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During Sarasota visit, President George W. Bush learned of 9/11 attack

From the archives | A first-hand account of a chilling moment.
In this Sept. 11, 2001, photo, White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispers into the ear of President George W. Bush to give him word of the plane crash into the World Trade Center, during a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota.
In this Sept. 11, 2001, photo, White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispers into the ear of President George W. Bush to give him word of the plane crash into the World Trade Center, during a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. [ DOUG MILLS | AP ]
Published Sep. 10

This story by William March was written on Sept. 11, 2001. A Tampa Tribune reporter at the time, March was in the press pool for the president’s visit. We are republishing his story as part of our 20-year remembrance of 9/11.

SARASOTA — President George W. Bush learned of the attack on the World Trade Center at 9:07 a.m. today as he was reading to 18 second-graders in a Sarasota elementary school to highlight a new reading program.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispered in his ear, informing him of the attacks, and the president’s face turned grim, but he continued with the program in teacher Sandra Kay Daniels’ classroom.

Asked what he knew about the planes, Bush replied, “I’ll talk about it later.”

Meanwhile, in the media center for Emma Booker Elementary School, reporters learned of the attack, and first assumed the crash had been an accident. Someone switched on a television, with dramatic scenes of devastation, and the full story began to emerge.

Related: After her sister died on the first plane in 9/11, Clearwater woman finally got to know her

About 200 parents and teachers had been waiting in the room, eager and hopeful for a visit with the president. As news filtered through the crowd, the mood turned somber, and the crowd grew quiet. There was whispering and tension. People were uncertain whether to stay or go.

At 9:30, Bush stepped before the audience and gave a brief statement.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “This is a very difficult moment for America. Today we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”

He said he had spoken to Vice President Dick Cheney, the FBI director, and the governor of New York.

“I have ordered that the full resources of the federal government to help the victims and their families, and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.”

He asked for a moment of silence, and closed, saying, “May God bless the victims and their families, thank you very much.”

Bush’s motorcade immediately departed the school and took him to Sarasota-Manatee International Airport. The president boarded Air Force One and the plane departed at 10:55 a.m. EDT.

One person at the school was Marsha Nippert, Sarasota County head of the Bush election team in last year’s election. “It is so profoundly sad for the families of the victims for this to happen,” she said.

Gwendolyn Rigell, principal of the elementary school, said she was pleased that in spite of the disaster, Bush stayed to talk to teachers and parents at the school, calling it “above and beyond the call of duty.”

She said after he heard the news, the president told her “I still want to be able to see your kids and the parents.”

Bush had traveled to Jacksonville on Monday and Sarasota on Tuesday on his designated theme of the week, education, urging changes in federal education programs to a Congress that is fixated on the slumping economy.