The Day Before Everything Changed, President Bush Touched Locals' Lives
by Tom Bayles
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune
September 10, 2002
The president strolled into the dining room just before 7 p.m., after a flight aboard Air Force One, and waiter Moo-Moo Yorsangchai was there to make sure he got whatever he needed.
"He had fun that day," Yorsangchai recalled of George W. Bush's arrival in Sarasota on Sept. 10. "He was calling us by name. He was laughing."
"That name, Moo-Moo," the president said. "I'll never forget that." "I'll never forget your name, either," Yorsangchai replied.
Yorsangchai, a waiter at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, is one of a handful of Southwest Florida residents who met with the president in the final hours leading up to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The waiters, resort managers, teachers, GOP leaders and law enforcement officers paint a picture of a president at ease, one who was looking forward to meeting children at Emma E. Booker Elementary and touting a literacy program the morning of the attacks.
The memory of lightheartedness, and the buzz of anticipation and excitement, is in stark contrast to the images most people saw of the president in Sarasota the morning of the attacks and aboard Air Force One later in the day.
The Sarasota visit was to be largely unremarkable. In between his arrival and the school visit, Bush would dine with top Sarasota-Manatee Republicans, many of whom were glad to see him return to the state that was the stage for so many problems in the 2000 election.
Instead, those in contact with Bush in the hours and minutes leading up to and during the attacks became part of history, witnessing a president just before his defining moment. Some witnessed that moment as it happened, as Bush learned of the attacks at Booker.
He made his first address to the nation from there. Local authorities who had assisted the Secret Service in protecting VIPs before had to deal with the reality of getting the president to safety. And the Colony, where the Bush team had been staying, was used by the Bush administration as an information center during the disaster.
"They had evacuated all the government buildings," said Katherine Klauber Moulton, manager of the upscale resort. At one point, as the attacks unfolded, a Secret Service agent told her: "This is the temporary White House."
Hours before, everything was different.
"There was this light spirit," Moulton recalled of the night of Sept. 10. "There was lighthearted conversations, easy communication and stories going back and forth. It was very comfortable."
The buildup for the president's arrival began about a week before. Tramm Hudson, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, was on the 16th tee at the Longboat Key Club when his cell phone rang.
On the other end was Ron Ciaravella, owner of Dolphin Aviation, who told Hudson he had just sold 40,000 gallons of jet fuel to the Secret Service.
The president was coming the next Monday.
Hudson got in touch with the governor's office, which told him that as far as presidential visits go, this one would be quiet and uneventful. The big event was a visit to Booker, but not much else. Hudson was told to tell no one.
Across Sarasota Bay, at Booker Elementary, Principal Gwendolyn Tose- Rigell watched as Secret Service agents "gently took over" her campus the morning of Sept. 6.
Tose-Rigell had been called by White House officials five weeks earlier and told that Bush might come to Sarasota to talk to students about reading.
The principal was interviewed by White House staffers, then by an official at the Florida Department of Education.
Tose-Rigell, too, was sworn to secrecy. She was told "a couple of people" in an advance team would show up.
"Instead of a couple of people, it was an entourage," she said. "The kids were saying, 'Who are all those men in black?'"
The 150 parents, students and teachers invited to the Sept. 11 event had to attend a meeting at the school with Bush staff two days before it. They were told where to stand, what to do and what not to do.
Workers rearranged the school's library to better accommodate lighting for television cameras. A White House stage artist, not teachers or students, designed the childish decorations that were eventually put on the wall behind the president.
At the Colony, the Secret Service was getting everything secured for when the president arrived on Sept. 10. That included snipers and surface-to-air missiles on the roof and the Coast Guard patrolling just offshore.
Everything was going perfectly.
Soup and steak
On Sept. 10, Bush swooped into Jacksonville for a brief stop, then headed to Sarasota.
Moulton and her stepmother got the president's room ready.
