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President Bush Learned Of The 9/11 Attacks In Sarasota. A WUSF Reporter Was There To Witness The Events

George W. Bush told of the 9/11 attacks in a classroom
Doug Mills
In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, file photo, Chief of Staff Andy Card whispers into the ear of President George W. Bush to give him word of the plane crashes into the World Trade Center, during a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota.

WUSF reporter Steve Newborn was covering what he thought would be a standard appearance at a Sarasota school by then-President George W. Bush. That's when the president first learned the country was under attack.

It was a Tuesday. A day like any other day.

I had gotten what I thought was the short straw by being told I had to cover George W. Bush, who was visiting Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. I had only been at WUSF for six months, and had already covered a presidential visit.

This, I figured, was going to be nothing special.

It started out slow.

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Teacher Kay Daniels' second graders had been reading "The Pet Goat" to the president. Then, everything changed. The president walked ashen-faced into a small audio-visual room, where reporters waited.

By then, whispers were being bandied about the room. Back in the days before everyone had a cell phone, I could only make out snippets of the conversation: "Plane,'' "World Trade Center," in hushed tones.

In that modest room, I was a witness to history.

“Today, we've had a national tragedy,” Bush told reporters. “Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center, in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”

A noticeable murmur rippled through the crowd.

Twenty years later, his words still ring out like a shot:

“Terrorism against our nation will not stand.”

The president then asked for a moment of silence. He was hustled off stage and a police escort hurried him to Bradenton-Sarasota International Airport. Several witnesses there said they had never seen Air Force One take off at such a sharp angle. He was going to an "undisclosed location."

Back at Booker Elementary, we sat glued to the one tiny television set that had been wheeled out of the AV-room closet. By then, both of the towers were pouring black smoke into the perfectly blue September sky.

We strained our eyes to see them come tumbling down.

One, after the other.

We stood there, dumbfounded how this could happen.

A bit of perspective came from Wilma Hamilton, superintendent of schools for Sarasota County.

“I think this is the ultimate lesson in American history,” Hamilton said. “And it's one thing to see a president in a ceremonial role. It's an entirely different thing to see the weight of the responsibility on his shoulders, and so I'm sure they'll go back and talk about all of this in their classes.”

There was hardly anyone else on I-75 as I rushed back to Tampa. I remember scanning the skies for more incoming planes or some other kind of imminent attack.

We were all on edge.

The next day, I wandered out onto the University of South Florida Tampa campus to take the pulse of students. Emron Ishmael, a senior, and members of the Muslim student association were passing out flyers, saying they grieved along with other Americans.

“We're just trying to educate the people that we're just as hurt,” Ishmael said. “We lost a lot of family members, friends, cousins, uncles, everything, just as everybody else did. And we're feeling it just like everyone else does, too. I mean we're Americans also, so we feel the pain as well.”

Nearby, USF President Judy Genshaft responded forcefully to reports a radio shock jock claimed that Muslim students there had cheered the attacks.

“I wanted to say on record that is an absolute lie,” Genshaft said. “Our campus was completely quiet last night. I was out through until late in the evening here on campus, walking around. The police were all around. There was no incidents, whatsoever.”

Little did we know that day how much the world was about to change. Two countries invaded. Thousands of lives lost. A war that took twenty years to finally end.

And we all were - as the school superintendent said - witnesses to the ultimate lesson in American history.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.