Something is Happening

It was supposed to be another photo-op: President George W. Bush’s arrival at a Sarasota elementary school to hear some children reading.

The president was in good spirits. He’d taken a second pre-dawn lap jogging around the golf course on Longboat Key where he’d spent the night before showering and then boarding his motorcade for a short ride to the mainland.

This was going to be an easy day, Day Two of a Florida schoolhouse tour promoting educational reforms he hoped to win his first year in office.

As he rode to Sarasota, the president and traveling advisers received jolting news of what first sounded like a bad accident in New York, an airplane had collided with one of the World Trade Center towers. There was a precedent — a B-25 bomber ran into a fogbound Empire State Building in 1945.

Yet as he entered the second-grade classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, the president’s advisers were swarming in the hallways outside. And it wasn’t long before Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, entered to interrupt the president’s session with the schoolchildren and whisper in his ear, as he later reported: Two towers, two planes; ``America is under attack.’’

The second planned photo-op of the day, Bush’s appearance in the school library to join his education secretary and others in promoting literacy in the pursuit of No Child Left Behind, devolved into something starkly different.

After huddling with advisers, Bush entered the library to tell a watching nation: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country… I am going to conduct a full-scale investigation and hunt down and find those folks who committed this act.’’

``Terrorism against our nation will not stand,’’ the president promised.

The minutes inside the classroom where the president sat before 18 schildren seated on the floor before him reading provided fodder for criticism in some circles. Filmmaker Michael Moore portrayed the moment as an eternal episode of indecision and inaction. Yet to read the later account of the 9/11 Commission, there was little information on which to act in the initial minutes after the attacks — fighter jets were scrambled from Cape Cod without destinations on a report of the first airliner hijacking.

Instead, I remember the moment as a frozen frame. I was there.

I had drawn print pool duty that morning for the traveling press on the president’s two-day swing through Florida. He had started in Jacksonville, where, upon our boarding of the press plane, the traveling press secretary, Scott McClellan, asked me if I could handle the early morning pool duty for the Sarasota school visit on Sept. 11. I was traveling as the political editor of the Orlando Sentinel. Apparently, the regular White House reporter in line for pool duty wanted to sleep in, as Bush was planning a pre-dawn jog.

So there I stood, on the dark sidelines of the exercise that Bush was taking around the Longboat Key golf course. He was running with a long-legged news wire reporter whom he called ``Stretch.’’ Bush came around the course smiling, proudly announcing that they were taking another lap.

En route to the school, radios in the motorcade started crackling. This was 2001. There were no smartphones. There were some Berries, mostly pagers.

And we who entered the classroom with the president — the small press pool standing along the opposite wall from where Bush sat facing the children — looked at him with faces asking, what do you know? At first, with a bemused smile, he appeared to be looking at us with the same question in his eyes.

At 8:46 am that morning, the first hijacked airliner struck the first World Trade tower. At 9:03 am, the second jet hit the second tower.

I’m borrowing here from my own reported account of the morning, as the Sentinel published a special edition midday:

``At 9:04 a.m., 18 children sat in two rows in the gray carpeted second-grade classroom. Bush entered from a door at the left, accompanied by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and Florida Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.

``The president took a seat to the left of the teacher seated in front of the children. As the children read, he praised them.

“Really good readers — whew!” Bush interrupted at one point. “This must be sixth grade.”

``When they finished reading a line with “more to come,” the president asked them what that means.

``Something is happening, they replied.’’

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