‘All the emotion drained out of his face’: Meet the kids who spent 9/11 with George Bush
‘A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack’
It’s one of the most famous images of our lifetime. Partly because it was the moment the President of the United States was told about the biggest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. And partly because its setting, in an elementary school classroom in Florida, was so incongruous with the message whispered into George W Bush’s ear at five minutes past nine on September 11, 2001: “A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.”
For the next seven minutes, nothing happened. Bush sat quietly. The children in front of him had to wait over an hour to learn what the President had been told: two airliners had crashed into the World Trade Centre, spewing smoke and fear over Manhattan.
Now, 15 years later, the kids of Emma E Booker in Sarasota who sat in front of Bush during the moment that would shape his presidency and the course of world events for a decade are finishing college. The events that were set in train by 9/11 defined the America they grew up in: terrorized; patriotic; paranoid; leaving nothing to chance. They shared their memories and reflections with me ahead of this weekend’s anniversary.
“All the emotion drained out of his face,” remembers Dinasty Brown, one of the pupils. When we talk, she’s finishing up her degree at Florida State University. Back in her fourth grade classroom, she was just feet away from the President, and watched as an era-defining moment played itself out on his face. Led by their teacher, Kay Daniels, they were about to finish a reading exercise when Bush got the news from his Chief of Staff.
“His whole body language shifted,” she recalls. “The president shook his head and had a blank stare on his face. But he let us continue, he didn’t stop us. We continued reading. But as soon as we were done, he just rushed out of the room. That was it.”
It’s a painful moment to watch. Until this point, you can see Bush grinning as the kids read their words correctly. Then he hears those heart-stopping words, America is under attack, and his face falls. Mrs Daniels (as her pupils still call her) falters for a second, aware something is wrong, and for a few uncomfortable seconds, the snap of camera shutters is the only sound you can hear.
Emma E Booker had been decked out for a day in the spotlight, chosen by chance to show off the Bush administration’s education push, No Child Left Behind. Reporters were to follow the President as he peered into different classrooms, culminating in a conference in the library, where the TV cameras were set up.
Videographer Kim Stocker was one of the media following Bush, reporting for the local county’s education channel. She waited in the library next-door to Kay Daniels’ class with the rest of the press pack. When they first heard reports of a plane flying into the World Trade Center, they didn’t properly register, she says.
“It wasn’t said that it was a big plane, it was more like a passenger plane, so it didn’t seem that tragic or that odd.”
A few minutes passed before the second attack struck: “Oh my God, another plane went into the other tower,” she recalls a reporter saying. That’s when they knew this was an attack. “It just went into an immediate quiet.”
Some feared Bush himself, and therefore the school, could have been a target – the President’s trip to Florida was no secret. Despite the uncertainty, she would continue to film with her colleague Leanne McIntyre, who captured the emotional reactions around them, not least from Bush, as he paused in the classroom: “I think I saw tears in his eyes.”
That famous pause – Bush staying in the room to watch the kids despite knowing what he knew – has fueled a decade and a half of conspiracy theories. Crackpot blogs, amateur slideshows pointing fingers at arcane cults, and even a key scene in Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 all divined Bush’s reaction as a sign that – in one way or another – “the administration knew.”
But the kids saw it as a sign of courtesy. “He let us finish the story, and then that’s when he left,” recalls classmate Lenard Rivers, now an officer with National Guard in Florida. (He’s kept the book, The Pet Goat; it’s in his family home.) For them, Bush waiting in the room marked a brief calm before the whirlwind that followed.
The reporters followed Bush after he left the classroom (for a briefing, then an emotional press conference), where Mrs Daniels was now faced with explaining the devastation in New York to a class of seven year olds.
“Our teacher was crying,” says Dinasty. “She was very emotional, I remember she had family in New York – but we didn’t really know. After a couple of hours, she put on the TV and we saw clips of the airplanes crashing into the buildings. But as a kid it was like a cartoon. I was just a kid. I didn’t understand.”
The school called their parents, who came to pick them up, and they’ve been turning those moments over in their heads ever since. The kids of Mrs Daniels’ 2001 class have spread across the States since finishing school, but every year come September, their minds turn back to that room.
“It’s very frequently when I’m made aware of it or it’s on my mind,” Lazaro Dubrocq, a Columbia University graduate, tells me. “Growing up, it was a constant reminder: I would get asked all the time how I felt and what the experience was like. As the years go on by, I feel like it’s part of my life.”
New Yorkers remember 9/11 as a day of unsurpassed horror. Ask any of them where they were, and they have their story ready: I was on my way into the city when… I was just waking up as… I turned on the TV and then…
The kids from the Sarasota classroom had a front row seat for a quieter scene of the drama. The cliche about 9/11 – that it marked a collective loss of innocence for America – is true for them. Lenard still has has copy of The Pet Goat, and Lazaro has a box of M&Ms that Bush handed out to each of the kids.
Now the 15th anniversary of the attack has arrived, the kids of Emma E Booker will be reliving that moment again, as they do every year.
“It’s something I think about a lot,” adds Chantal Guerrero, who’s finishing her final year at a college in Georgia when we speak. “I was forced to understand and deal with it.”
“Every now and again, we get people calling,” she adds. “Some students don’t like to talk but I think it’s a really unique story.”
Not everyone I approached wanted to speak about 9/11 in Emma E Booker. Mrs Daniels is one who doesn’t talk to the callers anymore – a colleague at the middle school she now works at explains she hasn’t spoken to the press since 2011.
But what she said in her last recorded interview is still striking. “What happened to us made us part of history. And no matter where they go in life, they will always be my babies.”