarines. In addition to providing forward response and protecting regularly used shipping routes, the Navy frequently engages in humanitarian missions, Jordan said. One such mission took place in Kosovo, where he was deployed to photograph a country in turmoil due to a tyrannical leader.     

As the military engaged in relief efforts, he would fly ashore to photograph the people there. 

“The pictures I was taking I would be sending back to Washington, D.C.,” Jordan said. “So a lot of times we would become the eyes of the world.”

His return to shore duty brought him to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Maryland, where he decided to shift gears. He had always been interested in working at the White House, so he put in for a transfer.  

“The assignment at the White House was going to be something different for me,” Jordan said. “Up until this point I had only shot still photography. This assignment required that I did video.”

The background check for a White House position is time-consuming. While he waited, he attended school to learn video production. By the time he graduated, his clearance came back and he was approved to work as a White House videographer in charge of recording presidential events. 

“Only 5 percent of the people that apply get that job,” Jordan said. “It’s very difficult to get.”

He reported for duty in April 2001, shortly after Bush took office.   

Jordan said working at the White House was a whole new world. Things moved at an unrelenting pace, as he documented private events, meetings, interviews and phone calls. Nearly everything the president did was recorded and preserved for the historical record. Right from the start he enjoyed his professional interaction with Bush, who had an uncanny way of remembering people’s names and knowing who everybody was. 

“It’s an amazing quality that he possesses,” Jordan said. “He knew who I was and he knew me well.”

It was a rewarding time both professionally and personally, as his son, Liam, was born in July 2001. Jordan spent the summer on a working vacation at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, which gave him a more intimate look at the leader of the free world. There was nothing the president loved more than throwing on jeans, boots and a cowboy hat, climbing into his Ford pickup and clearing trails on his property, Jordan said. 

“That’s where he was most comfortable,” Jordan said. “Being there as a videographer, I had access to him that most people don’t have.”

The Sept. 11 visit to the school in Sarasota, Florida, was supposed to be easy. 

The president was in great spirits that day, Jordan said. An avid runner, he was chipper and energetic as he headed out for his morning jog, inviting members of the press to join him. When they arrived at the school they had knowledge of the first plane crash, but details were sparse. The president sat down in a classroom filled with second-graders practicing their reading. 

“I’m only 10 feet away from the president. He’s listening, but at the same time I could see the wheels turning in his head. At that point Andy Card comes over and whispers in his ear,” Jordan said. “And that’s when Andy Card told the president that the second plane crashed.”

According to widespread media reports, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card leaned down and whispered, “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” 

In that moment, Jordan didn’t know what Card said. But he watched the president’s face. 

“It seemed he kind of bit his lower lip. He nodded his head like he understood, and at that point he looked angry,” Jordan said. “I could see that he was physically upset about what had just happened, but he still had to sit in the classroom.”

After that, things picked up speed.   

They traveled to Air Force One as quickly as possible. Heightened security protocols were implemented and as the plane took off. Jordan recalled watching Florida and the Gulf Coast recede in the distance. They were heading north over Georgia when the plane turned, suddenly traveling back over the Gulf Coast. Airplane television sets offered a spotty signal, and they tried to piece together what was happening based on brief glimpses of news coverage as they flew in and out of range. 

They landed at an Air Force base in Barksdale, Louisiana. As the plane came down, the onboard televisions picked up a local news station and Jordan found himself watching a reporter who happened to be there, at the base. 

“Right behind her you see Air Force One land,” Jordan said. “I’m watching myself land.”   

After addressing the nation in an impromptu speech, the president was loaded back onto Air Force One. All nonessential staff was barred from the flight, including Jordan. 

“I considered myself to be an essential personnel. I was a military person; I don’t mind being in harm’s way,” Jordan said. “It’s what I’m supposed to do. I’ve got to follow the president.”

But Presidential Aid Gordon Johndroe wouldn’t allow him to board, so he flew back to Washington, D.C., with the members of Congress, the press and other White House staffers. American airspace was completely shut down at this point; Air Force One and the plane Jordan was on were the only planes allowed in the sky. It was unnerving, he said. 

“They were worried about them trying to attack the White House or the Capitol,” Jordan said. “So I’m going back to Andrews Air Force Base thinking, ‘Am I a decoy, right now?’ and while I’m landing I’m looking out to my left and I can see the smoldering remains of the Pentagon.” 

Afterward, Jordan accompanied the president as he traveled to the site of each attack. 

“On the one-year anniversary we went back again,” Jordan said. “We started out at the Pentagon, flew out to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and then proceeded to New York City.”

It was a fascinating time, he said. As a photographer, he found himself experiencing life through a viewfinder, which is not the same thing as simply experiencing things as they happen. Still, his memories of his service are unprecedented; from traveling on Air Force One with Condoleezza Rice and Collin Powell to watching the president rest his hand briefly on his son Liam’s shoulder. 

To this day, that touch influences Liam, a current student at Monroe High School, as he hopes to someday enter politics. 

“My son feels like he has a commitment to get into politics, and in his mind, it all started with that one day,” Jordan said. “That was a great moment.”

After four years at the White House, Jordan transferred to Everett, retiring from the Navy in 1997 as an E7 Chief Petty Officer on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. His expertise in photography helped him obtain a job as a photographer with the Seattle Police Department, where he works today as a supervisor. 

He and Sandra are part owners of Dreadnought Brewing, a Monroe-based brewery located near Lake Tye. In addition to working for President Bush and having the opportunity to sail with his father, retiring on an aircraft carrier was one of the most memorable experiences of his career in the Navy.

“I started as an E1 on an aircraft carrier. I wanted to return to an aircraft carrier as a chief petty officer and go out on the carrier,” Jordan said. “It was extremely rewarding for me.”