On the morning of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush is en route to a visit with schoolchildren in Florida when he receives word that a passenger jet had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Within an hour of this first report, Bush was reading along with children in a classroom when he was informed that a second airliner had crashed into a second tower.
Earlier that morning, Bush had received a scheduled security briefing and learned that there was a heightened but non-specific threat of a terrorist attack that day. Warned but undeterred, he continued with a pre-arranged trip to visit Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, to promote a new education bill. On the way from his hotel to the school, aides passed word to the president’s car in the motorcade that a passenger jet had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 am EST. Bush initially thought, as he later told a reporter, that the crash was the result of a terrible accident or pilot error. Bush arrived at the school shortly after the initial report and was waiting in an empty classroom at Booker Elementary with his Secret Service detail when the earliest news footage of the first plane crashing into the tower played on the school’s television screens. Just moments before the second plane hit, Bush was whisked into the classroom where he proceeded to meet with a group of first graders.
Video cameras were filming Bush’s school visit when White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card slipped into the room at 9:06 a.m. and whispered in the president’s ear that the World Trade Center had been hit by a second airplane and that the nation was under attack by an unknown entity. Bush appeared momentarily stricken, yet maintained his composure and continued to listen to the children read aloud for an additional eight to nine minutes. Bush explained in a White House press conference a week later that his reaction that fateful morning was one of slowly comprehending shock: “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.” At the end of the story, Bush commended the children on their reading skills and encouraged them to continue to read more and to watch less television. He then posed for photos with the children, their teacher and school administrators. Under bright lights, while cameras clicked and whirred, a reporter could be heard asking the president if he was aware of the attacks. Not wishing to frighten the children, Bush replied tersely, “I’ll talk about it later.”
After the photo opportunity, Bush was escorted into an empty classroom, where he watched updated news reports of the attacks and consulted with Vice President Dick Cheney and New York Governor George Pataki by phone. Still on the school grounds at 9:29 a.m., Bush made his first of several live announcements that day regarding the unfolding tragedy. Secret Service agents then rushed Bush to Air Force One, which was waiting on the tarmac at Sarasota’s airport. On his way to the airport, Bush heard about a third attack, this time on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Once aboard Air Force One, the plane’s pilot flew in circles at cruising altitude while Bush and Vice President Cheney discussed via phone where the president would be safest. The presidential plane stopped briefly at an air base in Louisiana before proceeding to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Bush did not remain away from the capital for long: by 6:42 p.m., he was back in Washington.