A Changed World
(Page 3 of 9)
He walked to the subway. During the 10-minute trip to his roommate's office in Midtown, the south tower collapsed. When he found out at the office, he broke down, fell to the floor, and sobbed.Skip to next paragraph
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Early on the morning of Sept. 11, George W. Bush was en route to Emma E. Booker Elementary in Sarasota, Fla. The president was scheduled to hear a reading demonstration at the school, and then address a crowd of about 200 local luminaries, students, and teachers.
About six blocks from the school, a news photographer overheard a radio transmission. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer would be needed on arrival to discuss reports of some sort of crash. The radio also said that Mr. Bush had a call waiting for him at his holding room in the school from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Mr. Fleischer told the press what Ms. Rice told the president - a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. Nobody knew how serious the situation was.
Bush entered a Booker classroom at about 9 a.m. Two rows of students, about 16 in all, sat facing their teacher. They started to run through their reading exercises. At 9:05, Chief of Staff Andrew Card entered the room, leaned over, and whispered in Bush's ear. Those words would turn out to alter the course of a presidency.
Since then, much of the nation has seen on television the exact moment when their commander in chief learned that a second plane had struck New York - and that the situation was thus one of stunning terrorism, and not a terrible, isolated accident.
The two White House reporters who had been allowed to accompany Bush to the school thought they detected a distinct change in demeanor.
"The president's face became visibly tense and serious," reads the report they released to other media. "He nodded."
Bush seemed a bit distracted, but he picked up eye contact with the students and at least feigned interest in their reading exploits. He smiled when they finished.
"Really good," he said. "These must be sixth-graders."
As he left the room, the president skirted questions about the situation in New York. He'd talk about that later, he told reporters.
The schedule called for the president to speak after leaving the classroom, but he didn't appear for about a half-hour. When he did, he delivered a terse message to the nation - confirming what millions already knew. Somber, he called the strikes an "apparent terrorist attack on our country." He then departed for Sarasota-Bradenton Airport, where Air Force One was waiting.
At the airport, guards made the pool of reporters drop their gear for a security sweep, although they had just gone through a similar check at the school. Even some White House stenographers had their equipment investigated. After boarding, the plane made a hasty departure - wheels up at 9:55 a.m. Nobody - not the flight crew, not the Secret Service, not White House aides - knew where they were going.
Secret Service agents wandered back to the press cabin to watch the World Trade Center disaster on TV. The New York field office of the agency was in the building, one said. Reporters noted that they were able to pick up a signal from the same TV station ("Fox channel 47 from somewhere," the reporters noted) for quite some time.
"On that, we guessed that Air Force One might be flying in circles, or at least not moving very far," says the report, written by Judy Keen from USA Today and James Carney from Time.
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Back in Washington, accurate information was similarly at a premium. In a city where watching CNN is as ubiquitous as Jos. A. Banks suits, the grim news from New York traveled fast. But rumors pouring off the news wires were impossible to confirm. One held that a car bomb had exploded at the State Department. Another said the Capitol was under attack. One, or possibly two, or possibly eight other airliners were unaccounted for, and presumed hijacked. (None of it turned out to be true.)