Witnessing 9/11 History in Sarasota

Items on Derek Jenkins' desk
Picture of President Bush and pass on Derek Jenkins' desk
9/11 Student
La'Damien Smith
SARASOTA (2011-9-7) -

September 11, 2001 was supposed to be a special day for the students and staff at Emma Booker Elementary in Sarasota. President George W. Bush was visiting them that day. They had no idea they would become accidental witnesses to history.

And neither did WUSF's Steve Newborn, who covered the president's visit that day. Ten years later, he revists that day with a student and a teacher who were there.

When I was told I had to cover the President's visit to Sarasota, I felt like I'd drawn the short end of the stick. Most people think covering the president is a big glamorous thing. But for most of us, you're lucky if you get within a hundred yards of him - much less get to ask him a question.

I had no idea what was about to happen.

La'Damien Smith was there, too. Smith is now an 18-year-old senior at Suncoast Polytechnical High School in Sarasota. Back then, he was second-grader - who was asked to read to the President of the United States.

"So I get into my home room class, and Miss Campbell says, 'You've got to read to the president.' And I was 7 years old, and like, reading to the president! Wait, what - Isn't he supposed to be doing some kind of job? And I get to Miss Daniels' class and I see him for the first time, and I'm like, wow, that's the actual president! So I sit down in my seat and just pick up my book and I'm looking at the book, looking at him, wondering, why is he here?"

You probably remember the scene. The President is in front of Smith's class. They're reading a story to him out loud - "The Pet Goat." Then, the President gets that tap on the shoulder telling him a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.

"When the president's advisor came into the room, I actually looked up for just a split second," Smith says, "and I'd seen that he was talking in his ear, and all of a sudden, his face turned like a bright red..."

In the days after the attack, the president got a lot of grief from people who believed he should have responded to the crisis right away. But many who were there - like Smith - say President Bush did the right thing.

"He had, actually, a calm mood to him, like he didn't want to spook us or anything," he says. "And I thought that was pretty good on his part, to not do that, and get everybody riled up."

Meanwhile, I was in the media center next door, along with other members of the press, teachers and students. When the first plane hit, the whispers started flying back and forth. People got on their cell phones, frantically trying to figure out what was going on.

A few minutes later, the President walked into the room. He looked somber.

"Today, we've had a national tragedy," the president spoke to the world. "Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country."

He exited quickly. Afterward, those of us who were left crowded into a little room with one TV set in it. We watched the Twin Towers crumble, one by one.

Derek Jenkins was there, too. He was a teacher at Emma Booker, and although he's a little chagrined to admit it, his initial reaction was disappointment for his students.

These were the kids who had helped lift the school in the rankings, something the teachers and students were fiercely proud of.

"I'm a little bit embarrassed about my initial feelings," he says. "When we found out a plane had crashed into one of the towers, I have to tell you my first thought was I can believe this day has been stripped from our students, who really deserved this."

Jenkins is now assistant principal of Venice Middle School. On his desk is a picture of President Bush talking to the students, next to a pass allowing Jenkins access to the president. He still doesn't like to talk about that day much. But he can't stop thinking about when he locked eyes with President Bush as he was about to leave. Jenkins says the president looked shaken - and that's when he sensed the seriousness of the attacks.

"And it really didn't hit me, and I was still a little disappointed, and I was still just worried about my kids, until he made his exit, and we took the kids back to class, and I was passing by the office, and I looked through the window, and on the TV the first tower just started to fall," says Jenkins. "And that's when the rest of the day sort of went in slow motion for me. It was just surreal."

The school day continued, but so many frantic calls came from parents that the students eventually were sent home.

Jenkins remembers how the country changed in the days after 9/11. How people became more serious, more focused on the things that really mattered to them.

"I think it brought things into perspective, you know the little things we sometimes worry about are really not that important, compared to the bigger things - safety, patriotism, bonding with your fellow colleagues," he says. "Having good relationships with everyone - with your students, if you're a teacher. The little things, that I sometimes thing we take for granted, brought back importance to. That's the lasting thing I remember from 9/11."

What I remember from 9/11 is the fear, the overwhelming sense of fear that pervaded everybody that day. Interviewing people stranded at the nearly-deserted airport in Sarasota... Driving back to Tampa listening to reports of more crashes, more bomb scares...

I spent the next few years covering the impact of 9/11 on our lives - the anthrax scare, the debate over Civil Liberties, the deployment of thousands of local troops to the Middle East.

As for Smith - its impossible to know how his life would be different if 9/11 never happened. Looking back on it now - no longer through the eyes of a 7-year old - Smith says he can truly grasp the importance of that day.

"I definitely feel - I don't want to say proud - of it," he says, "but I feel like I'm definitely a part of our nation's history."

And for the people who were at Emma Booker Elementary 10 years ago this week, it was the ultimate lesson in American history.

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