ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (CNN) -- My heart starts racing every time I bound up the back stairs of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base for the start of another trip with President Bush.
President Bush provides comforting words and hugs Friday to a family in Lafayette, Tennessee.
But that excitement was leavened with sadness on Friday, because this time I was part of a small group of reporters traveling with the president to Tennessee, one of five states struck by deadly tornadoes this week.
As we flew to Nashville, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel gave us a readout of the grim statistics:
But numbers do not tell this story.
More revealing was what we saw after hopping aboard Marine helicopters waiting on the tarmac in Nashville, which took us on a stunning ride featuring an up-close look at the devastation.
Since CNN was "travel pool" for the trip, I was the only television correspondent tracking the president closely -- along with our photojournalists Peter Morris and Eddie Gross -- collecting information to be shared among all five TV networks.
It was Peter's job to race off the back of the plane when we landed to be in place on the tarmac to shoot pictures of the president walking off the front of the plane. Eddie handled audio. At that moment, my job mostly consisted of following Peter's good-natured instructions to carry some of his equipment -- so much for the glamour of television.
In this case, the president was greeted at the airport by David Harmon, the Tennessee firefighter who initially thought he had found a doll as he searched for survivors amid the wreckage of a house in tiny Castalian Springs.
It turned out the doll was actually 11-month-old Kyson Stowell, who started crying.
I'm sure you've seen the photos of a bloody-faced Kyson, a beautiful picture of life -- although his sad blue eyes are a reminder that his mother did not survive the storms. Watch Harmon tell the story and Kyson squirm »
After sharing a couple of quiet moments with Harmon, Bush boarded the helicopter Marine One for his aerial tour of the damage in Lafayette, Tennessee.
Peter, Eddie and I raced over to another Marine helicopter for our own takeoff with other print and radio journalists. There was basically a bench with about eight of us strapped into heavy seat belts along the left side of the helicopter, and another simple bench along the right side.
The noise of the chopper was so deafening that we were handed little earplugs to make it easier, and the flight was so bouncy that I was quietly praying: Please, please don't let me lose the nice breakfast I ate on Air Force One.
The flight started spectacularly. I was on the right side of the helicopter peering down at a classic scene of American suburbia. Lush green grass, beautiful homes undoubtedly full of kids getting ready for school, and highways packed with grownups trying to get to work.
Then I peered out of one of the left-side windows to see the president's helicopter dipping down a little lower, and suddenly ours was too, a sign we were about to close in on one of the neighborhoods that got hit.
Suddenly I saw chaos out the left-side windows. Homes shredded. Power lines trashed. Trees wrecked. Cars upended.
I saw people picking up the pieces of their lives, stepping over and around storm doors and appliances on the lawns, hoping to box up whatever belongings they could find. It's an awful job for them, but I think, wait, they're the lucky ones, if you can call it that: At least they're still alive.
Almost as shocking is what I saw when I turn to look out the helicopter's right-side windows: Nothing out of the ordinary. There are homes sitting safely in place, trees swaying gently in the breeze, cars parked normally.
The shocking part is the sheer randomness of it. People on one side didn't get hit at all. A few hundred feet in the other direction, the tornadoes destroyed practically everything.
After landing, we drove in a motorcade to a neighborhood. Bush was down the street with state and local officials checking out some of the destroyed homes.
Meanwhile, the White House advance staff was bringing us to a "home" on another block so we could be in place to capture the president's arrival when he reaches our location. But for us to get there first, we had to jump out of a van and race across an open field, with White House staffers shouting, "Run!"
We're used to sprinting around on the road, but this time it was strange. Colleagues were shouting, "Watch the nails!" as we stepped over boards that were once walls.
And then there's all of the other debris piled up in the field -- shattered glass, sinks, doors, pots and pans -- all flung into the air when the storms hit. I saw a simple jar of grated Parmesan cheese lying on the grass and realized I had never thought of that as a missile. Watch a battered survivor return to the rubble of her home »
We arrived at one structure that was in brutal shape, an extended family sifting through the rubble of what was a complex of six apartments.
A surreal scene played out as we stood a few feet away and watched this poor family try to put their belongings into boxes. The grandmother, Paulette, found a torn-up Mickey Mouse stuffed animal and tossed it into one box. The teenage boy, Dylan, was trying to gather up some old sports trophies.
The grandfather, G.W., started telling us that the only way people here stayed alive was by hiding along with their children in closets.
I listened to G.W. and couldn't help but notice he has the same initials as the president. I whispered to one of Bush's aides that it's a lock that Bush will mention this connection, since he's fond of saying that George Washington was the "original G.W."
The president arrived, chatted with the family, and hugged them. Then Bush turned to the media and said, "Man's name is G.W. Nothing wrong with that."
And he laughed that Bush laugh, heh-heh-heh, and the grandfather laughed too, a brief moment of levity for someone dealing with trauma.
The White House aide caught my eye and we shared a brief laugh too. After covering the president for a couple of years, you just know what's going to come out of his mouth sometimes. But also when you see such an abnormal scene, an inside joke brings a little normality to it.
But then we were serious again as we walked to another block, where Bush greeted relief workers from the Salvation Army.
He also posed for photos with members of the Urban Search and Rescue Team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency was justifiably pilloried for its poor performance after Hurricane Katrina but seems to be responding better to disasters under administrator David Paulison.
Bush, too, paid a heavy political price for the response to Katrina. That's clearly a major reason why he seems to be responding more quickly these days to natural disasters like the tornadoes. And while the horrors of Katrina can never be erased, the government should get some credit when it gets the job done.
The tour ended with Bush standing with his arm on another man who looked disheveled after losing his home. The president vowed that the government "has a role to play" in helping the people in all five states get the assistance they need, but he also talked about the role of neighbors and volunteers in helping make sure the communities will be "as strong as ever" when they are rebuilt. Watch President Bush offer assurances »
And I'll never forget what happened next. This grown man standing next to the president started fighting back tears as he said, "Without my friends, I don't know what I'd do." E-mail to a friend
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