5. The President's Response
At 8:38 AM on 9/11/2001 NORAD was notified that Flight 11 had been hijacked, was off course and was not responding to radio contact (Report p.20). At this moment, U.S. President George W. Bush was in his limosine in Sarasota, Florida, en route to a public engagement at the Sarasota Primary School. A large press contingent was waiting at the school to cover the story of the President's sit-in with Kay Daniels' second-grade reading class. While waiting for the President, the assembled reporters started receiving phone calls and text messages about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.
The information seemed incredible, but there it was. Whatever had happened, one thing was certain. Our little event at Booker was clearly going to be bumped by something much more important. (Sarasota Magazine)
United States Navy Captain Deborah Loewer, director of the White House Situation Room was travelling with the Bush motorcade as it sped towards Booker Elementary.
She received the message from her deputy in the White House Situation Room about the plane crashing into the first tower, and she described running from her car in the motorcade to the president's car to pass along the information. (The Catholic Telegraph)
On arrival at the school, the President delayed his appearance in the classroom in order to take a call from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
Some people may find this hard to believe, but according to press secretary Ari Fleischer, neither Rice nor Bush were aware at this point that the plane which had just slammed into the WTC 1 had been hijacked and that fighters had been dispatched by NORAD.
So the President entered the classroom as planned and sat down to listen to a story about a pet goat.
By this time all televeision stations had broken their normal schedules to broadcast live from the scene of the first plane strike. Secret Service agents watched the unfolding drama in the room next door to the President.
Three Secret Service agents, a SWAT member, the Marine and Balkwill turned on the television in a nearby front office as United Airlines Flight 175 out of Boston crashed into the south tower. We're out of here, the Marine told Balkwill. Can you get everyone ready? (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
Shortly thereafter, chief of staff Andrew Card whispered into the President's ear the news about the second plane. The President made no immediate response, choosing instead to remain seated and motionless while the children continued to read the story about a goat for another 5-7 minutes.
At around the same time in the White House the atmosphere was very different:
Minutes later, 900 miles to the north, a squad of Secret Service agents burst into the West Wing office of Vice President Dick Cheney, grabbing his arms, his shoulders and his belt. 'They literally propelled him out of his office,' one witness said. The agents all but carried Mr. Cheney down to the White House's deepest sanctum, the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, a tubelike structure designed to withstand a nuclear blast. (The New York Times)
After excusing himself from the class, the President lingered a while at the school, and delivered his scheduled television appearance on time at 9:30 AM.