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The drama in Sarasota

A day promoting the president's education policy suddenly becomes a historical turning point.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002

A day promoting the president's education policy suddenly becomes a historical turning point.

SARASOTA -- Andrew Card stood at the doorway to the Sarasota classroom and decided to do something White House staffers rarely did: interrupt President Bush during a public appearance.

Bush had just sat down to hear schoolchildren read a story, but Card needed to tell him that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center.

The TV cameras were trained on Bush, so Card knew he had to choose his words carefully. He needed to capture the seriousness of the situation, but he didn't want the president to turn to him and start a conversation on live TV.

The White House chief of staff decided on two sentences -- one to state the facts and a second to convey the seriousness of the incident. He strode into the room, leaned down to Bush's ear and whispered:

"A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."

* * *

With so much drama on Sept. 11, the events in Sarasota have been overshadowed. But the moment Card whispered in the president's ear marks a critical point in Bush's presidency and in the nation's history.

For Card, the day began with the smell of rotting fish.

The presidential entourage had spent the night at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key. Card awoke early and opened his hotel window to enjoy the beachfront air. Instead, he got the stench of fish that had been killed by red tide.

Card, who is in charge of presidential details large and small, worried that the smell might affect Bush's daily jog.

In fact, the president managed to get in a brisk 4 1/2-mile run and returned to the hotel to get dressed. As usual, Bush was on schedule, although when Card took a look at the motorcade, he found it in disarray. The staff vans were in the wrong place, and Card had the stray thought that they might bump into each other.

Sept. 11 was supposed to be what White House strategists call a "soft" day -- no big speeches, just a few events to highlight Bush's education plans. Card was happy to be in Florida because he would get to see his sister Sara Struhs, a state education official who had come for the event.

The 20-minute drive from the hotel was routine, although a few protesters waved signs about the administration's policy on offshore oil drilling.

Waiting to greet Bush at the school were teachers, administrators, Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan and U.S. Reps. Dan Miller and Adam Putnam, Tampa Bay area congressmen who were supposed to return with Bush on Air Force One. A White House staffer told Putnam and Miller that Bush had to take an important call when he arrived at the school.

As Bush stepped from his limousine in front of Emma Booker Elementary School, Putnam could hear beepers and cell phones going off. Several White House staffers scattered.

The school was well-equipped for the brief presidential visit. Police and Secret Service agents were on the roof, on horseback and in every hallway. The White House had installed 49 new phone lines for staffers and reporters. One special line was known as the "red phone," though it was actually beige.

Bush stopped to greet the congressmen and school officials, but Card urged him to go inside.

"Mr. President, you really need to take this phone call," Card said.

Brogan followed Bush into a room set aside for the White House staff as the president took the call.

At that point, White House officials believed a small propeller plane had hit the tower. Bush ended the call and walked into Kay Daniels' second-grade classroom.

* * *

"Hello, boys and girls," Bush said, shaking hands with the children.

Principal Gwen Rigell was struck by how closely Bush followed the White House script. He sat in a plain padded chair and listened as the children read him a story about a girl and her pet goat.

Several minutes into the lesson, Rigell sensed commotion in the back of the room. Card walked toward the president. The principal, not realizing who he was, expected the Secret Service to stop him.

Card whispered in the president's ear.

Daniels knew something was wrong. This was not in the plan. Bush had been attentive and engaged with the kids, but the warmth had drained from his eyes. He now appeared distracted.

Bush finished the lesson and even took a few questions from the children. He then excused himself and walked into the adjacent staff room.

"What's going on?" Bush asked. Someone pointed to the TV, which was showing the planes hitting the towers.

Bush got on the phone with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who was at the White House. He scribbled in a notebook with a Sharpie pen.

He got off the phone and told Brogan he would make a statement in the media center, where parents, students and reporters were waiting to hear him speak of the importance of reading.

After the president left her classroom, Daniels gave a puzzled look to one of the Secret Service agents. He brought her back into the staff room, where a television showed the scene in New York. Daniels started to cry.

Card made arrangements with the Secret Service and the crew of Air Force One for a quick departure. He saw his sister and gave her a big hug.

"Sara, there's been a terrible incident in New York City, and we're going to have to leave," he said.

Bush went to a lectern and read his hastily written remarks to the students -- and the world.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America," he told them.

He said he was returning to Washington. "Terrorism against our nation will not stand."

* * *

As the motorcade sped toward Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport, Bush and Card were in the presidential limo speaking by phone with the White House.

Bush and Card were told about the attack on the Pentagon. They also received several reports that turned out to be wrong -- of a fire in the Old Executive Office Building, a car bomb at the State Department and that terrorists were targeting Air Force One.

As they zoomed away from the school, Putnam saw the protesters waving their signs, apparently unaware of the attacks. One protester made an obscene gesture to Bush's limo.

Putnam thought, When that guy finds out about the attacks, he'll regret he gave the president the bird.

At the airport, everyone scrambled onto Air Force One. Secret Service agents with dogs hurriedly checked the luggage. Card was frustrated because so many guests had come on the plane and were delaying the takeoff.

The plane taxied quickly, took off and climbed very steeply. The pilots wanted to get to cruising altitude because of the report that their plane was a possible target.

As the Boeing 747 climbed high above Florida, Bush said he was eager to return to Washington. But Card replied that they needed to wait.

"We've got to let the dust settle before we go back."

* * *

The chair Bush used is still in Daniels' classroom, with a purple ribbon tied to it.

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