SARASOTA, Fla. - On an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday morning, President George W. Bush was in Florida to discuss education initiatives at an elementary school. But that visit was interrupted by the worst terror attack on American soil.
Bush had spent the night in Sarasota after holding a leadership forum with his brother Jeb, who was the governor of Florida at the time, and several other state officials in Jacksonville.
The morning of September 11, 2001, the president planned to hold a similar event at Emma Booker Elementary School. Before it got underway, there were reports out of New York City that a small plane had apparently flown into the World Trade Center.
"I remember [Bush's] reaction hearing that was, 'Oh, what a horrible accident; the pilot must have had a heart attack or something,'" White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card later recalled to FOX News.
President George W. Bush participates in a reading demonstration the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. (Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)
With the situation in New York still uncertain, Bush joined a classroom of second graders. It was just after 9 a.m. – with students deep into their storybook, ‘The Pet Goat’ – when Card interrupted the lesson to whisper something in the president's ear:
"A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."
President George W. Bush being informed by his chief of staff Andrew Card of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. (Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)
"It was an unbelievable message to deliver to a president, but even more absurd is that it had happened in a classroom of second graders," Card recalled years later.
The president’s expression changed and his eyes darted about the room. But, he later explained, he allowed the lesson to continue for several minutes so he wouldn’t panic the students.
"I didn’t want to rattle the kids. I wanted to project a sense of calm," Bush explained in 2011.
President George W. Bush watches television coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, as he is briefed in a classroom. (Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)
When the reading lesson ended, Bush shook hands with teacher Kay Daniels, deflected a reporter’s question about the attack, and headed into a makeshift command center in a neighboring classroom.
Media members, including FOX 13’s Brian Goff, were working out of an adjoining classroom, also learning about the attack as it unfolded. In the era before smart phones, the broadcast was about the only way for many to get real-time updates.
Footage from that day showed local and national broadcast crews grimly watching coverage from New York as they filed their own stories from the bustling classroom media center.
In a Booker Elementary classroom, media members and school staff watch coverage of the World Trade Center attack. (FOX 13 / file)
About 20 minutes later, Bush held a press conference in the school library, but he did not discuss the education initiatives as he’d planned. Instead, he vowed to "find those folks who committed this act" before pausing for a moment of silence.
From there, the president raced back to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport where Air Force One was powered up and waiting. Moments later, it was airborne, soon to be the only plane still in the sky.