8:50 a.m. on 9/11: President Bush Alerted

8:50 a.m. … While visiting an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush was told a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Not long after that he was alerted of the second hit by his chief of staff Andy Card with these chilling words: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

From his book, Decision Points, chapter 5 — Day of Fire, page 127 — the president describes his reaction:

“My first reaction was outrage. Someone had dared attack America. They were going to pay. Then I looked at the faces of the children in front of me. I thought about the contrast between the brutality of the attackers and the innocence of those children. Millions like them would soon be counting on me to protect them. I was determined not to let them down.

“I saw reporters at the back of the room, learning the news on their cell phones and pagers. Instinct kicked in. I knew my reaction would be recorded and beamed throughout the world. The nation would be in shock; the president could not be. If I stormed out hastily, it would scare the children and send ripples of panic throughout the country.

“The reading lesson continued, but my mind raced far from the classroom. Who could have done this? How bad was the damage? What did the government need to do?

“Press Secretary Ari Fleischer positioned himself between the reporters and me. He held up a sign that read, “Don’t say anything yet.” I didn’t plan to. I had settled on a plan of action: When the lesson ended, I would leave the classroom calmly, gather the facts, and speak to the nation.

“About seven minutes after Andy entered the classroom, I returned to the hold room, into which someone had wheeled a television. I watched in horror as the footage of the second plane hitting the south tower replayed in slow motion. The huge fireball and explosion of smoke were worse than I had imagined. The country would be shaken, and I needed to get on TV right away. I scribbled out my statement longhand. I wanted to assure the American people that the government was responding and that we would bring the perpetrators to justice. Then I wanted to get back to Washington as quickly as possible.

” ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America,’ I began. ‘… Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.’ There was an audible gasp from the audience of parents and community members, who were expecting a speech on education. ‘Terrorism against our nation will not stand,’ I said. I closed by asking for a moment of silence for the victims.

“Later I learned that my words had echoed Dad’s promise that ‘this aggression will not stand’ after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The repetition was not intentional. In my notes, I had written, ‘Terrorism against America will not succeed.’ Dad’s words must have been buried in my subconscious, waiting to surface during another moment of crisis.”

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