Bush Visit Makes Sarasota Footnote In Disaster Story

by Chris Davis
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune
September 16, 2001

Sept. 11, 2001, was supposed to be a historic day for Sarasota.

The president of the United States had stopped at Emma E. Booker Elementary on his education tour.

"I felt like Cinderella going to the ball," Principal Gwen Rigell said.

Bush planned to spend 20 minutes talking to school kids, then parade through Newtown on his way to the airport. Instead, with one urgent whisper in Bush's ear, the celebration was upended. The president spoke a few words at Booker, forced to address the nation instead of the students. Secret Service agents then rushed him to his limousine, sped through town and launched him full throttle into the sky on Air Force One.

Sept. 11 was stolen from Sarasota and transfigured, in the worst way, into a historic day for the world.

People who saw the president, local dignitaries who dined with him Monday night and folks who were supposed to see him off were left stunned, like brides abandoned at the altar.

"We didn't plan it like that. Nobody planned it like that," Sarasota Mayor Carolyn Mason said. "But that's the way it happened. Sarasota will be there in the history books."

For now, Sarasota's footnote in history has been lost in a global story of epic tragedy. As Bush left town, 16 million Floridians turned their sight to their countrymen in Washington and especially in New York, where everyone believed, only hours after the attack, that thousands had perished under a billion-plus pounds of rubble.

Bush addressed the nation several more times Tuesday, first from Louisiana, then from Washington.

"I remember looking at him and not being able to connect the person I was seeing on television with the person I'd seen in the morning," schools Superintendent Wilma Hamilton said. "There was something that was not quite real about the whole situation."

Still, there's been an undercurrent to this tragedy that has kept Floridians, and especially Sarasotans, feeling as if they were part of it.

It comes partly from the realization that Sarasota barely skirted its own disaster. As it turns out, terrorists targeted the president and Air Force One on Tuesday, maybe even while they were on the ground in Sarasota and certainly not long after. The Secret Service learned of the threat just minutes after Bush left Booker Elementary.

Then Wednesday, the nation turned its attention back to Sarasota County, when investigators revealed that two of the hijackers had learned to fly planes in Venice. The media descended again, and the world watched FBI agents carting boxes out of a Venice flight school.

"Just the thought that these people trained in Sarasota County," Mason said, sighing. "I mean, it's very frightening that they were that close, shopping, living, fitting right in. That people with that caliber of evil in their heart were right here among us."

Steve Kona of Nokomis rented a nearby home to two of the terrorist pilots for six months. The current tenants, Kathern and Carl Lewis, look at their furnished rental home differently now, like it's full of dirty artifacts left behind by killers.

"The terrorists sat on the couch that you're sitting on," Kathern Lewis told a reporter. "They slept on the bed that we're sleeping on."

Even more than other communities around the nation, Southwest Florida residents have been swept up in a feeling that they could just as easily be at the bottom of a collapsed building or in the wreckage of a plane.

And no less than other communities, they have looked for ways to support the victims and their families. Handwritten notes taped to business doors, rewritten marquees, radio calls, e-mails, all were crafted into messages of support and hope for people touched by the tragedy.

"We shall not be vanquished as a nation nor shall our freedoms," read a note affixed to the door at Old Main Street Cafe in Palmetto.

People flooded blood donation sites, ignoring rain, waiting for hours to help the only way they knew how. At one donation site in Manatee County, the wait was 16 hours.

The outpouring of support is being driven by a national feeling of unity and reinforced by Sarasota's ties to the attack. For four days, images from Sarasota and Venice have been flashed over and over again on national television.

Booker fifth-grader Victor Johnson Jr.'s face was instantly famous, made so by where he was standing Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. -- just behind and to the left of President Bush when he addressed the nation for the first time Tuesday.

Victor said he was disappointed that the president had to leave so quickly.

But he said he understood. There were people who needed help far away from Sarasota.

"He had to go and take care of them, and make sure nobody was hurt," the boy said.


Copyright 2001 Sarasota Herald-Tribune Co.

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