Florida School Where Bush Learned Of Attacks Reflects On Its Role In History
by Mitch Stacy
The Associated Press
August 19, 2002
As President Bush's motorcade pulled up to Emma E. Booker Elementary School on the morning of Sept. 11, principal Gwen Tose'-Rigell fretted that the heavy limousine might dislodge paving bricks in the walkway outside the office.
Bush had chosen her school in one of Sarasota's poorest neighborhoods to launch a national reading initiative that morning, and Tose'-Rigell wanted everything to go just right.
She had no way of knowing the school would end up being forever linked to the horrific terrorist attacks on America that were already in progress as she waited nervously to greet the commander in chief.
Bush, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and others, planned to listen to teacher Kay Daniels lead her second-grade class in a reading lesson, then go to the school library to talk about the initiative. It was routine as presidential visits go. Instead, after the lesson, Bush would step to the podium in the library and tell the nation that terrorists crashed hijacked jetliners into New York's World Trade Center towers. Then he would be gone, leaving teachers and students to watch the aftermath on classroom TVs and ponder their role in history.
Tose'-Rigell, 50, says she first knew something was amiss when Bush emerged from his car and was whisked into a special holding room to take a telephone call. Then she was summoned to the room to talk to the president.
"He said a commercial plane has hit the World Trade Center, and we're going to go ahead and go on, we're going on to do the reading thing anyway," Tose'-Rigell recalls. "At that point my summation was they wanted him to know about this because it was important, but it couldn't be anything huge."
The group went to Daniels' room, where Bush took a seat with 16 second-graders and began listening to the lesson. Reporters who travel with the president, as well as members of the local media, watched from the back.
Minutes later, Chief of Staff Andrew Card strode across the room, bent down and whispered briefly in Bush's left ear. Terrorists were responsible for the attacks, he told the president. Associated Press photographer Doug Mills captured the moment, and the grave expression on the president's face, in a now-familiar photograph.
Bush hesitated a moment before picking up the book and finding his place.
"When Andy Card came into the room and whispered into President Bush's ear, I knew it was something drastic, because that was not supposed to happen," Daniels says. "There were live TV cameras in the room. But I knew I had to go on with my lesson. At that point, I could tell President Bush left me, mentally."
After the lesson, Bush took Tose'-Rigell aside and told her what he knew. He said he had to leave immediately, but first he would go into the library and address the nation.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America," Bush began. Teachers and fifth-graders standing closest to him could see tears well in his eyes.
"The faces on the teachers I was looking at, my peers who were standing behind the president at the time, everyone was just kind of stunned," says fifth-grade teacher Tracey Gauch, who was seated out front with some students.
Tose'-Rigell's son, Stevenson, a fifth-grader at the time, was standing on a riser in back of the podium. His face is visible in photographs of Bush telling the nation about the attacks.
"I think that because this has happened, all the lives of our classmates have been changed forever," the 11-year-old says. "We're going to be in the history books. In 20 or 30 years, people are going to be opening up their history books and seeing that on 9/11, President Bush was at Emma E. Booker Elementary School."
His mother, like many Americans, came away with new respect for the president.
"This guy is a lot more savvy than I took him to be, because he responded in a moment's notice," she says. "To be able to hold it together, to come up with a response, to keep the kids calm and calmly say what he had to say, that's a lot resting on your shoulders."
One year later, Tose'-Rigell and her teachers are still reveling in having been chosen for the presidential visit. They know they were being recognized for the great progress made in recent years by students whose home lives are sometimes difficult.
To help them remember the day, the children put together an exhibit in the office lobby that includes two scrapbooks full of photos from White House photographers and a personal thank-you note from Bush. Photos of the chaos in New York share space with images of happy students and teachers preparing for the president's arrival.
"Time and chance happen to us all," Daniels says. "It was the
timing that President Bush was here at our school. It was our time for him to
be here. Tragically, other things happened that day which we had no control
Copyright © 2002
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