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Thursday
Sep082011

Florida Students Witnessed the Moment Bush Learned of 9/11 Terror Attacks

Ely Brown/ABC News(SARASOTA, Fla.) -- Sept. 11, 2001, started out as a morning of innocence and excitement for the boys and girls of Sandra Kay Daniels' second-grade class at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla.

"Everyone had their hair done and new bows and everything," recalled Natalia Jones-Pinkney, one of Daniels' former students.

The president of the United States, George W. Bush, was coming to visit.

"The kids had worked so hard," Daniels said. "He was coming to congratulate them for the success and achievements they had made in their reading."

"Everything was so relaxed," according to Ann Compton, the ABC News White House correspondent traveling with the president that day. "This was not a big pressure event. The kids were kind of bewildered by it all, the fuss around them. But they were sitting in their chairs, looking forward and were kind of giggling and glad to see the president."

The day's lesson focused around the story, "The Pet Goat." But while the teacher took her students through reading drills, few in the room knew what the president knew -- that a plane had apparently crashed in New York.

"I had been notified that a plane had hit the World Trade Center," President Bush told National Geographic. "My reaction was, man, either the weather was bad or something extraordinary happened to the pilot."

While the kids were picking up their books to begin reading "The Pet Goat," Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, entered the room, walked to the president, and whispered in his ear.

"The minute that I saw Andy Card walk into that classroom, lean over and whisper to the president, I knew something was direly wrong," Compton said. "Nobody interrupts the president. Not even in front of a classroom of second-graders."

The students, now seniors in high school but just 7 years old at the time, knew then that something had happened. They could see it in the president's face.

"He looked disconcerted, anxious," recalled Lazaro Dubrocq, another former student. "He was looking at the cameras, the walls."

Daniels, the teacher, was also aware of a change in the room. "He left the room. Mentally he was gone."

Just what had Card whispered in the president's ear? "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."

For approximately seven minutes the president stayed in the classroom while the students proudly read "The Pet Goat" to him. He was later criticized for not leaving immediately, but to the young people in that classroom, he made the right decision.

"I think if he would have panicked that was the tone he was setting for the whole country," said Chantal Guerrero. "If he wanted the country to stay calm, he needed to show that he was calm."

After the president left the room to be briefed and address the nation, Daniels was informed by a member of the Secret Service of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Then she had to explain it to her young students.

"I told them something terrible had happened and President Bush needs to go," she said. "Remember they were in second grade. They were only 7 years old so I wasn't going to give them every piece of information."

Daniels also had to teach them some unexpected lessons. "I had to teach them really early about terrorists and about mean people in the world. So I would tell them choose good over evil. Do right when it's in your hand and in your power to do so."

Those lessons and that infamous day have left a lasting impact on the students. "It opened my eyes really fast," Guerrero said. "I wanted to know what was going on and so I guess it kind of matured all of us a little bit faster."

Although he felt proud to be in the classroom that day, Lazaro Dubrocq also felt sad. "You feel sorrow for the thousands of families who were destroyed that day," he said.

Now a decade later, the teacher and students from that second-grade classroom continue to share a special bond from being together on 9/11 in such a public way.

"What happened to us made us part of history," Daniels said. "And no matter where they go in life they will always be my babies."

And it's also an experience they shared with the president of the United States, as he wrote in a letter to former student Natalia Jones-Pinkney.

"You and I will never forget Sept. 11, '01," the president wrote. "But remember out of the evil done to America will come good."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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