18 years ago: Bush learned of 9/11 attacks during visit to Sarasota school


SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) – Americans will never forget the terror attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. And most will never forget where they were when they heard about the tragedy.

Then-President George W. Bush was visiting Sarasota, just about seven months into his presidency, when he found out what was happening.

According to History.com, Bush was on his way to Emma E. Booker Elementary School when the first plane crashed at the World Trade Center in New York City.

The president was sitting in Room 301, a second-grade classroom at the school, reading with students when his chief of staff told him about the second crash.

“A second plane has hit the second tower,” Andrew Card whispered to him. “America is under attack.”

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Bush reacted to the news with a look of shock. He explained his reaction in a news conference the following week. According to History.com, he said, “I’m sitting in the midst of a classroom with little kids, listening to a children’s story and I realize I’m the Commander in Chief and the country has just come under attack.”

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After learning about the attacks, History says he continued to listen to the children reading for another eight or nine minutes, then complimented their reading and posed for pictures.

The president then went into an empty classroom at the school where he watched the latest news reports and spoke with Vice President Dick Cheney and New York Governor George Pataki. 

Minutes later, Bush made his first announcement about the attacks from the Sarasota school.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America. I, unfortunately, will be going back to Washington after my remarks. Secretary (of education) Rod Paige and the lieutenant governor will take the podium and discuss education. I do want to thank the folks here at Booker Elementary School for their hospitality.

Today, we have had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country. I have spoken to the vice president, to the governor of New York and to the director of the FBI, and I’ve ordered the full resources of the federal government to help the victims and their families and to find those folks who committed this act. 

Terrorism against our nation will not stand. And now, if you’ll join me in a moment of silence.”

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The president then asked for God to bless the victims, their families and America before he left for Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport where Air Force One was waiting. On his way to the airport, History says he learned about the third attack targeting the Pentagon in Washington.

Less than a week later, the president wrote a letter to the elementary school thanking them for inviting him to the school.

“I enjoyed my visit and really appreciate your understanding why it was important for me to leave early,” he wrote in the letter addressed to “my friends at Emma Booker Elementary School.”

He also wrote a letter to Principal Gwen Rigell apologizing for having to cut the visit short.

“I appreciate as well everything you are doing to help children understand the horrible tragedies of last week’s terrorist attacks,” he wrote.

The Emma E. Booker Elementary School now has a small plaque outside Room 301 that commemorates the tragic day in history.


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