They vacuumed and cleaned the mirrors twice, and made the bed with some of the family's fine French linens. They tucked in the corners, smoothed out the sheets, then did it again until the bed -- and room -- was flawless.
The Secret Service then did one last run-through. They left it messy, by presidential visit standards, so Moulton made the room flawless one more time.
A little over a half-hour later, the president pulled up to the Colony in his armored, black limousine.
Moulton raced downstairs.
"Welcome, Mr. President," she said. "We are very pleased to have you."
Bush greeted everybody there, including a few staffers pushed into a side room. His mood was great.
At 6:30 p.m., Bush got on an elevator operated by maintenance man Kenny Kufahl, who flubbed the controls.
"He said, 'Son, relax a minute,'" Kufahl recalled Bush saying.
"You're making my men nervous," the president jokingly said, "and that makes me nervous. We'll get through this OK."
Downstairs, top Republicans awaited to dine with the president: Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother; former Gov. Bob Martinez; state Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas; and state Sens. John McKay of Bradenton and Lisa Carlton of Sarasota, among others.
At the dinner table, the group talked about everything, from sports to Katherine Harris, who was out of the country. Somebody joked that the president should make her an ambassador so Hudson could run for Congress instead.
"It was like sitting at the table with a bunch of your frat brothers talking about baseball," Hudson said.
The president had chili con queso, Texas tortilla soup and a New York strip steak, cooked medium and served with pinto beans. He drank a few non-alcoholic beers. All of the food was prepared under the watchful eyes of Secret Service agents stationed in the kitchen. One guy even drank the water before Bush did.
The dinner tab was $1,172.72.
Before heading upstairs to sleep on the fine linens, Bush signed a few menus for his guests, including one for Moo-Moo Yorsangchai.
The next morning, Bush went for a jog around a golf course at the Longboat Key Club. Agents in golf carts followed as he ran with a Bloomberg News reporter. Four and a half miles in 42 minutes.
At 8 a.m., Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells, Sarasota County Sheriff Bill Balkwill, then-Sarasota Police Chief Gordon Jolly and Manatee County sheriff's Col. Ken Pearson met at the Colony for a brief chat with the president before they joined his motorcade to the elementary school.
"He is totally unsuspecting about what is to happen," Wells said. "Here's a guy just ready to take on the day. It looked like, to me, he's saying, 'Glad to see you, but I'm ready to get on to the school and meet the kids.'"
The motorcade arrived at Booker shortly before 9 a.m. School buses were lined up in front of the school to form a barricade. Agents on horseback patrolled the campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Snipers were on the roof. All the phone lines were tapped, and one was linked directly to the White House.
"It was the safest place in the world," teacher Sandra Kay Daniels said. "If you blew your nose and it wasn't time for you to blow your nose, they knew it."
Tose-Rigell had been instructed to greet Bush at his limo and introduce him to the crowd. But on arrival, Bush was instead whisked into a side room to take a telephone call from National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice.
After, the president told Tose-Rigell that a plane hit the World Trade Center, but that his visit would continue while his staff gathered more details.
Just after 9 a.m., Bush entered Daniels' second-grade classroom. She began a lesson as the Secret Service agents lying in the trusses above her room listened along with the president and the children.
Suddenly, a Marine responsible for carrying Bush's phone marched up to Balkwill, who was standing in a nearby side room.
"Can you get me to a television?" the Marine asked while listening to someone talk to him in his ear piece. "We're not sure what's going on, but we need to see a television."
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?"
Meanwhile, Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, walked up to Bush as he was listening to the class and whispered in his ear. The president let Daniels finish her lesson, then returned to the side room and got back on the phone with Rice.
The president told Tose-Rigell what had happened: "He said what we thought was a commercial plane (accident) was actually a terrorist attack."
At 9:30 a.m., Bush stepped up to the podium in Booker's library and delivered the news of a terrorist attack on the country.
Seconds later, the president was whisked away.
Said Tose-Rigell: "It was like a blink, and poof, he was gone."
Copyright 2002 Sarasota Herald-Tribune Co.
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